Sunday, January 30, 2011

 

A-OK?


What’s Unk going on about now? I’m guessing most of you younguns have never even heard the above little expression, at least not in the context I place it in. Confused yet? What does that have to do with amateur astronomy, the supposed beat of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South? Every once in a while, as those of y’all who’ve been onboard for a while know, I stray off the beaten path of astronomy. This is one of those times.

About a year ago, I wrote an entry, “Goodnight Moon,” that expressed my disappointment with the Obama Administration’s decision to, as I saw it, shut down NASA’s manned spaceflight program(s). What Obama wanted to do was put the development of new spacecraft, both for low earth orbit, LEO, and for deep space missions (missions other than to the ISS) in the hands of private enterprise.

I wasn’t too happy, despite the fact that NASA has not exactly had an unblemished record over the last thirty years. They’ve often been willing to give in to the demands of politicians for “more for less.” At times, it’s seemed as if NASA’s prime directive has not been to explore the Final Frontier, but to keep NASA’s workforce gainfully employed. Employed in programs so cash-starved they accomplish little. Those of y’all who know me will testify that I’ve been one of the Agency’s harshest critics when they’ve deserved it.

No, the Shuttle did not work out as originally planned. It fell short of our dreams of a space moving-van, an orbital C-130. The ISS hasn’t been even a partial success. It’s a huge white elephant that gobbles money like peanuts while not advancing a program of exploration or engaging the public. It has never had a clearly defined mission of any kind, and apparently wasn’t designed to.

But NASA hasn’t always deserved criticism, even in its latter Shuttle days. The Hubble Space Telescope alone is almost enough to justify thirty years of dithering around in LEO. Leaving aside the disappointments in the human spaceflight program, unmanned mission after unmanned mission, from Viking to New Horizons, has advanced our knowledge of the Great Out There tremendously.

If blame can be placed at the doorstep in Houston, it’s that, as above, for too long NASA has been content to go along to get along. Instead of telling the politicians “We simply cannot do it for the money you are giving us; we’ll have to forget the whole thing,” NASA has always folded, promising to somehow accomplish the mission with too little money in too compromised a fashion.

The ironic thing? In the last few years, it almost appeared as if NASA had shaken off its malaise. There was a new excitement brewing with plans for a new manned spaceflight system, “Constellation,” which would be capable of undertaking missions to both the ISS and beyond. That “beyond” being the Moon. Wonder of wonders, NASA was actually and finally making plans to return to Luna.

I don’t know about y’all, but the continuing mystery to me has always been why NASA has been too timid to advance the idea of a return to the Moon. If you are (supposedly) interested in sending men and women farther than LEO someday, maybe on to Mars, returning to the Moon is a natural. Not only is it close and relatively easy and an excellent training ground for more ambitious deep space missions, it, contrary to what the more ignorant pundits and even some people who should know better will tell you, is an outstanding end in itself.

Science-wise, it’s laughable to say, as some of the dumb and biased will, “been there, done that.” We’ve barely been there and done very little. We’ve explored too tiny a fraction of the Moon’s surface to say we’ve really explored it at all. The Moon is a world, a still mysterious one, and the more we learn about it, the more complex and interesting it becomes. It’s now evident that the good old boring Moon is a repository of a wealth of minerals—and even water. Water that could not just support a Lunar colony, but fuel ships departing the Moon’s rocket-friendly gravity well for more distant ports of call.

The plans to go back lasted just barely through Year One of the current Administration’s tenure. Despite some noises during the campaign about supporting manned spaceflight, Obama soon let the axe fall. The Constellation Program would be cancelled. Private contractors would design and field manned spacecraft to ferry crews to the ISS. The deep space part of NASA’s plans? The return to the Moon was cancelled. The heavy lift booster was cancelled. Maybe (at some future time) a heavy lifter would be developed to take us beyond Earth orbit to some place. Not the Moon. Probably not Mars. Maybe to an asteroid or something. It was made clear, however, that that was just a “maybe.”

