Sunday, February 07, 2010

 

Goodnight Moon…

This is not what I had planned for this week, y’all. As they say, “events done overtook me.”

Can we stop here a minute so I can get my soapbox out again? The last time I did that, with a little piece called “To Light One Candle,” I took some brickbats to the head. But think I got even more complements on that piece, which concerned the state of scientific literacy in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and those sticky sidebars, Evolution and Creationism. So here I go again.

A political animal I ain’t. Not since the 1960s and my (slightly foolish) youth, at least. I mostly keep my party affiliation (if any) to myself. Hell, I invariably excuse myself from star party bull sessions when the subject turns to “Democrats versus Republicans.” I keep abreast of the political news, more or less, but I don’t follow it obsessively. I find that keeps my hairline intact and my blood pressure down. Life’s too short to spend it arguing politics in these days when “argument” consists of “I talk, YOU listen.”

I ain’t gonna sit here and tell you our current President was my first choice for the office, but I don’t look on politics as a zero-sum game, either. And I ain’t gonna grab up my tinfoil hat and run around like a chicken with its head off squealing that our President is an illegal alien (prob’ly from Zeta Reticuli II). I hope Obama does his level best for our country and is very successful in getting us on our feet again, and if my support contributes to that goal in some small way, Obama damned sure has it.

There comes a time, though, where even apolitical li’l ol’ me decides it’s time to raise his voice. When a President screws up, and screws up so royally, that I begin to fear it will affect not just my children and their children, may not just harm America, but will have an impact on the long-term survival of the human race. What the hail am I talking about? President Obama’s recent budget/policy decision concerning the fate of NASA’s manned space program. What he decided is, essentially, that we do not need and will not have a manned space program.

NASA and Unk (and a whole bunch more Baby-boomers) got going at about the same time. I was a four year old sprout when the Russkies orbited Sputnik and what a time that was. I clearly recall the night The Old Man (a.k.a. “The Chief Op”) invited the neighbors over to listen to Sputnik’s beeps on one of his big HF radio receivers. I don’t remember anybody stepping outside to take a look at the sky, so I assume it must have been cloudy in Possum Swamp that evening—not exactly an unusual occurrence.

What I do remember is the long faces on my dad’s pals. After the women adjourned to the kitchen to help Mama, Daddy passed out Spearman Ales, and he and the guys sat around in his (radio) Shack talking in hushed whispers. What they said, I don’t know. Probably I didn’t hear or I didn’t understand, but today I expect the discussion went along these lines: “Frank, it won’t be long before those Commie sonsabitches put an H-bomb on them Sputniks. What we gonna do? I bet they got a camera on it already. Probably watchin’ us right now!”

I wasn’t skeered; I was elated. At four-and-a-half I was just barely old enough to understand (with a lot of help from Daddy) what a Sputnik was, and once I grasped the concept, I couldn’t seem to think about much else. As the women cooked and the men commiserated, li’l Rod orbited from his room to the living room and back with a toy rocket just like the one at left. Not long after, a sad little stray pup wandered into the yard, and I begged and pleaded for Mama and Daddy to let me keep him (technically, I already had a dog, Old Tuffy, but he tended to act like I was a fool puppy and boss me around). When they reluctantly assented and Daddy asked what I was gonna name the hound, I responded without hesitation, “Satellite!”

So what? Just that space was something Real Important back then, not just to me, but to almost everybody. Little Rod and most of the rest of the folks on this pebble in the sky were glued to the tube and the edge of our seats all through Mercury, Gemini, past the Apollo I fire, and on to the Moon landing. July 20, 1969 had to be experienced to be understood. We—by which I mean most of the world—were one people when Armstrong and Aldrin walked. Oh, there were naysayers even then; there always are: “Too expensive. What good is it? Let’s fix all the problems on Earth first.” Nobody paid much attention to them, though, not then. The benefits of the space program, ranging from spin-offs (which, interestingly, do not include Tang and Teflon), the jobs, and the fact that we were sticking a toe in the great cosmic ocean we’d have to learn to swim if the Human Race were to survive into Deep Time seemed obvious.

“What happened?” Why did the most of us stop watching the skies (I’ve still got my Marx Cape Canaveral Playset)? A one-two punch. Unfortunately, the Apollo program’s triumph coincided with the “undesirable outcome”—not quite defeat—in Vietnam. The country had a hangover that Apollo couldn’t cure. Oh, economics were part of it. A small part. The abruptly cancelled Apollos 18 – 20 had essentially already been paid for. Then as now, continuing NASA expenditures weren’t a huge burden on the budget, with anything NASA could even dream of paling beside LBJ’s Great Society programs, which were now firmly entrenched.

