Category Archives: NASA

And people say the space program is ending…!

NASA just closed their latest application drive for astronaut candidates. A staggering 6372 people applied – the second-largest candidate group in NASA’s entire history! (Personally, I’m rooting for this one.) What gives? Do people love science and technology a lot more all of a sudden? Is it American pride? Is it Newt’s promise to build a Moon base for less than $2 billion?*

It is clear to anyone who follows space activities that the end of the Space Shuttle program was not anything close to the end of NASA itself. The astronaut program is no exception: every few months, a Russian Soyuz blasts off carrying three human beings up to the Space Station or back down to Earth. The completion of the Shuttle program also meant the completion of Space Station construction, allowing the ISS to become an orbital scientific workstation in earnest.

Perhaps it’s the profusion of photoblogging, twittering, and facebooking astronauts driving the upsurge. When we have astronauts writing stuff like this, while in orbit, allowing people to get their own glimpse of life in space, it’s a small wonder that people still want to be astronauts!

* In case you’re curious, $1.9 billion would be 10% of NASA’s budget (devoted to prizes, of course). For comparison, the entire Apollo program cost approximately $25 billion. In 1973 dollars.

Calling All Space Tech!

In grad school, I became a big fan of NIAC (the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) and the Office of the Chief Technologist. These wings of the NASA organization support research into far-flung, visionary technological concepts. They are the parts of NASA pushing for the kinds of research that will usher in the next generation of space exploration.

The new NIAC call for proposals is out. Interestingly, this time it includes a specific call for “citizen science.” So, if you’ve got some crazy ideas for spacecraft technology…why not try for it?

Flying to Titan

Decadal surveys and other prioritizations of potential NASA exploration missions often rank one thing very highly: a sample-return mission from Mars. However, I think there are some much more scientifically interesting, technologically challenging, and engaging to the public mission proposals out there. This is one: a Titanian UAV!

The idea is to send an airborne vehicle to Saturn’s moon Titan which would fly around the moon, observing surface features from its high vantage point. A powered flyer, as opposed to a balloon, has the advantage of being able to travel to a specific location: such as the moon’s liquid lakes!

The proposal team uses some clever mission planning approaches to handle the limitations of the aircraft: for example, using glide phases to hoard power for downlink sessions. Their nominal mission duration is one year: a year of exploring another planet from the air, a year of images and science data depicting a world of lakes, rivers, ice, and rain. The full proposal is online here.

I find the idea exciting, and I hope that NASA’s governing councils soon prioritize exploration of those extraterrestrial locations most likely to harbor life – like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.

My Space Program

I’ve been very critical of NASA lately, and similar criticism to mine has been trickling out of the space blog community and into major news outlets. So, in all fairness, I would like to offer up some much more constructive thoughts.

If I suddenly became Dictator of NASA Authorization and Appropriation, this is what I would do: First, I would decouple the portions of the NASA budget that deal with science and with human spaceflight. Next, I would double (or triple!) both budgets. And then I would put the budget on a schedule in which it gets re-authorized every decade, rather than every year.

Finally, I would give NASA a mission for human spaceflight.

One finds many challenges in trying to come up with a solid mission for human space exploration. The mission must be simply stated, so that it is easily grasped by the community at large, has simple criteria for success, and gives scientists, engineers, and administrators maximum creative leeway. The mission must also have clear, tangible benefits to the public at large in order to maintain broad-based support. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the ideal mission for the program should be one that leads to a self-perpetuating endeavor of exploration. Those of us who see value in spaceflight want to go out and explore, and keep exploring, instead of reaching a goal and turning back, victory in hand.

In the political climate of the early 1960’s, reaching the Moon was the right mission. NASA was all about proving that our democratic society and civilian exploration program could beat the pants off our rivals’ soviet society and militarized rocket program. It was about spurring the development of high technology in this country. It was about national pride. It was about proving that we could do something awe-inspiring.

I think that we could use some of those initiatives again, but that our current society will not support a simple destination in space as a goal. I think that people today want to see immediate results from the exploration effort. They want to see a space program that pays for itself by giving them something to hold in their hand.

