40 years later, failure is still not an option

By Phil Plait | April 12, 2010 3:03 pm

This week marks three related anniversaries.

April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. That was 49 years ago today.

April 14, 1970: An oxygen tank disrupts on Apollo 13, causing a series of catastrophic malfunctions that nearly leads to the deaths of the three astronauts. That was 40 years ago this week.

April 12, 1981: The first Space Shuttle, Columbia, launches into space. That was 29 years ago today.

I wasn’t yet born when Gagarin flew, and I was still too young to appreciate what was happening on board Apollo as it flew helplessly around the Moon instead of landing on it. But I do remember breathlessly awaiting the Shuttle launch, and I remember thinking it would be the next phase in our exploration of space. I was still pretty young, and hadn’t thought it through, but I’m sure had you asked me I’d have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we’d have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.

Yeah, I hadn’t thought it through. Of all these anniversaries, that one is the least of the three we should celebrate.

Don’t get me wrong; the Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it’s also a symbol of a political disaster for NASA. It was claimed that it would be cheap way to get payloads to space, and could launch every couple of weeks. Instead, it became frightfully expensive and couldn’t launch more than a few times a year.

This was a political problem. Once it became clear that NASA was building the Shuttle Transport System, it became a feeding trough. It never had a chance to be the lean space machine it should’ve been, and instead became bloated, weighted down with administrative bureaucracy and red tape.

More than that, though, to me it symbolizes a radical shift in the vision of NASA. We had gone to the Moon six times — seven, if you include Apollo 13 — and even before the launch of Apollo 17 that grand adventure had been canceled by Congress, with NASA being forced to look to the Shuttle. Ever since then, since December 1972, we’ve gone around in circles.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for low Earth orbit. It is a fantastic resource for science, and I strongly think we should be exploiting it even more. But it’s not the goal. It’s like walking halfway up a staircase, standing on your tiptoes, and admiring the view of the top landing.

We need to keep walking up those stairs. In 1961, the effects of space travel were largely unknown, but Yuri Gagarin took that chance. He was followed by many others in rapid succession. Extrapolating from his travels, by now there should be a business making money selling tours of the mountain chains around Oceanus Procellarum by now. Of the three anniversaries, looking at it now, Gagarin’s is bittersweet.

In 1970 Apollo 13 became our nation’s "successful failure". A simple error had led to a near tragedy, saved only by the experience, training, guts, and clever thinking on their feet of a few dozen engineers. They turned catastrophe into triumph, and now, four decades later, we can’t repeat what they did. Think on this: when the disaster struck their ship, the crew of Apollo 13 were over 300,000 kilometers from Earth. Apollo 13 may have been a successful failure, but it’s a failure we can’t even repeat today if we tried.

I’ve written quite a bit about NASA’s future, including my support of Obama’s decision to cancel Constellation, the program that includes the next series of big rockets to take people into space. That may seem contradictory on its surface, but I support the decision because, in my opinion, Constellation was over budget, behind schedule, and had no clear purpose. The idea of going back to the Moon is one I very much strongly support, but I get the impression that the plan itself is not well-thought out by NASA. The engineering, sure, but not the political side of it. And it’s the politics that will always and forever be NASA’s burden.

It was a political decision to cancel Apollo. It was a political decision to turn the Shuttle from a space plane to the top-heavy system it is. It was a political decision to cancel the Shuttle with no replacement planned at all (that was done before Obama took office, I’ll note). It was a political decision that turned the space station from a scientific lab capable of teaching us how to live and explore space into the hugely expensive and bloated construction it is now.

NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds. I’m hoping that Obama’s plan will streamline NASA, giving away the expensive and "routine" duties it needs not do so that private industry can pick them up. The added money to go to science, again in my hopes, will spur more innovation in engineering.

And NASA needs a goal. It needs to put its foot down and say "This is our next giant step." And this has to be done hand in hand with the politics. I understand that is almost impossible given today’s political climate, where statesmanship and compromise has turned into small-minded meanness and childish name-calling on the Congress floor.

But I’m old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible.

Of the three anniversaries, Apollo 13 is the one we should be celebrating. I’ll gently correct what Gene Kranz said that day: failure really was an option, but not an acceptable one.