What really did it? What started the decline was that the landing on the Moon took place during the tenure of a President who wasn’t much interested in space, and who was soon too distracted by personal issues to give a flip about the Moon. Congress was mostly out of the space business, too, except for those legislators whose districts held lots of NASA jobs. One of our parties had changed course fairly sharply to the left, and some of its members were convinced their liberal constituents didn’t care pea-turkey about space (not necessarily true, but that was the assumption and often still is).

Worse, there’s no doubt Mom and Pop America weren’t as captivated by man-in-space as they’d once been. As I’ve said before, most of us weren’t interested in space or science per se, anyhow. It was the sporting aspect of it that grabbed us. The race to the Moon with us versus the dadgummed commies. That was now decided, so what was there to care about?

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a thing folks at NASA could have been done to restart the Space Race. The Russian Moon program dissolved as their economy began (or continued) to implode and they spent their last rubles, not on Moon rockets, but on SS-18 Satans. They weren’t just out of the Race, they were out of the space bidness altogether except in a compartively minor way. They decided what little money they had to spend would best be spent with orbiting space stations; especially those with potential military usefulness.

It was at this time, when the U.S. manned space program was on the edge of a knife and could have fallen either way, that the government (with some help from NASA themselves) well and truly screwed the pooch. As directed by the politicians of the 1970s, the Agency shelved plans for the Mars program that would presumably have followed Apollo, began to lay-off or retire their German rocket scientists (supposedly, Nixon had long yearned for that), and began casting about for something cheaper, easier, and less controversial that would keep them all employed over the short run. Their conclusion? Like the Russians, they thought space stations sounded good.

In some ways, space stations as a next step wasn’t a bad idea. A properly designed one could have advanced our eventual progress toward Mars or back to the Moon at the behest of a subsequent and more manned space-sympathetic Administration. Skylab, which was done relatively cheaply using a leftover Saturn booster and one of the remaining Apollo Command/Service Module pairs, was a good start. Unfortunately, the promising Skylab was allowed to unceremoniously re-enter the atmosphere way before its time. NASA decided they didn’t have the money to save it; every penny was needed for The Next Big Thing. There’s no denying Skylab wasn’t much of a hit with the public, anyhow (about as well-liked as Comet Kahoutek whose visit coincided with one of the Skylab missions). Skylab vs. Almaz ain’t exactly Apollo versus Soyuz.

On the face of it, NASA’s Next Big Thing, a reusable space plane, which eventually became not just part of the process of going back to the Moon or on to Mars someday, but an end in itself, was an attractive notion. It would be able to do lots of cool stuff. As originally envisaged, the Shuttle could have done a lot. It would have been equally capable of reaching low and high Earth orbit, doing everything from resupplying a space station, to servicing satellites in high orbits, to assisting with on-orbit construction of deep space craft. Before Nixon gleefully axed Mars, there were even some concepts that included a Shuttle-like vehicle that would not only have participated in preparations for a Mars mission, but would have flown that mission.

Alas, NASA had learned the art of compromise too well. A series of Administrations got their eyes on NASA’s budget, and wanted to know if the Shuttle couldn’t be done cheaper. And cheaper. And cheaper. NASA, in the interest of staying in business, kept whittling down farsighted NASA Administrator Tom Paine's ambitious Shuttles and we wound up with the model we had to learn to love and live with for thirty years. One able to reach low earth orbit (LEO) and nothing else.

Not that the Shuttle was a complete disaster as a spacecraft. The HST servicing missions were real and true triumphs and showed that a few smart humans can accomplish more than any robot. Yes, we lost two Shuttles, but, while that’s tragic, the spacecraft’s record is still a good one considering the number of flights and its years in service. The Space Shuttle, like any space-going craft we or anybody else have built or likely will build for a long time, had more in common with an experimental aircraft than a Boeing 747. Yes, it was horrible to lose two Shuttle crews, but it was also horrible to lose the test pilots who, for example, rode their F-104s down. There is no doubt every one of these hero pilots and astronauts knew the calculus of the possibilities for disaster and believed the answer was “Worth It.”