“But Uncle Rod, private companies built NASA’s Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury spacecraft. Why can’t they do that again?” They have never stopped. Private industry, private contractors, built the Shuttle and every other U.S. space system. To NASA’s designs and missions. What Obama proposes is that NASA be taken out of the loop. That private companies, with government help, build spacecraft to their own specifications. Man-rated spacecraft.

Me? I think I’d want NASA in the same capacity they’ve always been in, overseeing and managing contractors. If NASA hasn’t always managed perfectly, fix that rather than throw out both the dadgummed baby and the bathwater. Which is just what has been done. What Obama decided was that we’d scrap a system, Constellation, already far along, four years along, in its development and start from scratch, wasting billions to switch horses to an as yet undesigned “something.”

NASA’s future role under the Obama plan? To supply astronauts. Probably. Other than that? Difficult for me to say exactly what NASA will be doing. The Agency’s new administrator, Charles Bolden, however, thinks he knows. In a widely-publicized interview, he offered that NASA’s FOREMOST mission is not to explore the Great Out There, but to improve relations with the Muslim world. There’s nothing wrong with Muslims; I’d feel the same if Bolden had said NASA’s foremost mission is to improve relations with Baptists. NASA’s foremost mission should be to get us off this stinking rock.

Of course I have no doubt some of y’all probably wonder why we should worry about venturing off this planet, at least sending humans off this planet, anyway. Even some amateur astronomers of my acquaintance are strongly against human spaceflight. I reckon they just don’t get it that, in the long term (and I know us Americans don’t much like thinking about that pea-picking Long Term), moving humans off planet means the survival of the human race—if you fancy such a thing desirable. But there are other reasons, too. Reasons that have nothing to do with keeping folks in Florida and Texas employed.

One other reason was eloquently stated by Leo Szilard in his recollection of what his fellow physicist, Otto Mandl, said one day,

He thought he knew what it would take to save mankind from a series of recurring wars that could destroy it. He said that man has a heroic streak in himself. Man is not satisfied with a happy idyllic life; he has the need to fight and encounter danger. And he concluded that what mankind must do to save itself is to launch an enterprise aimed at leaving the earth. On this task he thought the energies of mankind could be concentrated and the need for heroism could be satisfied.
I’m not insisting you agree with old Otto, but it is an interesting idea. I can’t help but wonder where we’d have come in four decades if we’d poured the lives and lucre we expended in Vietnam and Iraq into space. Sometimes, when I’m feeling blue, I wonder if the commander of our first Mars mission died in the jungles of ‘Nam.

No matter what the politicians believe or say they believe at any given time, not much can happen unless the public is full engaged and behind the space program. Frankly, they are not. Oh, they are not against it. They are mildly for it. They are just uneducated about it. And fearful of “spending all that money.” I’m not talking about the people who insist we end poverty on Earth before setting foot in space. You will never sway them; I’m talking about middle-of-the-road Mom and Pop America.

Do we spend too much money on space? We spend far more than the entire NASA budget on foolish and ephemeral things that I won’t waste your time enumerating here. The public doesn’t realize that, though. In a recent poll a random sample of adults was asked to estimate the percentage of the budget consumed by NASA. The responses averaged out to 25%. The actual figure is .60%. Yes, that is a decimal in front of the six.

Weren’t Mom and Pop once more educated about and more excited about space? Yes. Yes indeed. Will you indulge me for a minute and let me tell you what it was like growing up in the A-OK days?

I’m hard put to give you youngsters a feel for the excitement in the air when the space-age was aborning, back in the early 1960s. We’d suddenly gone from stark, staring fear when the dadgummed Soviets put that beeping Sputnik of theirs in orbit, to elation as Shepard and then Grissom and Glenn lifted off in their Mercury spacecraft. Yes, we were behind the Russkies, but no longer way behind. The sky was now the limit. Hell, our young President said we were going to the Moon and at least implied that would be just the beginning. But still we worried. Major Glenn went up for a few orbits, the Soviets went for dozens.