Paramount to the long-term success of this mission is its ability to survive success. In many ways, this is NASA’s problem. It went to the Moon, and the public began to question the need to go to the Moon any more. When the Apollo program ended, instead of a NASA that looked out to the next horizon, its reach diminished. Now NASA is in a position where its mission gets redefined too quickly for it to accomplish any goal. The space community squabbles over whether the exploration goal should be the Moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. But I think we need a fundamentally new kind of goal: Often, the idea of a mission for NASA gets confused with the idea of a specific destination or a specific spacecraft program, but a “mission” is broader than both.  The problem is that NASA needs a focused effort, and that effort has to be harnessed in such a way that achievement of its goals perpetuates the mission instead of becoming a bygone climax.

I think the mission should be pushing the human presence out into the Solar System. And so here is what I would suggest for NASA’s human exploration goal:

Build and launch a human-carrying space vehicle, using no materials from the Earth, within the next 15 years.

That’s it. No engineering decisions, no restrictions on technology; a broad statement of an extremely big idea, simply stated. Oh, we can haggle over the precise wording or the timeframe, but I think this is it: the space exploration goal that could revitalize the space program.

You see, the goal I am setting is for a capability. I want to see humans figure out how to exploit space in an efficient and effective manner, and to prove it, I want to see them build a spacecraft in space. I don’t care where this happens: a crater foundry on the Moon, a near-Earth asteroid shipyard in an elliptical orbit, scaffolds on Utopia Planitia on Mars. Nor do I care where this spacecraft goes when it is launched. What I care about is this: in the process of achieving the goal I have stated, the space program is going to have to create an industrial and technological base, in space, that we don’t have at present. New technologies and products are going to come out of the space program on a weekly basis. The space program will create a foundation that our wider society can move onto. In other words, I want to see the space program create new industries, and I want it to drag them along with it into space and establish them firmly there. Think of this idea like spurring on an East India Trading company for space. So, I want to target the science and engineering of in-situ resource utilization and develop it into a discipline that will let human beings truly develop space.

Merely arriving at an asteroid – or even arriving at Mars – could be accomplished using technologies we have at our disposal right now. There are engineering challenges, to be sure; but we could potentially knock many of them off by optimizing known solutions. We only need put forward the effort and resources. Building something from scratch in space, though, will require some substantial new developments! Materials science, field medicine, robotics, chemistry, computing, electrical power generation, thermal management – all would likely have to jump forward in leaps and bounds. Tangible benefits would come out of such a program in many other disciplines, as well. I want average people getting to see and use devices that spin out of the space program at a pace that matches their expectations of high-tech fields. I want these devices and technologies making obvious differences and improvements to life on Earth: increasing our efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, making power more cheaply and more cleanly available, getting medicine into remote areas, growing food in truly sustainable ways to better support our populations – all things that are major problems in the world today, and all things that would have to happen to support a space-based industry.

I feel that it is very important for the timeframe on this goal to be ambitious. The reason is that I want to see space exploration become a high-tech industry again. It used to be – in the 1960’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. However, the most successful space programs and vehicles since then tend to be extremely conservative. For example: it used to be the case that the space program invented computer technology specifically for its new vehicles; now, the computers on spacecraft typically lag behind the state of the art by a decade or more. This is fine for the private sector if we care only about the bottom line of a single satellite, but it’s not good for long-term performance and I think our national space program should be reaching beyond those concerns. I feel strongly that the risks of new space technologies are often overestimated; but on top of that, I think we should be willing to take more risks with our astronauts! We should be filling our NASA missions with “firsts,” because only by doing so can we lay the groundwork for following developments. With that in mind, I would set a goal that requires entirely new engineering strategies and impose a deadline that forces rapid maturation of technology.

As the space program cranks out “firsts” related to building this ship, I want to see NASA taking full advantage of mass media. I want a Twitter feed posting pictures of spaceships under construction. I want the news showing astronauts each week, at least, doing things that look new: prospecting and mining on asteroids or the Moon, assembling huge structures, showing off how they support life in deep space with few resources from Earth. We should see astronauts, mission controllers, and engineers as heroes – as the people helping usher in new discoveries.