When Columbia lifted off for the first time, I felt a resurgence of the old American thirst for space. But that didn’t last. There were no Russkies to race, but what was more problematical was that there was nowhere to go. The Shuttle went round and round, performing and re-performing weightless experiments on mice and bugs. Soon, even NASA’s staunchest supporters began to wonder where the hell this was getting us. The Shuttle went nowhere, literally and figuratively. Worries after Challenger’s loss severely restricted work with satellites, commercial or otherwise. The killer, though, was that NASA had no larger dreams, and even if it had had any, it was not clear how the Shuttle could contribute. Few at the Agency dared whisper “Mars” or even “Moon” anymore. If there was a goal, it was just keeping themselves and their contractors on the receiving end of paychecks.

Because of an understandable desire to keep gainfully employed and to accomplish something, no matter how minor, NASA’s chiefs didn’t have the balls to stand up to the politicians and insist on ambitious long term goals, just as they hadn’t had the spines to decline to cheapen the Shuttle to near uselessness. If people up and down the food chain at NASA had told the politicians, “Sorry, no can do” when the Shuttle was fatally compromised, things might have been different in the coming decades. Not that the NASA honchos didn’t eventually realize there was a malaise abroad in Houston and that they needed somethin’ other than the Shuttle. With the help of the politicians, they came up with a near-term goal, the International Space Station. The ISS wasn’t a bad concept at first. Even with the cold war beginning to wind down, engendering cooperation between us and the Soviets was a good thing.

In the end, of course, the ISS wasn’t a good thing at all. Before long, there were no Soviets and no hot strategic pot boiling to cool down. After a while, it became apparent that the committee-designed ISS wasn’t much of a space station, either, and wasn’t capable of doing most of the things we’d heretofore associated with space stations. In its final form, it wasn’t any good for astronomy, it wasn’t even as capable of Earth observation tasks as some of the Soviet military stations had been. And there was no provision for using it as an orbital construction shack to build deeper-ranging manned spacecraft (if anyone had dared suggest such a thing). There was a joke going around in the aerospace community that offers a glimpse of the real and sad truth: “Q: What’s the Shuttle for? A: To get to the ISS. Q: Well, what’s the ISS for? A: To give the Shuttle someplace to go.”

George Bush the Younger is not an overly popular ex President. By the end of his second term his vaunted “political capital” had been well and truly squandered. I’ll leave the verdict on Dubya to those to whom it rightfully belongs, the historians of the next century. But I don’t believe there’s ever been a Chief Executive who didn’t make a single good decision—well, maybe William Henry Harrison. Dubya? One day, out of the blue in a speech at NASA headquarters in January of ought-four, he went beyond the standard NASA speech (“vision…blah-blah-blah…great achievements…blah-blah-blah…future accomplishments…blah-blah-blah) and said things I’d figgered I’d never live to hear a U.S. President say again: not only were we going back to the Moon, we were going on to Mars, and he expected NASA to find a way to do it:
Inspired by all that has come before, and guided by clear objectives, today we set a new course for America's space program. We will give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration. We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.
Not unexpectedly, the Bush Administration, weighed down by the reality of Iraq, wasn’t as free with the dollars as they were with the words, but for a change, something seemed to be coming of the words. NASA’s response was a program called “Constellation.” Project Constellation came in three parts, LEO, Lunar, and Mars. NASA would begin with a new booster, Ares I, which would deliver the Orion manned space vehicle to near-earth destinations. Next would come a heavy lift booster, Ares V, that would propel the Orion capsule and the Altair Lunar Lander to the Moon. Finally, Ares V would also be used to send Orion(s) and cargo on a manned Mars mission. Not only did NASA propose these things, they began building them, starting with test capsules and developmental models of Ares I.

Reactions? Joe and Jane America seemed to give their assent—maybe even tinged with some of that long-lost enthusiasm—for a return to the Moon. The most common comment I heard? Not "Why?" but “I always wondered why we never went back.” The critics, of course trotted out their usual and ever more tired objections: “Don’t see why, too expensive, robots can do it better.” Along with a new one: “Just rehashing Apollo.”

The first objections are both easy and hard to counter. There are people who, for a variety of reasons, from the economic to the political to the religious, do not think Men and Women should voyage into space at all, much less to the Moon. They can’t be convinced otherwise. Luckily they are a very small minority.