Right now, at this very moment, those feats are all impossible once again. But for a time, they were not only possible, we made them happen.

It’s time to do the impossible once again.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Comments (74)

  1. Lukester

    I want Obama to fund NASA better, and I disagree that his policies are going to “streamline” anything. All we’re going to get is more climate change research. I know this is important, but it seems to me, Mr. Plait, that you’re allowing your own political bias to cloud your judgment. Cutting funding for NASA doesn’t “streamline” anything, it just let’s is die a quicker death.

    Yes LEO is important, and NASA needs a clear vision. However, this administration is cutting funding, so even if a vision were in place, this would just hamper it. Mandates mean nothing if they’re not funded, and Obama can have the grandest vision of the universe for NASA, but he’s not funding it, so who cares?

  2. I think the way in which NASA supports private spaceflight will be one of the critical factors for the agency’s future. NASA needs to be pushing the scientific envelope, advancing human endeavor in space. Private enterprise can do resupply missions and perhaps even human spaceflight in the near future, but only if more partnerships are created. I think we’re on the right track, but as you say, some clear, definite goals need to be drawn up.

    I’ve seen a few articles lamenting that NASA’s “Glory Days” are over. In some ways, I hope this is true. As the Apollo landings proved, “glory” is short-lived and unsustainable (although there are rapid technological advancements and political point scoring, but it’s not sustainable as the Shuttle Program has shown). I want to see a new, invigorated NASA, forging strong ties with private firms, inspiring the nation, but not wasting energy and money on sporadic flag planting. But having said that, it’s hard to know how NASA will find this balance.

    EDIT: @Lukester: Don’t confuse the cancellation of Constellation with budget cuts. Obama didn’t actually cut NASA’s budget, but he did cancel a rocket system that was bloated and delayed. Unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision” was unsustainable in the time frame NASA was allocated to return to the Moon.

  3. Excellent article. NASA is not just an American treasure, it’s a gift to the world. Here’s hoping a vision can be found.

  4. Gary Ansorge

    I prefer the old saying “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little while longer.”

    I think NASA should be developing radical launch systems, like Leik Myrabos lightcraft(Ok. The US Airforce is involved with that in Brazil), mag lev launchers, space tethers, nuclear rockets, etc. Then their announced goal should be a permanent presence at one or both lunar poles with an eye toward landing on comets, asteroids and the moons of Mars. Developing magnetic/electrostatic shielding for space craft, devising drugs to retard bone/muscle degeneration in free fall and drugs to inhibit radiation damage(and stimulating DNA repair). Cost studies of different approaches to space habs(way back when the ISS was being considered,there was one proposal to build the dang thing out of the shuttle main fuel tanks. THAT would have likely been a whole lot cheaper than the ISS).

    Their ultimate goal should be providing the basic tech we’ll need to STAY in space on a cost effective basis.

    Gary 7
    PS’ There are only three things we need in order to create wealth; Knowledge, energy and raw materials. NASA can provide the former. Space can provide the remainder.

  5. Well said. I suppose if the politicians cancel the goal then they eliminate the possibility of failure. But it doesn’t help the perception of lost opportunities and wasted resources, does it? Money for science and innovation in engineering would be great. I’m glad you’re still hopeful because I’m jaded and bitter about it at this point.

  6. llewelly

    The space shuttle is one of the 20th century’s more remarkable propaganda achievements. It made space travel boring, without making it either affordable or routine.

  7. Paul M

    Pros or cons of the shuttle, politics and all that — it does offer inspiration. Anything that provides some advertising for “Science!” and can inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists has value.

    Just look at the smile on the face of that guy in front of the launch pad over there in the sidebar.

  8. Sarah

    I don’t often comment here and it’s not really related directly to the (excellent as usual!) post, but I was just wondering if there was some reason why all these events are in April? Is it a particularly good time of year for launches or is it just a random clustering?

  9. Randy Griffin

    “We had gone to the Moon six times — seven, if you include Apollo 13” – nine, if you include Apollo 8 and Apollo 10. Sorry to nitpick, but we often forget the importance of those missions to the program.

