Thursday, August 26, 2010

Apologies, and Goodbye Shuttle...

Well, it seems the US space program isn't the only entity experiencing a hiatus. My apologies to followers of this blog, as I was forced to take an extended leave to deal with some family medical issues- specifically aging parents. One left us, the other is in assisted care. Those of you who have experienced this seemingly inevitable outgrowth of being a Baby-Boomer will understand. As for the rest, please merely accept my apology.

And now onto the shuttle. I have been honored with an unusually high number of radio interviews of late, and a recurring subject of intense interest (other than the "Is Mars really going to be as big as the full moon in August?" question) is the looming end of the shuttle program. While opinions vary, the average caller seems to be confused and appalled by this. Of course, there is the (by some) perceived indignity of US astronauts hitching rides with our old space race adversaries, the Russians, to the space station. In reality our enemies at that time were the leaders of the Soviet Union, not Russians, so it's really a moot point. But the national mood does not seem positive in this regard.

But let's examine the current state of affairs: when Obama's NASA makeover list came out a few months back, it left the shuttle to discontinue operations this year (now extended, by mission slippage, into 2011). Two flights remain as of today. A few billions were aimed toward private industry (read Space X) for orbital vehicles and boosters. NASA's Constellation program (the replacement for the shuttle, looking much like a return to Apollo) was nixed, but the capsule itself was retained as an orbital lifeboat for the space station.

Now this bill is being kicked between the other political organs of the legislative branch, and what is emerging is somewhat amended. The funding for the private sector will likely be slashed by over half, the remnants of Constellation will include a heavy lift booster (also a part of the Obama proposal but more clearly defined), and there will probably be funding for one more shuttle flight in summer. In the near future we will know the immediate fate of the US manned space program.

And what of the space station? At one point, it was to be de-orbited in 2015-2016. Now it has been extended to 2020 (at least under this administration). Time will tell if the nation's appetite for space exploration will support 5-10 years of shuttling to the station in the Russian Soyuz capsule (and paying handsomely for the privilege), and later private US spacecraft.

The shuttles themselves have been allocated (sold, actually) to various US space museums and facilities. They will be huge, beautiful (to this beholder) relics of better times.

And what of the US space program overall? The general direction seems to be towards continued low earth orbit operations, a possible (but still ill-defined) trip to an asteroid sometime around 2020, and a gauzy idea about a manned Mars mission in the 2030 timeframe. By then the Chinese will likely have a base up and running on the moon, and we will be watching at least one, possibly two or three, other parties take up some kind of residence on that real estate, so briefly conquered by us 40 years ago. Unmanned space exploration will continue on the short fiscal leash that JPL has operated on so brilliantly for decades, and the usual smattering of aeronautical and climate research will continue.

It is a singularly unfulfilling mandate, short of bravado, daring and exploratory goals. And it is possibly a natural outgrowth of the seemingly rudderless wind-down of the shuttle years, in which the space station seemed to be the only major goal left for shuttle flights.

Of course, there are contrary voices. Luminaries such as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan (Apollo 11 and 17 respectively) have come out in loud opposition to the Obama plan, Buzz Aldrin has his own views, and John Glenn, as well as other former and current politicos, have broad and aggressive ideas. These voices have gone largely unheeded up to now; it's a subject still in play. But is seems clear that a real space program, one of daring and robustly articulated goals, is not to be. Until a large reserve of cash, or a reasonable substitute (the lost Beatles recordings?) are discovered on the moon or Mars, it appears that we will continue to thrash around. Members of congress will, of course, lobby for the space-oriented operations within their constituencies, but that is likely to avail little in this time of global financial drought.

For now, we are a nation without a direction in space. And I would like to join the voices who rise in apology to the men and women of the Apollo years, who labored so selflessly and intensely to get us where we were- and still should be- so long ago.

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Welcome to the Missions to the Moon book blog. This is a place to re-live the heady days of the Apollo and Soyuz lunar programs- perhaps the crowning achievements of the 20th Century. Many blog entries will include a new downloadable image or artifact from the space age- items rarely seen and not available in print. It's all in the spirit of my newest book, Missions to the Moon- to remember the great adventure of the Golden Age of space exploration, and ponder what wonders await us in space.

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