If the space program were to adopt my suggested goal, I can only speculate a little on how it would play out. I think asteroids would likely be the most obvious source for raw materials for the spacecraft – or might even be made into the spacecraft itself, if hollowed out in the classic sci-fi paradigm. I think that whatever asteroid or asteroids we choose to target would need vast solar power collectors to establish infrastructure. Closed-loop life support systems would likely be a key component of the set-up. And the space program would need a way to taxi astronauts up to space and back, as well as out to the asteroids and back. To do that, NASA would need to take advantage of affordable launch services from private companies and also develop or sponsor a fleet of interplanetary shuttlecraft. In all, I see the possibility for a lot of dramatic achievements – ending with a stirring first launch of the new spacegoing vessel from its drydock, of course!

That is what I want from my space program.

Getting Over the Space Shuttle Legacy

Representing the entire Orbiter fleet, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is above the Earth for the last time. She comes home on 21 July.

Atlantis floating over the Bahamas

The Space Shuttle is a tremendous vehicle, a real achievement of engineering. It has given us the Hubble Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory; it’s brought astronauts and nations together in a place where they can see the Earth for what it truly is; it has demonstrated and developed our capability for assembling structures and conducting experiments in space. I think the greatest achievement of the Space Shuttle Program has been the construction of the International Space Station, a huge structure where seven or so (sometimes as many as 13) astronauts can stay for half a year or more – a marvel of engineering if there ever was one. The population of the Station compares with some pioneer towns in American history.

This summer, the Shuttle Program ends. Every news outlet, blogger, commentator, and space enthusiast out there seems to agree that the word to describe the STS-135 mission is “bittersweet.” I agree that the Shuttle program has been pretty sweet…but I’m not bitter that it’s coming to an end.

In fact, I think it’s a very good thing.

The Space Shuttle Program has been active for 30 years now – and I find that simple fact quite unsettling. To put that timeframe in perspective: I grew up steeping myself in space, got a college degree in a hard science, completed a Ph.D. in spacecraft technology research, and began a career in the spacecraft industry, and I just turned 27. As long as I have been alive, there has been a Space Shuttle and a Space Shuttle Program. Or, for another view, NASA has conducted six manned space programs: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station. Not only is the Space Shuttle Program the longest-running of them all, but it ran as long as all the other programs put together. Our nation got to the Moon from zero space-age industrial base and with a supply of engineers who had no idea how rockets worked in just over ten years. My point is this: The Shuttle Program started in the Eighties, and our nation should have been ready for the next space program in the Nineties.

How did NASA get to this point? The simple answer is that NASA was created as a weapon we could use to fight the Cold War. It was a two-pronged weapon: First, its purpose was to respond to the apparent Soviet dominance in rocket and spacecraft technology, and show that America could develop that knowledge, too. Second, it was a careful political weapon – “Look, your space program is entirely militarized. Ours is entirely civilian and peaceful, and based on capitalist contracts, and those purposes are actually superior!” Now, after it became clear that America won any Space Race that existed, NASA is a weapon without a war. It simply cannot command 4.4% of the federal budget like it did in the heyday of Apollo (it’s stuck with a measly 0.5-0.7%.). And NASA does not command the affection of the American people as well as it did in the mid-20th Century. Without those sources of support, it cannot achieve lofty goals.

I think that the Space Shuttle is, in fact, a good symbol for everything that is wrong with the American space program. In a word: Complacency. We’re too used to having a Space Shuttle – so much so, in fact, that the media continues to equate the Space Shuttle Program and the manned space program. Congress, in particular, is way too used to the Space Shuttle Program, and I think members of Congress view NASA more as a source for government sinecure jobs than for bold exploratory endeavors. The American public has become complacent about the Space Shuttle to the extent that one lasting legacy of the Shuttle Program is that the public thinks space travel is boring – NASA public affairs officers have not been able to deal with a generation that thinks iPhone apps are more exciting than human beings blasting off into orbit. And NASA itself has become complacent about the Shuttle, in many ways. NASA contractors lament the tragedy of this program ending after giving them a single, steady job for 30 years. NASA employees wonder what they will do after spending so long on this one program. And fourteen astronauts lost their lives to complacency within the Space Shuttle Program.

So, yes, the Space Shuttle is a sweet piece of hardware, and it has given us many achievements and advances. And I feel the bittersweet mood surrounding the STS-135 mission, the bittersweet mood that has been building for the last few years. But, for me, the “bitter” part doesn’t come from the end of the Space Shuttle Program.