  10. Gary Ansorge

    8. Sarah

    Don’t know for certain but hurricane season starts in June and there’s quite a bit of wind and rain before the spring, so maybe that’s why.

    Gary 7

  11. OtherRob

    Wow. I haven’t thought of it in a while, but 29 years ago today I was at Cape Canaveral for the launch of the first shuttle. We were as close as regular ol’ folk could get. (I don’t think people can get as close any more.) It was amazing.

  12. VA Classical Liberal

    When Phil says “NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds.” he misses a critical point.

    Like it or not, NASA is a politically driven organization. Since politics set the vision, there can be no vision “sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds.”

    You simply can’t have that within a political organization. It’s not possible.

  13. I remember when the Shuttle was big news, and my first question was, “When will it land on the Moon?” I was bitterly disappointed to learn that that was not even an option. And llewelly’s remark (“It made space travel boring, without making it either affordable or routine.”) is dead-on. Now that I am no longer a wide-eyed kid dreaming of a Moon flight in his lifetime (though I still dream of that), I realise that what the Shuttle was meant to do was really a step in the right direction. Personally, I think going back to the Moon will be premature until we have a viable space station, something that can act as a staging point. But that staging point needs to be accessible — and functional — in a way that the ISS is not. The ISS represents no significant steps in the right direction either: Why have we not even tried to do centrifugal gravity? Environmental-recycling hydroponics? Zero-gravity industry? Yes, I want to see a civilian presence on the Moon, but I think we need to get a civilian population in orbit first.

  14. oldamateurastronomer

    I was present 40 years ago at the launch of Apollo 13. A fellow graduate student and I drove down from Columbia SC to Florida for the event. We camped out in a state park in the two days before the take-off and listened to radio reports about Mattingly as to whether the mission would be postponed or not. We also took a tour of the Center and the tour was allowed to get within a few hundred yards of the Saturn V and its ‘cargo’

    The day of the launch we broke camp early and moved to a place on a beach near Titusville. We were about 12 miles away from from the pad. Even at that distance the only thing we couldn’t see was the base of the rocket. With a few extra holds for clouds venturing near the site and the launch went off without a ‘hitch”. Little did either of us or anyone know… Only when we returned home did we learn of the problem that happened!!

  15. justcorbly

    A very nice post, Phil. I’d add one factor that we usually overlook: Any goal-oriented NASA mission, once successful, needs to be supplanted with another mission of equal drama. JFK sent NASA to the moon. It did that. The next obvious target was Mars. Much harder and much, much more expensive. The cost scared the bejeebers out of Congress and we got the compromised Shuttle.

    If Obama had supported Constellation, the eventual question would have again arisen: OK. We went back to the Moon. Now what?

    No other means of exploration and exploitation has worked like this. Spain did not spend years funding Columbus in a one-off mission across the Atlantic. They funded Columbus on an expedition that used ships that were in common use across Europe. When he found something, horde of Europeans followed, in ships that people were otherwise using to catch fish or dabble in piracy.

    We need to build the infrastructure and the vehicles capable of going where we decide to go. The notion that we will explore and exploit space in a series of expensive government-funded one-off crash projects is bogus.

  16. Jeff

    I remember Apollo, and to me the shuttle was a bore , when I think of it, more of a bore than almost anything I can remember. I for one, will be on cloud nine just to never hear of that program again. And for me, we’re in sight of the launches, so colleagues are constantly bugging me, did you see the launch, did you see it? Now , finally, they won’t ask any more.

  17. With you 100% Dr Phil. Have just watched Moon Machines on Discovery Science here in the UK. Last night’s episode was about the Saturn V, tonight’s was about the CM. It may be nostalgia (I was only a young child at the time), but watching the absolutely amazing people who made Apollo happen leaves a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.

    NASA certainly is indeed a gift to the world, and something of which the USA should be proud (I only wish the UK Government took space seriously). It’s unmanned space programme is wonderful. I really do hope it can be given a new strong direction and leadership, and that the baby has not been thrown out with the bathwater.

    As in UK funding for ESA, the problems for NASA are mediocre politicans, a risk averse society, and as Carl Sagan said ‘a schlerotic bureaucracy’.