Much of the concern about the U.S. lagging behind in the SPACE RACE was focused on us kids. We were not, the old folks worried, getting enough math and science in school. That had to be remedied. And soon. Suddenly, even down here in benighted Possum Swamp, the dollars began to flow into the schools. Our teachers made heroic efforts to impress upon us the importance of this New Frontier, and make sure we were up to speed not just on our math and science, but on the doings of America’s Space Agency. Math, science, space. Lots of it. Throw me into that briar patch, Brer Fox.

In elementary school, this resulted not just in us doing lots of “science units” on astronomy, but our teachers getting into the swim of the latest educational innovations designed to pull America’s supposedly math-science ignorant kids up by our bootstraps. It was heady stuff for the Rodster to suddenly go from covering and re-covering fractions and long division with Old Miss Alsobrook in the fifth grade to the New Math with pretty Miss Stinson in the sixth. This New Math with its set theory and modular arithmetic was insanely fascinating stuff. I loved it.

Yes, we were being drilled in math and science furiously. The name of our nation’s new agency, NASA (reconstituted from the old NACA), was on our teachers’ lips daily, and one of the new TVs the school had been able to buy with the influx of federal dollars was invariably wheeled into our classroom for every single Mercury launch. But outer space was not something you only heard about in school.

The Great Out There was all over TV. At first in the form of the previous decade’s space movies, like Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, and The Conquest of Space, which were suddenly more popular than they’d been when they were new. These films were not just more popular, their tales of space spanning journeys had gone from pie-in-the-sky in the fifties to just-around-the-corner in the sixties.

There were even some attempts made—usually with the cooperation of NASA—to go beyond the made-for-TV foolishness like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger to original and serious depictions of the New Frontier on the boob tube. In particular there was Men Into Space, a short-lived but (I thought) wonderful show that looked like Chesley Bonestell paintings come to life.

Of course our hunger for space wasn’t just assuaged by hard-core nuts and bolts programs. The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s initially incredibly well done science fiction/fantasy anthology series often had space centered episodes, with little Unk’s fave being “Where is Everybody?” Serling’s final narration for this outing gave me chills . It had such an enervating effect on li’l Rod that Mama became concerned I was having some sort of fit. In fact, it still has that wonderful effect on me to this day:

Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is the sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting. Waiting with the patience of eons. Forever waiting...in the Twilight Zone.

Well I remember me and Mama sitting and shivering as The Twilight Zone’s sometimes frightening little tales unwound. But it wasn’t all scary stuff. Space could be funny, too. If you’ve seen the film The Right Stuff, you know about Alan Shepard’s silly but funny impression of (non Hispanic) Bill Dana as the frightened “Jose the Astronaut.” Dana’s routine, which would hardly be politically correct today, took the country by storm, and Dana soon leapt from comedy record albums to TV, where Jose would, after being asked if he were going into orbit soon, drawl, “Oh, I hope not.”

In the early days, the Mercury Seven, the original seven Astronauts, were almost demigods, and I had no idea that “my astronaut,” Alan Shepard, loved Jose as much as I did. Yeah, “my astronaut.” Back in those innocent times, most of us kids had a favorite astronaut. I was torn. John Glenn was a Marine, and that made him especially cool. And he’d been the first American to orbit the Earth. But Alan Shepard was the first American man in space. I had been so impressed when my second grade class watched the flight of Freedom Seven, the vision of the mighty Redstone lifting off was so imprinted on my little mind, that I had to throw my allegiance to Shepard.

Thus we come to the catchword of the day, A-OK. That was supposedly what astronauts pronounced when everything on the mission was going good, when that Right Stuff was really ginned up. Apparently, none of the astronauts ever actually said “A-OK,” but no matter. Kids picked up on it big-time, and soon everything was A-OK.

I can remember nearly driving Mama bugs one Saturday as we drove downtown to Dauphin Street for one of her epic shopping trips. Li’l Rod’s response to every question she asked me that morning was “A-OK!” Which I kept up till Mama inevitably lost her cool, threatening to “Turn this car around right now, MISTER, and drop you at your Granny’s for the day.” That calmed me down as that penalty would mean missing out on buying a SPACE TOY of some kind on the small toy aisle of S.H. Kress’ five-and-dime store.