Then there are the folks who parrot the “robots can do it better/cheaper/safer” party line. In some cases they are right, but not always or even often. I don’t mean to minimize the incredible accomplishments of the current Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, or the people who made and make their missions such a success. But, really, there isn’t much doubt that one PhD geologist with boots on the ground could have accomplished tremendously more in far less time. Sending men and women into the Great Out There goes beyond the gathering of knowledge, though, to the realm of inspiration, and laying the groundwork for what must come in the future if we are to survive.

“How about safety? It’s dangerous to travel in space!” Yes, it is. It will be for a long time. It was also dangerous to descend from the trees and walk the savannah. It was dangerous to sail the world’s vast oceans in tiny wooden boats. It was dangerous to cross the Atlantic alone in a single-engine aircraft. Some people will always prefer to stay home in safety. Others believe We Were Born to Go, and gladly and even eagerly accept the inevitable risks.

We’ve heard these complaints before, but something new has been added this time, “We’re just rehashing Apollo.” That is just plain silly. The only “rehashing” is that we are going back to Luna after an absence of 38 years and that the Orion capsule looks a lot like an Apollo Command Module. Looks deceive. It is considerably larger and much more sophisticated. Yes, its cone shape makes it look like the CM, but given my days in the USAF ICBM program, I can tell you that a cone is still the best shape for a reentry vehicle.

As far as a Lunar mission duplicating what we did in Apollo? Now that’s even more ridiculous. Altair’s stays on the Moon will be much longer, and the resources for exploration and study available to the new Moon walkers will make the primitive tools of the Apollo astronauts look laughable. Even if the new missions were not to be more ambitious than what we did all those decades ago, we still need to go back. Is anybody so foolish as to think we learned everything we could learn about our sister world in six brief landings? Apollo wasn’t finished when the plug was pulled, and even if it had been, it would have still constituted the merest initial reconnaissance of the Moon.

There things lay as Bush left and Obama took over. What did I think would happen to Constellation under the new regime? I couldn’t begin to guess. Post-LBJ, it’s true the Democratic party has not always been overly space-friendly (neither have the Republicans). Initially, the New Guy sounded OK; during the campaign, Obama told us he wanted to expand NASA, and wanted us to dream of doing extraordinary things in space again. There was a hiccup when the new President seemed to say he was considering diverting a part of NASA’s budget to education (though the money spent on the Department of Education absolutely dwarfs NASA’s budget). Mr. Obama quickly reassured us, however, that he was “raised on Star Trek,” and was very space aware and friendly. Hell, he and Michelle hosted a star party on the lawn of the White House and looked through a C8 (!). I was still hopeful.

Then the nerves of us space nuts began to get a little frayed. Obama decided he’d have an “independent” Panel look at NASA and Constellation. The findings? This Panel determined that it would take more money than NASA was being given to develop all the new hardware and run missions to the Moon. Which was no surprise; it was obvious the Bushies had not given NASA the budget for such relatively ambitious plans. The good part was that, according to the Panel, the extra money needed was fairly modest in gubmint terms. About three billion more a year. Yeah, that ain’t exactly pin money, but our government didn’t flinch at spending over a billion to help folks buy digital converter boxes so they could continue to watch reruns of Family Feud. Gull dern it, they doled out three billion in their silly (I thought it was) Cash for Clunkers Program, alone.

Shortly, I—and other spacies—began to get even more nervous. The word of the street was that all Obama and Company were thinking was “OVER BUDGET.” That NASA had screwed up. They couldn’t do the job for the money they’d asked for and been given. NASA is somewhat to blame. They’ve too long been content to jump on whatever bucks they can get out of the politicos (“WE CAN DO IT FOR THAT MUCH!”) while hoping to wheedle more later. Of course, you also have to question the sense of people in the Administration (assuming we believe the money is the real problem for them) who don’t understand that when you are building a brand new anything—airplane or automobile much less spacecraft—there are Unknowns and Unexpecteds that mean you will spend more than you thought. Every single, blinkin’ time.

That we were correct to be afraid of what Obama might do was made clear last month when budget rumors began to trickle-out with a vengeance. The first of these was that Obama would not make any kind of special announcement regarding the NASA budget. It would be included in his speech concerning his overall proposal. That told me the Administration either didn’t care much about space or was worried about the reaction their proposed space budget would cause or, more likely, both.