I’m bitter because the plan America has to follow the Shuttle Program sucks.

Congress has decreed that the post-Shuttle American space program will be this: NASA shall build a really big rocket, and it shall stick the Orion capsule on top of this rocket. I am unimpressed: NASA has already figured out the really big rocket, and that capability has been in private hands for decades. Building a bigger rocket is just a question of scaling up the engineering of contemporary technology, it’s not a fundamentally new enterprise. And the Orion capsule is an Apollo-style vehicle with 125% of the personnel capacity of the 40-year-old Apollo. And Congress, while extremely interested in specifying how much stuff NASA should build and in which states NASA should build it, it has no interest whatsoever in giving the space program an objective to use that stuff for. President Obama, at least, has been willing to sketch out an objective, but NASA is going to be struggling to apply these Congressionally enumerated devices to meet exploration goals. There is a fundamental mismatch between the technologies NASA is supposed to develop and the goals it is supposed to achieve, and so our nation will end up with a Senate Space Launch System Program that exactly mirrors the over-budget, behind-schedule, and finally cancelled Ares program. So, I am bitter about the end of the Shuttle Program because it has clearly illuminated to what extent Congress views NASA as a source of pork spending, an agency to provide sinecure jobs in their districts, and not as a vehicle for our nation’s and our world’s loftiest aspirations.

I grew up with the legacy of the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are heroes to me, but I am also acutely aware that they are now over eighty years old. And only ten other people walked the Moon since they have. I want to see NASA doing big things again, and I don’t think Congress has it on that path.

What do I think NASA should be doing? Simple. I think NASA should be going where no one has gone before.

Where no one has gone before. Not private companies, not other nations’ space programs, and not NASA itself.

Thus: I don’t think NASA should be in the business of building rockets. NASA paved the way in this country, but since the mid-20th Century, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, and other companies have successfully privatized and industrialized the process of getting things into space – and that’s just in America. This process has even made its way into the small business market: SpaceX (which started small, but is rapidly growing) promises cost-cutting launches, has successfully sold its services to acquire the largest commercial launch contract ever, and it is planning to launch a heavy-lift rocket by the end of 2012. Just by the dates, before the program even starts, Congress’ SLS is in losing position and is slated for an inadequate finish – and that’s if it can keep to its intended schedule, which I don’t think likely after the Ares program. So I wonder why NASA should be doing so much as looking into the feasibility of such a vehicle. Just buy the ones that exist! The agency even has several options to pick from!

I also don’t think NASA should be in the business of building space capsules! Again, NASA paved the way – but now, Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada are all developing their own passenger-carrying capsules, and again, that’s just in America. These vehicles come under the aegis of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which seeks companies that can sell taxi service up to the Space Station and back at competitive prices, with NASA oversight for astronaut safety. So I wonder why NASA has to invest in building yet another such vehicle. Just buy the ones that are further along in development! The agency will even have several options to pick from – and SpaceX’s Dragon is practically ready!

I think NASA should skip all these solved problems and get back involved in true exploration. That is not a goal that a space capsule is appropriate for: what is the most massive component of the vehicle? The heat shield. And on the way to an asteroid or moon or planet and back, what is that heat shield doing? Taking up precious mass capacity. Reducing the spacecraft delta-v. Shrinking our horizon. I look at the Apollo program, and I think the star of the show was really the Lunar Module – that spidery thing that looked silly on the ground, but was totally at home in the environment it was built for: airless moons. That is the kind of thing NASA should be building: interplanetary spacecraft for going into deep space. These should be launched on commercial rockets and assembled modularly in space – using techniques NASA has perfected during the Space Shuttle program as it built the Space Station. They could even be constructed while docked to ISS. Then, the astronauts would taxi up in Dragons or Dream Chasers, hop into the interplanetary vehicle, and go to other worlds!

Which other worlds is an important question, and I think it has to be driven by material benefits – not just science and exploration goals, much as I love them. Because, you see, I want a sustainable human space program, not a flags-and-footprints-and-then-Congress-and-the-public-forgets-it program. I think we have to look to destinations where we can use available resources to refuel and build new space vehicles. For that reason, and the fact that an astronaut can throw things at their escape velocities, I want to see these interplanetary ships going to asteroids.