  18. Allen

    @4 Gary

    Personally, I would love to see a nice push to building a skyhook. That would open space up so much faster than developing new vehicles to be launched.

    @8 Sarah

    I think it may be because of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. People tend to schedule things for around anniversaries. Apollo 13 should’ve launched on April 11th (just a guess), and it was 20 years to the day after Gagarin’s flight that the first Shuttle launched.

  19. Colin C

    I have had this blog subscribed in my reader for many months, and thoroughly enjoy reading it. But this is the first time I have left a comment. And it is to say thank you, and spot on! I fondly remember making a Papier-mâché model of the Enterprise shuttle as an eight-year-old – I’d never put so much work and concentration into one project before! I still remember as a twelve-year-old the excitement of watching Columbia’s first launch, and thinking, “Yes! We are going back into space!” But the thrill quickly faded as I realised that it wasn’t actually GOING ANYWHERE! Mission after mission going around the Earth in low Earth orbit- that’s not the final frontier! It was like allowing a kid to walk to the end of the street on their own a dozen times, but then spend the rest of their lives confined to the back yard!

    The various unmanned space missions have provided us with vast and awe-inspiring views and information about “Out There”, but when are we going to be allowed to jump the back fence again, and see once again for ourselves either what’s at the end of the street – or round the corner beyond that?

  20. I really hate to say this, but I’m convinced that there will be no progress in the area of manned space flight for at least a generation. And the nation to lead humanity beyond the moon will not be the United States. Any society that complains about the cost of NASA in light of its minuscule portion of the total government expenditures (barely 1/2 of one percent currently, and never much more than 5%) has lost any sense of vision. Obama’s administration has simply put the nail in the coffin: the dream was already dead.

    Private ventures won’t get beyond quick and easy cash grabs. NASA will putter along with robotic missions, but as with the “I’m bored with the shuttle” naysayers in this thread, very few will care. We have become a society mired in fear, unable to hear the visionary and heroic amongst us over the bleating of our barely sentient peers.

    So which nation will lead us to Mars and beyond? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps none. That lack of certainty is to me, a truly sad indicator of the likely failure of our species.

  21. Chief

    I wonder why the maglev rail launching system was never seriously explored as a cheap option to low earth orbit.

  22. Brian Too

    OK, I’ll ask it, because no one else has, and I think it’s important. As a way of not repeating the past, you understand.

    Exactly what was wrong with the shuttle program? What should have been done that was not done, or conversely, what should not have been done?

    Was it that the vision of the shuttle (“a pickup truck to orbit”, wasn’t that one of Pournelle’s lines?) was boring and utilitarian? Was the technology poorly chosen (tiles, solid fuel boosters, liquid fuel engines, whatever)? Or was it simply that the next grand challenge in space was too big, too expensive, too risky, and the shuttle was the best we could do at the time?

    You see we still can’t get people to Mars, and that certainly seems like the big, headline vision thing. So I wonder if carping about the shuttle is a bit like blaming the rain for being wet. Mars isn’t just 2 lunar orbits out, it’s a LOT farther away in an entirely different orbit.

    If going to the Moon is like a week long jaunt to a tropical clime, going to Mars is like a year long sabbatical. We’re talking about a whole different level of commitment. That’s everything from budget, to technology, to crew hardship and expectations. That’s over and above the already gigantic Apollo (and predecessor) programs.

    So what could NASA have realistically done differently in the 1970’s? Unmanned missions? That’s borderline possible, although the technology for that was much inferior to what is available now. Certainly the Soviets had a checkered record regarding their automated probes. Give them props for trying though. And yet, despite a very different attitude and approach to space, I don’t think the post-Race To The Moon era turned out all that well for the Soviets either. No great triumphs there, just modest progress.

    I still think that the triumph of the moon landing was a high point reached in a Cold War era and we, in some sense, overreached ourselves. That was what was so great about it. But, like the day after a great party, there’s a hangover to deal with and the excitement is gone, replaced with the work of cleaning up and restoring order.

    Or maybe NASA really did just waste 30 years for nothing?

  23. MadScientist

    “…but I’m sure had you asked me I’d have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we’d have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.”