What did I get there? There was plenty to choose from. The toy merchants had picked up on the space craze, and the shelves were groaning with everything from reissues of tired old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers rayguns, to wonderful new things like the amazing PROJECT X-500 launch center and the Marx Cape Canaveral playsets. Those were very expensive—five or ten dollars—so they were the stuff of birthdays, if not Christmas. Usually what I could hope for would be a bag of the old Multiple Plastics Company’s spacemen, maybe accompanied by a little ship of some kind.

In a few years, the toy companies would be issuing recognizable Mercury and Gemini capsules with abandon, but at first it was enough to sell something-anything that looked vaguely like a rocketship, even if its appearance had more to do with the Nike rockets that would supposedly protect some of us from incoming Soviet Bear bombers than it did with outer space.

But that was A-OK; I didn’t need much to fire my imagination. If Mama was wise enough to run me through Kress before hitting Lerner’s dress shop and our fancy department store, Gayfer’s, she could be assured I’d be compliant and quiet for the rest of the trip, with my astronauts busily exploring these uber-boring establishments, which had magically metamorphosed into the sands of Mars or the frigid wastes of a distant asteroid.

One particularly sweet birthday, Mama and Daddy presented me with a cake topped by a plastic rocket that looked a lot like one of the Von Braun wonders I’d seen in Disney’s Man in Space when it played at the Roxy. I once again nearly drove Mama to distraction “orbiting” from the living room to the kitchen and back, all the while BEEPING like a Sputnik. The little Boxer pup that wandered up and that Mama and Daddy let me keep? I insisted on naming him “Satellite.”

The point of these reminiscences? Just that one of the roadblocks we space enthusiasts face is the public’s seeming disinterest in spaceflight. What powered Apollo was not or not just Von Braun’s massive engines, but the palpable and far reaching public excitement (well, with a little fear of the Russkies and good, old fashioned American competitiveness thrown in). How do we get that back? The public must be led to space. Educated about it. Excited with a vision of the future.

Where do we stand with that in this year 2011, which was supposed to be the wonderful space-borne future when I was a sprout? I was half listening to the President’s State of the Union speech the other night. I am not a big fan of the political malarkey that infuses these events, whichever party is in power, but I was curious whether Obama, like most of his predecessors would mention the space program, at least in passing. I was doubtful, so I almost fell off my chair when the President intoned:
Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
But, unfortunately, that was all there was. A hearkening back to the glory days in an attempt to inspire us today to improve the economy or do whatever other things Obama thinks worth doing. Apparently that is not flying men and women to the Moon. In fact, this Administration apparently thinks we can’t. NASA Administrator Bolden, in the same interview where he described NASA’s new prime mission, opined that “The United States is not going to travel beyond low-Earth orbit on its own.”

In addition to being a sad and sorry thing for a former astronaut to say, it is rubbish. Given our wealth and technology we can—we could—do far more than what we did in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. But we must be allowed to. Manned space flight must be a priority for the Administration, not an inconvenience. I’m not letting NASA off the hook, either. They must lead the Administration and the country with a vision of the New Frontier. No more settling for whatever scraps are thrown their way.

What do I expect? No matter who is in power after the next Presidential election, I don’t expect much. I expect some progress to be made on a private space taxi capable of reaching the ISS. That’s it. If the current Administration continues in office and continues on its present course, I believe there will be vague and occasional talk about a heavy lift booster and missions beyond LEO, but only vague talk.

If a more space friendly President takes office? That could change, but the cancellation of the Constellation Project means so much ground has been lost and so much money wasted that it will be a long, hard slog to return to where we were two years ago—and that assumes an Administration and Congress and a NASA very serious about manned exploration.

The bottomline? Muchachos, I hate to end on a down note, especially since when this was written it was enough of a down day, the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, for us space nuts. I hope I am wrong, too, but… As things stand now, I do not expect to live to see a U.S. return to the Moon, much less a landing on Mars, and I ain’t that old. Is that the shape of things that must be or only might be? I hope for the “might.” The House and Senate have not come close to fully embracing Obama’s planned American exit from manned space travel. Worse comes to worst? Somebody else will, I believe, have the sense to pick up the torch. Likely China.