We can practice harvesting space resources and building space vehicles on the surface of the Moon, before we go further afield to deep-space asteroids. We could go to the near-Earth objects or the Asteroid Belt. We can get to Phobos and Deimos, in Mars orbit, and build shuttles to go down to another planet’s surface. We can even learn enough to mount expeditions to Jovian moons. And as we send scientists and engineers to all these places, they will need a support network – and so NASA can contract with private companies to follow them. Y’know: Starbucks on Mars.

See, I want to take everything we learned from Apollo and the Space Shuttle and build a space infrastructure. NASA-built launch vehicles and capsules are not going to help with that.

It may seem silly to be making this argument at this time – while our political landscape is defined by budget and growth concerns – but I think NASA couldn’t be more relevant. First, it’s one of the most successful government programs in terms of its accomplishments, in terms of the technological benefits, in terms of the scientific returns, and in terms of the increased economic growth in response to each federal dollar spent. Second, we as a nation are faced with a growing number of long-term problems: how to provide cost-effective medical care, how to give our populace better nutrition to combat obesity at attractive prices, how to supply our power grid with enough energy for all its customers in a responsible, sustainable way…all of these things are problems that NASA would have to solve in order to keep people living in space indefinitely. We could solve our problems on Earth in the crucible of space. If we want to really push the economy, accelerate the pace of growth and innovation, and pull off a “Manhattan Project” to deal with climate change, I think a self-sustaining human colony in deep space is the way to go.

The whole situation that NASA is in just kills me. On the one hand, without the Space Shuttle Program, it has a tremendous opportunity to re-invent itself as the kind of program that conjures up images of men and women with the Right Stuff, consistently churning out dramatic stories of inspiring successes and garnering public support. But on the other hand, Congress has set NASA against that path by giving it directives that are almost certain to fall short of their objectives, wasting time and money. NASA was once a great agency, and it could be so again…but we in the space community will have to convince a lot of Congresspeople to look outside of their Shuttle-era complacency and into the future if we want to see a space program worthy of a great nation.

President Obama spells out his NASA vision

While I would love for President Obama to give Twitter the blind eye I think it deserves, today he used the blip medium to take (moderated) questions from the public. One of those questions was about the future of the space program and NASA. Here is the President’s response (courtesy of

I am so happy to hear Mr. Obama say this! I am totally on board with the idea that NASA should be sticking its neck out doing unproven things and pushing the frontier outwards.

The most unfortunate thing for NASA’s budget and NASA’s role over the past year or two has been how poorly the Administration articulated this vision. They let the media run with headlines about how “Obama killed the manned space program,” instead of making the story one about smart investments in proven methods and accelerated research into new technologies to get our astronauts to really exciting destinations that the Apollo veterans could only imagine. You know…buy Falcons  to get to LEO while NASA figures out how to get to Mars.

The President could make an even stronger case – I think that if he wants to advocate a “Manhattan Project” to fight climate change, push the capabilities and cost-effectiveness of medicine, engineering, and agriculture, and provide lots of jobs, industry opportunities, and infrastructure investments, he ought to announce a program to establish a self-sustaining human colony off the Earth. But I think he hit some major points for a sustainable space policy in his answer above. He also made the strongest, most unambiguous statements I’ve seen yet about the purpose of NASA and the destinations the agency should target.

Sadly, Congress is now subjecting NASA to both the Death of a Thousand Little Cuts and the Death of Stupid Over-Specified Directives. If the American manned space program ends, it will be because Senators like Orrin Hatch and Bill Nelson look at NASA more as a jobs program for their districts than as a vehicle for realizing our nation’s highest ambitions. Hatch in particular – the Ares program should have been cancelled and the heavy-lift vehicle mandated by Congress is a bad investment that will take NASA nowhere.

Maybe, just maybe, the Obama Administration is going to do a better job of putting their space policy message out in the coming budget fights. And then maybe, just maybe, we will end up with what the Augustine Commission called “a space program worthy of a great nation.”

This is really amazing and if you haven’t seen it already you need to

Space Shuttle Enterprise on the launchpad

Click the image above to go to a Space Shuttle program retrospective photo gallery put together by the photographer formerly behind the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog. It’s amazing. (I never knew that Enterprise made it to the launch pad! And in Vandenberg!)