    That’s OK, Falcon-9 will provide all that, honest! (crossed fingers) Huh. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – or if the idiom is to be translated with some fidelity, “I’ve heard that one before”.

  24. Huron

    Last time I checked, Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 went to the moon too. They just didn’t land.

  25. Without shuttle, we’d have no Hubble. Even if we had launched Hubble or equivalent, had it been busted as Hubble was, would a repair mission have been possible? Likely not. For that matter, I hope that JWST is flawless when it reaches its destination. Then again, it’s going to be farther out than Hubble. So shuttle or not, if it’s a dud or flawed, it’ll likely remain so. :(

    Easy to look back and say we should have done something different. We’re here where we are now. So now lets make the best of it and move forward. Are we ready?

    If for nothing else, Hubble was worth every bit of having the shuttle and then some.

  26. Jamey

    Constellation was bloated, over-budget, etc… But it did have an at least semi-clear goal – returning Man to the Moon. Do we honestly expect any replacement programs to do any better? At this point, we *HAVE* to rely on commercial development – it has become abundantly clear that the US Government is *NOT* interested in deep space manned exploration. The political system has become completely unable to sustain long-term focused plans. Instead, as a new administration comes in, it jiggles the programs around to focus on the ones *IT* wants, and nothing done before is considered binding.

    We need *TWO* launch systems – one high reliability, man-rated, but not so much cargo capacity, the other can be less reliable, but much cheaper and keep putting stuff up there. We need to quit de-orbiting things, instead putting them into a maintainable orbit somewhere where future projects can re-use the materials, even if it’s just as raw mass to make meteoroid shields. Eventually, we’re going to need a third type of vehicle – the intra-orbital vehicle that, while it can’t land on Earth, it can be used in orbit to carry out any number of tasks.

    Oh, and that ISS? It should be doing a lot more closed-environmental-loop experimentation. Do they even have a few cubic meters of algae with stale air being forced through it?

  27. Ron1

    @20. Kelly Says: So which nation will lead us to Mars and beyond? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps none.

    I’m not so sure … While at KSC for the STS-131 launch I had the chance to talk to some minor NASA employees who pointed out that the US was in discussions with the Chinese about future joint space missions. They pointed out that the Chinese want to become ISS partners initially and then look at other programs that could be in agreement with Chinese interests . Perhaps the moon will be a destination for a multi-national program. Mars almost certainly will, given the massive financial cost.

    As for dates to celebrate – the launch of Sputnik ( 4 October 1957) is THE memorable date.

    By itself that little satellite was simple. It was, however, politically explosive – so explosive it forced a competition between the USA and the USSR that culminated in Armstrong stepping onto the moon. So politically explosive the US treasury opened wide to fund the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo programs. Essentially, fear of the Soviets was the political driving force that pushed the USA to the moon — A clear political focus that does not exist today.

  28. gss_000

    “It was a political decision to cancel the Shuttle with no replacement planned at all (that was done before Obama took office, I’ll note).”

    Um…I think you’re wrong here. While the final decision was made by politicians, it came out of a study from the Columbia disaster.

  29. Messier TidyUpper

    But I’m old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible. Of the three anniversaries, Apollo 13 is the one we should be celebrating. I’ll gently correct what Gene Kranz said that day: failure really was an option, but not an acceptable one.

    .. & I’ll gently correct you by saying I think we should celebrate all three of these milestones – but great post here BA & one I agree with about 85%. (we disagree on Obama’s moon return cancelling policy & all three not just one anniversary worth celebrating.)

    Thinking anniversaries, later this year there’s the anniversary of the Sputnik 5 launch which put canine-nauts Strelka and Belka, 1 grey rabbbit, two rats, forty-two (yes 42!) mice, plants and fungi into orbit for a day then returned them safely. The launch & recovery of these “Muttniks” & their menagerie of mammalian mates marked the very first living things toreturn alive from space which paved the way for Gagarin’s trip not quite a year later. Just thought I’d mention that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belka_and_Strelka#Belka_and_Strelka & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_5

    Right now, at this very moment, those feats are all impossible once again. But for a time, they were not only possible, we made them happen.It’s time to do the impossible once again.

