I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: http://bit.ly/83xWlJ [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.
To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.
There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.
Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?
The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.
And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.
Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)
I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”
To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.
Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?
Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.
Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.
The Augustine Commission has done something to identify the options, but the final decision comes down to what Obama and the new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden can hash out.
Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.
So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.
But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.