Some of the pictures give a wonderful glimpse into the history of this storied program. And some of them are actually heartrending to someone like me. Especially when I got up to the picture of Christa McAuliffe – because I think I have actually sat in that chair. I remember thinking about how I was sitting in a seat that many astronauts had spent time in, and how prominently displayed in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility’s huge open space are giant versions of the Apollo 1, STS-51-L, and STS-107 mission patches.

I particularly like the shot from Vandenberg, above, the snap of Sally Ride, and the image of the cosmonaut peeking out from Mir – among all the classics like Bruce McCandliss floating in space and the wonderful new shot of the Shuttle docked to ISS.

Count on me to write something else for the end of the Shuttle program soon…

The Drive

Imagine, if you will, that a US government agency invented the automobile.

And for forty-five years, nobody else but the National Automobile Sales Agency produces any cars in this country. Not because of any particular regulation, you see – but because cars are complex machines that require precision workings and careful construction. They are expensive and require a significant investment in infrastructure. So, not everybody has a car, though plenty of people out there want one. And those people have to buy the cars developed by the US Car Program. Imagine. If you will.

Now suppose that the first batch of cars that the National Automobile Sales Agency were some real hot rods. They could tear all over the place, they looked downright sexy, and they inspired envy in all but the most curmudgeonly of observers. These cars were a source of national pride. People would travel from far and wide just to get a look at a Car Program showroom – or even just to meet those test drivers who shook down the cars on the federal test tracks.

But then, about thirty years ago (15-odd years after the car’s introduction to American drivers), the government decided that just blasting all over the roads wasn’t a great use of this invention. So the National Automobile Sales Agency set out to design a car that could be a workhorse for people. Suppose they rolled out something like those late-’80s-and-early-’90s Ford Taurus wagons that used to be all over the place. Functional, not that stylish. They can do a lot of things that you need. However, for the sake of this argument, let’s suppose that these wagons weren’t all that reliable. Or, at least, they worked long enough for all your errands and trips – but after each trip, you had to take it to the shop to get it looked at. This became so commonplace that everyone with one of these wagons just built a trip to their favorite Car Program mechanic into their travel itineraries, and the mechanics all did the same overhaul on every wagon that rolled into their shops. All this got built into the expense of owning an automobile, which climbed far above the initial sticker prices.

For some people, business was great.

And this went on for thirty years.

Then, forty-five years after the first National Automobile Sales Agency hot rods burned up their desert test tracks, an American start-up company unveils…oh, let’s say the Tesla Roadster. They plan to start marketing them as soon as they can, and they get initial support from the Car Agency, but they’re mostly on their own so it’s tough to get going.

But they do. After a couple test drives, they even win a highly publicized performance award. And then they start taking pre-orders.

Meanwhile, another American start-up company is working on prototypes. Their progress is less meteoric than Tesla’s, and they suffer some initial setbacks that make them something of a temporary laughingstock in the automotive enthusiast community. But then they roll out a model that has a couple reeeeeal good test drives. It’s something small, kinda sporty, useful, and most importantly, it comes at a fraction of the price that the Car Agency’s wagons have gotten to. Let’s say it’s a Honda Civic. But this company isn’t done shaking up the automotive community! Immediately after sales start on the Civic, this company announces that it plans to develop…hmmm…I know, the Subaru Outback! It’s comparable in functionality to the National Automobile Sales Agency wagon, but promises higher reliability and low, low prices. What’s more, this company has some additional plans – for a massive thing they call the “pickup truck.”

Now, the National Automobile Sales Agency is at a crossroads. It has big plans and big ideas. It hasn’t spent those thirty years with the wagon idling…but there are issues of cost, and infrastructure. If it had a much more economical way to get access to cars, it could get some sweet road trips going. So it starts thinking about ending production of the venerable, respectable old wagons. Instead, it would just buy some Civics and Outbacks and…”trucks” (when they come along) from this company. With all the extra cash it saved from buying those cars instead of building its own wagons (which, really, are far too expensive to keep on the road at this point and are old enough for antique plates in some states), the Car Program will purchase the infrastructure it needs to set up things like highways and bridges and interstates – things that will really enable Car Program drivers to go far, and go see the sights, and visit just about anywhere in the country. You know – the things that all Americans imagined the Car Program would be doing, before those wagons became so darned expensive and the ordinary citizens stopped paying attention to them.