We didn’t have to wonder long. Shortly, the NASA budget was on the street. First as a leak, and then in black and white. Constellation was dead. No Moon. Period. Maybe Mars someday, but with the emphasis on “someday,” certainly not as a plan or goal. Maybe we’d do Mars, or maybe a Near Earth Asteroid, or maybe one of the Martian Moons, but that would be with hardware yet to be designed or even conceived. It was made very clear that these things were just possibilities and not set in even the softest stone. How about the LEO leg of the Constellation tripod? Nope that was gone too. Ares I was cancelled. Even if it hadn’t been, there wouldn’t be any Orion to heft into LEO. That was, with the Moon/Mars Constellation components, dead.

That was the take; what was the give? The Administration proposed that the life of the ISS be extended to 2020. For the immediate future, U.S. astronauts would ride Soyuz. There would be a modest increase in NASA’s budget of a little less than 1 billion for the forthcoming year. That would be used on development of new technology (exactly what wasn’t said), and, especially, satellites to monitor earth resources and global warming. I suppose the politicians figgered that telling the American public we would have to rely on the Russians for transport to the ISS might not go over too well, so the Administration announced that a new Earth-to-LEO spacecraft would be developed by “private industry.” Which private industry and when was left to our imaginations.

The reasons given for this volte-face? The Constellation program wasn’t just over budget according to Administration flaks. It was flawed. We were left to our own devices in deciding how an underfunded program could be “over budget,” and why a brand new booster, which had just been successfully tested in a semi-full-up manner, was so flawed. Yes…the Ares I has some problems. So did Titan and Atlas and Saturn at this point in their development cycles. There is no reason to think Ares I, Orion, Altair, and Ares V wouldn’t have survived whatever growing pains they’d inevitably suffer.

The reaction? Pretty predictable. The manned space naysayers were happy. The space nuts like yours truly were devastated. Some Republicans who don’t care much about space used this as a cudgel to beat the new President for “ignorance and shortsightedness.” Some Democrats who don’t care pea turkey about space used this to give Obama laurels for his “vision and practicality.” Certainly it hasn’t all gone down along party lines or manned space-anti manned space lines, either. Some insiders, including astronauts--notably Buzz Aldrin--and some space advocacy groups, seem happy with the Obama decision (the last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, has just come out strongly against the Obama Plan).

Me, I think the yea-sayser in the pro-space community are whistling in the dark. Some of us have grown so weary of NASA’s indecision and lack of goals we are ready to embrace anything that looks like a clean break with the recent past. I would be too if I thought the President’s new policy were that. It ain’t, folks. Examine it closely and it falls apart like a house of cards made of wet toilet paper.

Let’s see. We are going to ditch Ares I and go to an LEO transportation system built by private industry. I reckon it was a surprise to Rocketdyne, Alliant, and Boeing, who were/are building Ares I, that they are not “private industry.” What Obama is doing is stopping a program that is beginning to show progress and promise and going back to square one. What will we buy? Who knows? Whether it is SpaceX’s Falcon/Dragon, or a man-rated Delta or Atlas accompanied by some yet undesigned capsule, or what, it won’t be ready any time soon.

SpaceX, for example, implies they can be launching astronauts to the ISS in two or three years. That, despite the fact that they’ve managed to orbit exactly one small satellite thus far after numerous attempts. We are now to believe they will be able to field an advanced and safe manned spacecraft capable of doing rendezvous and docking in two or three years? Puh-leeze. My guess is that there will not be anything available to transport our astronauts to LEO before 2020. And if a similar Administration is in power at that time, I’m guessing they’ll just decide that without the ISS we don’t need an LEO system at all. It will be cancelled or allowed to wither on the vine.

What is most ridiculous? Obama seems to think he’ll save money on LEO by starting over with new players, with some Apple computer of space hardware. That might be true if we could expect private industry to spend their own money on the spacecraft and booster. Do you think any company will do that, spend the multi-billions required, on the outside chance they’ll eventually make lots of money sending astronauts into Earth orbit for the government? Or that they will clean up on space tourism? If you do, I have a nice bridge for you. When all is said and done, the taxpayers will wind up spending exactly as much, if not more, than we would have on Ares I. And it will be a standalone, not part of a system like Constellation.

It’s not clear to me why Obama is so dead-set against a Lunar mission. We’ve, literally, barely scratched the surface of the Moon. There is so much that could be done there, ranging from Lunar colonies to Moon-based telescopes, to who-knows-what that I’m absolutely gobsmacked the President turned up his nose at a close, easy, and exciting target. Instead? Mars (maybe) or asteroids (maybe) someday when money they are supposedly going to give NASA for new technology of some kind results in spacecraft that will make such missions possible. The dirty little secret? We could have been on Mars in the 1980s. It is not the technology or even the money that is lacking. It is the will. The guts.