But I want Americans in space in American spacecraft. Is there no hope? I know that “write your Congressman” is one of the most hopeless phrases in American English, but I don’t know what else to tell you to do. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let them know that there are still a few starry-eyed boomers out there, and maybe even a few starry-eyed youngsters.

Next Time: Charity Hope Valentine confronts the Herschel 400!

Comments:
Yeah, depressing but true blog this week. I personally try to stay optimistic, but I have a sinking feeling the USA will be a distant third or fourth in space within a decade (behind Russia, China, Europe, and Japan) with Americans hitching rides
 
Uncle Rod,

I agree with you 95% of the time. I believe there is a need for a human space flight program. But, ...

I see no need to send humans back to the Moon at this time. What needs to be done there can be done more economically with a rover program. When you take into account the 29 day day on the Moon and the cost of sustaining a colony (or a mission) there, I am against it. Virtually everything needed to support life and the mission would have to be brought with us. A Mars colony can and would be self sustaining after an initial priming of the pump. And I believe that is where we should concentrate our efforts.

If the Chinese or the Indians want to waste their money there, let them. I believe the scientific return on our investment there would be fairly low.

Terry
 
Most of the professional astronomers that I know favor deep space missions over manned lunar missions. They get more bang for their buck. There are some things that the human mind is uniquely capable of doing that a robot cannot, and the day will come when humans (really doesn't matter if they're Chinese or French or Yanks) will travel to those distant worlds and do those studies. But until we start selling more cheap plastic stuff to China than we import, the days of high budget manned missions to distant worlds are over.
 
Hi Unk,

This is basically what happens when you take a science agency and put it under the control of politicians and accountants. You can make a pretty good case that every single failure in the American space program can be tracked back to a failure to receive proper funding from the Congress.

I voted for Obama, but I am so disappointed in his demolishment of the manned space program that I doubt he'll get my vote again. Given the usual poor quality of the Republican candidates, I'll probably just sit out the next presidential election.
 
As a 7 year-old boy my parents took me to see the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when other parents took their kids to see The Love Bug. I remember looking up at that screen with such hope that in my lifetime I also would be able to travel to space as easily as a plane flight. A little over a year later man walked the moon and it seemed all-too-certain that my adulthood would include trips off this planet. The year 2001 came and went and we as a space-faring people had not been that much further along towards what I watched on that Technicolor screen. When I heard we would be returning to the moon my heart was filled with that childhood hope once again, although this time it was for what my children, and their own children, may experience in their lifetimes. When the moon return was scrapped I felt a great loss for my kid's futures. This February NASA will be sending a robot to the ISS to perform menial cleaning tasks, which at first-glance sounds the stuff of science fiction, but when you think about it you can't help but wonder if it's the start of a new trend to eventually eliminate the human-factor from spaceflight. I hope and pray that someone that has an ounce of the wonderment I had back in 1968 retakes charge of our space program. I cannot fathom an America without american men and women in space laying the groundwork for the human race having an expanding and permanent presence in space beyond earth orbit!
 
USA 2011 - A country that cannot afford a space program but you can get a 30 year, low interest mortgage without proof of income. Politically incorrect, I know, but it sure doesn't inspire pride.
 
Hi Rod,
I agree completely with you. Imagine a world where our young people can no longer aspire to be astronauts, and if they do only to hitch a ride with the Russians or perhaps the Chinese on their terms. The cancellation of the Constellation program is one of the most short sighted decisions this administration has made. After promising to be science friendly, they cheap out on the projects that can make it happen, a great disappointment to us all.

Marshall Hagy
Chicago
 
Well this time, we are certainly in total agreement.
This is just one of the many things I take issue with this President on.
But I also like the idea of private enterprise doing the space thing.
And like you, I grew up with NASA running the show, and doing wonderful things, and I want to see it again.
Doug
 
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