Because, you see, the National Automobile Sales Agency gets its mandate and direction from Congress. Some Congressmen and -women come from districts that have profited extensively from the Car Program. Members of their districts are the mechanics who service all those wagons, keeping them on the road. Members of their districts are the gas station attendants fueling up those wagons. And members of their districts are the National Automobile Sales Agency employees building and selling those wagons.

(Well, actually, that’s not quite correct. I should have said, “and members of their districts are employees of large automotive corporations that have been subcontracted by the National Automotive Sales Agency to build and sell those wagons under the Agency banner,” but that sounds less appealing and doesn’t work as well for these Congressmen and -women when they are going for political soundbites.)

So, to Congress, the Car Program represents jobs. And, unlike many programs designed to stimulate the economy and create work for citizens, the Car Program is popular. People remember what those hot rods could do, and the mystique of those first test drivers still lingers throughout the country. Despite the promise that exists if the Car Program stops making its own wagons and contracts out for newer cars, Congress punts and punts, trying to keep the wagons on the road.

(Again, that sentence is not quite right. It’s not so much that the Car Program would “stop making its own wagons” and instead buy them from someone else. It’s more like the program would switch subcontractors – to one which offers a more competitive product.)

Eventually, they grudgingly decide that the Car Program does need something new, but instead of telling the Program to do the procurement and design work on their own, they direct the Agency to develop a hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed. (That’s what kind of car design I imagine would come out of a Congressional subcommittee.) And they make sure to apportion parts of this work out to as many states as they can.

But still, some politicians decry this move. They are afraid of all the Taurus wagon jobs that will be lost if the Agency moves to something new. So, despite the facts that the wagons are thirty years old, they are unsustainably expensive to operate, they aren’t taking the Car Program to all the places it could (or should want to) go, and that the Outbacks made by the start-up company have pretty much already obsoleted the hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed (not to mention the older Taurus wagons), these politicians argue that the wagons should be kept on the road artificially. Just to keep the wagon-related jobs going. (For a truly ironic twist, a lot of these politicians are Republican.)

And I sit here and think, “But I want to drive on the highway. I don’t want to pay very much, but I still want to see the Grand Canyon. I want other people to do the same. And I think the Car Program could get back to its roots, and really push the boundaries of what we can do with cars – if it isn’t saddled with the burden of having to re-think all the same problems of wheels and engines. If it just buys perfectly good (and inexpensive!) cars from this start-up company, it will free up resources to develop all those bridges and ferries and tunnels that can take cars places that they’ve never been able to go before. Because the strong suit of the National Automobile Sales Agency isn’t that of being an entrenched bureaucracy full of sinecure positions – it’s of taking the big risks that the private companies never will and thus giving our entire society the big benefits of those long shots.”

In case you haven’t guessed it, I didn’t give the Car Agency the acronym “N. A. S. A.” for nothing.

You see, it’s the day that the Space Shuttle Endeavour – my favorite space shuttle, the only one I got to see launch in person – took flight for the last time. And the headlining articles about the launch were things like this: “Workers Left Rattled By Final Shuttle Launches.” The biggest concerns: Where will all the Shuttle Program jobs go when the Shuttle stops flying?

In that article, one Space Coast resident is actually quoted as calling the retirement of the 30-year-old Shuttle program “insane.”

I sympathize with the human aspect of the story, but at the same time…”insane?” I think not. To me, the most important thing about the space program is the space travel. I think it would be insane to keep the Shuttles flying for much longer. I wasn’t stretching the truth much in my little scenario – in some states, the Space Shuttles could have antique license plates. If they were cars. The Space Shuttle Program is older than I am. Okay, Congress, I grew up steeped in space enthusiasm, got a physics degree, got a Ph.D. in spacecraft engineering, and now I’m ready to push the boundaries of space exploration all the way to – oh, what? You want NASA to keep doing the same thing it was doing before I was born, just to keep certain specific jobs safe? No, thanks. Suddenly the “Space Age” really does look forty years old to me.