I could go on. I’m a-gettin’ madder by the minute. There’s no money for a Moon program, but there is plenty for a high-speed Amtrak line in Florida (billions and billions) that I guarantee nobody will ride, will never be profitable, and which will suck down dump truckfuls of OUR money for however long it is allowed to. Yeah, I’m mad. Enough talkin’. What can be done?

Do not wait for 2012 to vote these suckers out of office if you believe that is the cure. The gigantic oil tanker that is the U.S. government will have changed course by then, and it will take a long, long time to move it back to the correct heading. Nope, the thing to do is contact your Senators and Representatives now and let them know you think this “plan” of Obama’s is a huge mistake. Yeah, “contact your Congressman” sounds corny—but it can still work and will work if enough of us do it.

We won’t always have this pretty planet. Someday something will happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be in a thousand years. It could be in a million. If you, like me, want to see us or our distant descendants keep on keepin’ on, the time to act is now. There may be plenty of time to get all our eggs out of one basket. Or there may not be. There will most assuredly not be enough time if we, like this Administration, always put it off to “someday.”

'Nuff said.

Postscript: If you’d like to see a good, if maybe a wee bit slightly over the top, video on this subject, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2IQVZmHnJQ Certainly, I expect y’all will let me know what you think of this article. I’m e’en now practicin’ my runnin’ and duckin’.

Comments:
Hi Rod,
I am living in Europe and looked in awe when Americans set first foot upon the Moon. This made a lasting impression on my generation. What a stupid mistake to cancel Constellation. Obama had my support (I have always supported Republicans before) but now I realise he has been lying to his voters. He is not showing the kind of leadership we were longing for. The Chinese will be very happy with Obama's decision and they will be planting their red flag on the Moon besides the American one after accidently kicking it over ! What a sad day for the free world.
Roger Laureys
Belgium
 
Yeah, I'm in Europe too and while I thought that President Obama was the right man for the job at the time of his appointment I can't tell you how disappointed I am by this decision of his.
 
Rod:
I was extremely disappointed in Obama's direction. To me, though, it was not much of a surprise. During his campaign he spoke frequently about the environment (hot button subject to get votes) but had no real plans other than that there would be a change in doing business. Now with this budget of his he has killed a dream and will keep the ISS available until 2020 (in my humbe opinion very little real science is done there), launch more satellites to monitor climate change and dole out money to pay the Russians and whoever to fly Americans to the ISS. Perhaps his aim is to humble American ingenuity and reduce American accomplishments. I wonder if he or any in his regime have reassessed any of their ideas on climate change with NASA's news release about the sun being a variable star that is showing activity. Perhaps releasing that info now is NASA's way of getting back at him.
 
I agree with one aspect of your assessment, and that is that we don't have the *guts*, as a people, to go to space any longer. This isn't about Obama or the Congress, it's about us. We, the people, have sent a series of short sighted individuals to Washington who have not been looking our for what's best for our country. It's true of both parties.

The U.S. space program has been on a long downhill slide for quite some time, starting when the last Apollo's were cancelled. The Shuttle was a neat idea until the politicos got ahold of it and turned into another "how cheap can we do it?" project. The ISS has been a loser since the get-go. By the time they started building it, many scientists were saying it was a waste of time. Bush the 2nd gave a nice speech about space exploration, but then never provided any funding, so that's all it was, a speech. Obama is just the next in the line of people trying to kill off space exploration. If he gets his way, he may be the last, because we won't be able to go to space. We have pretty much completely squandered the legacy of the early NASA and those who gave their lives to put us in space. Grissom, White and Chaffee, and all of the others who we've lost, have had their legacy shattered.

We are either a people with vision and the guts to build that vision, or we are the do nothings that we have become. Of course, I guess we shouldn't expect any better when an agency, NASA, filled with scientists and engineers, is led by a series of accountants and politicians.
 