What strikes me as really insane is the Congressional shortsightedness that has kept NASA from following through on a coherent vision to replace the Space Shuttles. I had no problem with President Obama’s plans – look at the numbers: SpaceX developed a rocket just as capable as Ares I, but SpaceX managed to leapfrog the Constellation schedule and blow the Constellation program budget out of the water. I can totally understand pointing at the Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon capsule and telling NASA, “Hey, um, how about you just buy some of those?” It just makes good business sense. And it would let NASA spend its valuable time and resources on doing the things that I really would like to see the agency do. The things I know it could be capable of, because it once was. Like go to Mars, or put an way station in deep space, or send robots to sail the seas of Titan, or build self-sustaining habitats so that people can really live and work in space. As if directing NASA to do those things won’t create tons of high-paying jobs to replace or exceed the losses!

But instead, Congress fought tooth and nail for an extra Shuttle launch and ordered up the hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed. And they have no idea where that clunker-to-be is supposed to be going. It’s pretty much set up to fail, and I am completely convinced that the Virgin Galactics, SpaceXs, and other new-space companies of the country (and the world) are going to be light-years ahead NASA in the coming decades unless Congress gets some long-term thinking going in its science and space committees.

These last Space Shuttle launches are bittersweet events – as is the end of any program marked by eye-opening achievements. The last launches were always going to be bittersweet – especially for idealists like me.

But there is a right way to do this. As I said, if there’s some long-term thinking in Congress again – giving NASA lofty missions and appropriate resources, without designing its hardware by committee – we could do this the correct way. The way we used to do it.

You see, Gemini XII was the final flight of the Gemini program. No more Gemini were launched after that. The spacecraft were grounded, retired, and mothballed to museums. But that final flight wasn’t so bittersweet.

Because less than a year after Gemini XII, the first Saturn V rumbled skyward, and less than a year after that, astronauts on board Apollo 7 gazed down at the Earth.

To the Moon, Again?

During a quick lunch break today, I read about H.R. 1641 on Bad Astronomy:

To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.

(Hilariously, this bill is titled the “REAL Space Act.”)

Like Phil, I think it’s interesting that this act puts a focus on national security issues. I think that’s a stretch – nobody today feels that China getting to the Moon would be as much of a threat as the Soviets getting there in the ’60s. Still, the military and security rationale for having a sustained presence in space is a powerful one. After all, while Armstrong’s first and Cernan’s last words on the Moon put peaceful exploration front and center, Kennedy’s original speech proposing the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” contained, just a couple paragraphs previously, this:

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. … But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

Got that? Free men must share! The Soviets will exploit space! As Neil deGrasse Tyson paraphrased in a speech, we chose to go to the Moon…in order to kill Commies. Beating the drums makes for a powerful emotional argument, and it’s how our government decides to do a lot of things, from Moon landings to interstate highways.

Personally speaking, I have mixed feelings about this “REAL Space Act.” On the positive side, I think bill represents the way Congress should be treating the space program: giving it lofty goals, and assuring it of funding to support those goals. Oh, what a lovely world that would be!

Still, I’m becoming more and more cynical about Congress and NASA. Congressmembers have fallen into the habit of treating NASA like a big, fat, popular-and-thus-untouchable pork barrel. For instance, in the most recent NASA authorization bill, Congress did not specify where NASA was to go…but they specified exactly what NASA was going to build to go there (a heavy-lift rocket), what technologies NASA was to use on it (solid rocket boosters), and which manufacturer was to supply them (ATK). Oh, that must have been a wonderful bill for ATK, but I have severe doubts as to how much good that approach does for the space program. Instead, I like the approach of giving the space program broad objectives and letting NASA’s engineers make engineering decisions, and this bill seems more amenable to that approach.

However, I’m not sure that going to the Moon in 10 years is a good enough objective. It took us about eight years to go from 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience to landing on the Moon…in the Sixties. With, you know, vacuum tubes and slide rules. My point is: if we really wanted to, I mean really wanted to, we could dust off old blueprints, pull out a big pile of money, and be on the Moon again two or three years from today. What this new bill lacks is something that makes it sound more like we’re going to be doing something that will qualify as a great achievement for the 21st century.

The key might be that “sustained presence.” If the goal is not just to put people on the Moon in 2022, but to have people there and keep going

That needs to be spelled out. Congress might think it too science-fictiony, but I think words like “asteroid” or “Mars” or “colony” need to get top billing here.