A lot to chew on Rod. My first thought when I heard W's Vision of Space speech was that it was hot air. There would never be the serious funding for it to get it going anytime soon (let alone by 2010). As for SpaceX, I will say that they did orbit *two* satellites, one a boilerpate and one a functional one. This after 3 failures, but given that rockets are complicated this seemed pretty good as far as getting a new booster running. What the Falcon 9 will do is anyone's guess. The Falcon 9 flight is certainly very ambitious, and I hope they succeed, but we will just have to wait and see. As far as the Chinese going to the moon, well, they don't have the resources to. Sure, they are supposedly the 2nd biggest economy, but really, you have an overpopulated, over polluted country where the men outnumber the women almost 2:1. They have other issues to worry about. I am starting to wonder if we, as a species, aren't really motivated to go out there. You are right on about private industry: there would need to be something amazing out there for private industry to go to space on their own dime. I don't see what that could be. This whole situation is depressing, but I am trying to be optimistic. The only people really complaining are Congressmen from mainly Alabama, Florida and California. People aren't demanding space, and never will since 99.9999% of them will live out there existence on the surface, without any other perspective.
 
I wouldn't downplay the current budget, actually. Constellation was not going to be ready in time to pick up after the end of the Shuttle era, & it would've been amazingly expensive to run. The reports from the GAO, the NAS, & the Augustine commission are all on line. A lot of the research that would have been necessary for a true long term human presence in space (orbital refuelling, true closed-loop life support systems, non-chem rocket drives, &c.) was wiped out by Constellation, & is back in Obama's budget. The Constellation would've been just another flags & footprints operation, frankly.
 
Right on target with this Unk. To this day I frequently re-read books about the Apollo program. I watch "From the Earth to the Moon" perhaps twice each year and I still feel pride in what we accomplished. Today, I feel embarrasement for NASA and our political leaders. I wholeheartedly agree...vote the incumbents out of office! Please, for all of us who can still "think", rather than be content to sit back and watch reality TV (the millions of brain-dead among us), lets find leaders who are truely capable of leading.
 
lots of things said nothing done.i agree with rod.but its ALL about money.99% of dems&reps.dont know whats realley going in the usa.all they know how to do is spend OUR money.they are liars&conmen.they have no insight to the future. i have all ways wondered why we never went back to the moon.we could had a moon base as long as the iss.as for mars maybe in the future??EVERONE in this country needs to wake up look at what the reps&dems have and are doing to this country be fore its too LATE.will w
 
Wow - lots to chew on, Unka Rod!

There is already a market for private launch systems now. The success of the Ariane, SpaceX, the (Burt Rutan co-developed) Pegasus and others shows that both private satellites and military payloads will be launched by whomever can do it.

And it's been a long time since the military had much effect on the design of commercial airliners, to use another example.

That said, someone wisely pointed out many years ago that for all the complexity of the US Government, *ALL* spending bills (and thus, all control over what it does) originate in the House of Representatives. Who have to run for office every two years. And win by an average of *11 votes per precinct*. So get 6 voters to change their vote and you've just changed a Congressional seat. Do that in a relatively few seats and you've just changed the complexion of that body. If *your* Representative is too deeply entrenched, work for another district where the incumbent is vulnerable and make yours become a minority vote.

Rod, my hat is off to you as always. Do keep up the great writing!

Sincerely,
Jim Horn, Columbia River Gorge USA
 
I agree with anonymous that W's vision was just hot air. A great thing for the media but he well knew that getting the funding and consensus for a new space initiative was a pipe dream. However, what Obama is proposing is basically just throwing in the towel. It is truly a sad day with the abandonment of this great endeavor. On another note, maybe NASA should now take a harder look at a space elevator.
 
Regarding the Shuttle - few seem to remember that the Space Transportation System (STS) was originally designed as a true system. A fleet of 25 shuttles (!) would take payloads to low earth orbit. A manned Space Tug would take them from low to high orbit. A Lunar Transfer vehicle would take them from geosynchronous orbit to the moon. All to be built in numbers to amortize their development costs.

You often hear folks laugh that NASA once planned on weekly shuttle launches. With 25 of them, they could have done so.

Good old Congress axed all that. Around 1975 they even halted all Shuttle assembly to "save money", resulting in higher costs to lay everyone off and store everything for a year, then rehire them and restart assembly.

NASA's administrators are Congress's servants. They could have stood for more but would have been tossed aside (as the heads of the USAF were last year) when they speak their minds.

When I was active duty in the USAF, the Interim Upper Stage, meant to tide us over until the Space Tug came online, became the Inertial Upper Stage as the STS had been axed save for a minimal Shuttle fleet. I'm still saddened that we threw away what we did.
 
Dear Uncle Rod,

Thank you very much for your incisive entry on Mr. Obama’s decision regarding the US manned space program. This decision came as a shock to me although, lamentably, it seems to fit with the spirit of the times, which you are so vividly contrasting with the vigorous if scary 1960s. Being a “Russkie” myself, I was, however, surprised to read in your account of developments following the abandonment of the Moon programs in the ‘70s that “they [the Russkies] were out of the space bidness altogether except in a comparatively minor way.” This statement could not be reconciled with what you say in conclusion of your account of the Obama plan: “For the immediate future, U.S. astronauts would ride Soyuz.” Wikipedia has a very nice timeline diagram of all manned missions in the “Human spaceflight” article. At a glance, it shows how it came to this. I have a deep affection for America and hope it will re-emerge as a competitor (peaceful, at least outwardly) in what is, I would agree with you, the race for the good of all mankind.

Ivan Maly
 
Hi Ivan:

I hope you take my comments about "Russkies" in the light hearted-manner in which they were intended. I have the HIGHEST admiration for the accomplishments of S.P. Korolev and the tremendous accomplishments of the Soviet manned space program. I suppose I'm just sad your country gave up on the Moon (and on that titanic N1 rocket)!
 
Certainly, Uncle Rod, in the light-hearted manner. Curiously, I think the Soviet people were spared all the pain and shame when the Moon program was cancelled and then the Mars program shelved. The tradition, you see, was to announce only successful accomplishments, post factum. Even if not technically secret, few knew about plans. Not to go on about the past and off topic, but as an illustration, I remember how my father became tense at my comment, watching TV, that the American spaceship (a Shuttle on a launch pad) looked very different from ours. "How do you know how ours looks?", he asked me with alarm. On hearing my innocent comments on the obvious differences between a Soyuz rocket and the Shuttle, his relief was obvious. Many years later that strange incident became clear to me at once, when the Buran-Energia (the Russian "Shuttle") flight was, out of the blue, announced and shown on TV. All the best, Ivan
 
Ivan, that was an great story about your father.
Thanks for sharing it.

I can't believe the Democrats won't at least restore
funding for the Ares I to allow continued American
access to the space station. Canceling the manned
space program (which is really what their doing)
is terrible symbolism and a political gift to the
Republicans in a crucial state like Florida.
 
Rod,
I am in agreement with you that the US could have put a man on Mars in the 1980s. That was the plan that involved the use of nuclear rocket technology. The US had the technology, but the Government lacked the vision and the will.

Without the political will in Washington, it will be left to other nations to fulfill the dreams and aspirations that once engaged the minds of Americans. Indeed, Russia have already announced plans to develop rockets this year using nuclear propulsion that may send men to Mars:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5DQZOB6JSY
 
I am very very disappointed about the direction that Obama wants NASA to take. I have worked for years as a volunteer with JPL, with TIE, with Mount Wilson Observatory, the Orange County Astronomers, etc. doing astronomy outreach trying to inspire the children of today. I wished that one of the kids that I inspired today would become the first people on Mars. All of my years of work will come to naught unless Congress restores the Constellation program. Quoting David Scott of Apollo 15:

"Man Must Explore,and this is Exploration at it's greatest!"

Now we will have to see if some other country like China will take up the challenge. At least get some human beings back out there, I don't care if they are Chinese, Indian, Russian or whatever. It just won't be Americans, who seem to be obsessed with living virtually with the internet and DVDs instead of going out and looking up at the real sky.
 
I'm cautiously optimistic about the new plan, though I do think that the Obama administration doesn't see space as much of an important issue at all. My optimism comes from the fact that at least it was a $1 billion dollar increase, the excitement among the private space industry about it, and also the fact that it's 2010 and we're on the verge of finally discovering other Earths from which I think will finally come the realization among the general public that the universe is filled with planets just like ours and that we'd better start exploring it.

Oh, and WISE might discover a brown dwarf close to us this year. There's a fairly good chance there are one or more closer to us than Alpha Centauri and if that's the case it'll also be a big game changer since our closest companion will then be maybe just one light year away.

So in short I'm of the opinion that there's too much momentum for any one program or lack of it to stop. Add China and India to the mix (thanks to India we know that water is produced in the soil of the Moon for example) and we're doing pretty good.

But yeah, I was hoping for a $3 billion increase as the Augustine Commission recommended. Oh well.
 
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