    Hear, hear & seconded by me. :-)

    (NB. Haven’t read comments yet – limited time so just my initial reaction.)

  30. Jon

    All the decisions are influenced, if not directly dictated, by politics. Some time ago, Dr. Feynman pointed out that O-ring erosion was not supposed to happen at all – And when it did and was measured, the politicians, not the engineers, decided it was okay to fly anyhow. And pop went Challenger.

    Chunks of foam falling off the tank was a known problem long before. It just happened that time to bean the orbiter in a sensitive spot. The decision to fly wasn’t made on a sturdy engineering basis. And pop went Columbia.

    Sorry for seeming to make light of this, but this is what you get when you introduce people without technical knowledge (and the inability to recognize good advice when they get it) into the decision-making process.

    In a way, it reflects an endemic failure of education. Those who don’t know enough don’t know they don’t know enough to make an intelligent decision, and people (and dreams) die.


  31. Wow, Phil!!! That was one amazing article! Seriously, it was kinda putting my thoughts into words (which I don’t do well at all)! Thanks for such great articles and getting us thinking 😀

  32. BJN

    What – specifically- is your science and reason based reason for a manned space program to the Moon, or any other mission beyone low Earth orbit that you envision? Make the case for the expenditure and return beyond romantic wordsmithing. I’m a space romantic weaned on the 60’s space program and science fiction, but I really can’t abide more of this “next giant step” nonsense. Going to the Moon was an amazing technical feat, but it was a very poor return on the investment. What public purpose will a focused manned program serve? That’s the problem with NASA and the political aspect of the space program. There has been no strong case made for manned exploration. You want it, make the case for it. Use more than ladder analogies and empty emotional pleas to “do the impossible”.

    I’d personally be a lot more proud of us doing the impossible and getting past our planet-killing carbon energy dependency. That’s where our next Moon shot or Manhattan Project should be focused. And unlike either of those heroic feats of engineering, a new energy program would leave a lasting positive legacy.

  33. Krystal

    I’ve always believed the best justification for “big science projects” like Apollo is that on the way to reaching the ultimate goal, many smaller goals will be reached and new things will be discovered. Those bonus discoveries can help a lot of people. We don’t know what we’re going to find until we try. I’m afraid we’ll stop trying. Every time I hear about a new school district demanding one specific religion be taught instead of science, that fear grows stronger. =(

  34. Dave

    “Oxygen tank disrupts Apollo 13,” or “oxygen tank ruptures on Apollo 13,” but…

  35. Charon

    “If for nothing else, Hubble was worth every bit of having the shuttle and then some.”

    BS. And I say that as someone who loves Hubble, and uses it professionally.

    The Shuttle program cost ~$200 billion. HST cost, in total, ~$6 billion (making, launching, running, etc. – note that a lot of this cost was because of the Shuttle).

    So what if the original HST was flawed? We could have made 20 more, and still saved money, rather than the enormously expensive prospect of sending people into space to fix it. I think the astronauts did amazing work, and I’m very glad SM4 ran, etc. But there is no way that fixing Hubble using the Shuttle was sensible in cost terms.

    Plus, HST in LEO is actually bad for science. In UV spectroscopy, for example, there are some really bright atmospheric lines that make it really hard to see what’s going on. And you can only look at objects for half of every orbit, making an efficiency of ~50%.

    There’s a reason JWST, Planck, Spitzer, Kepler, WMAP, Herschel went/are going out of Earth’s orbit, and Chandra is in an enormously high orbit. LEO sucks for astronomy, and HST was only put there because of the Shuttle.

  36. Phil,

    This is a fairly sober analysis, but like so much about NASA, it ends up tripping over itself without even knowing it. Like you, I was a once a kid totally entranced with my telescope in the back yard trying to focus on Jupiter’s moons. But unlike some, I grew up. And I learned, through astronomy, that the only habitable planet we have ever found, Earth, is now being rapaciously made uninhabitable for anything except microbial life. So now we must devote billions of dollars to locate even the most scant fossil microbial evidence of extra-Earth life while simultaneously denying funding and legal spine to protect the only extra-microbrial life we know of in the Universe. If an Atlantic salmon or gorilla was found on Mars, we would spend billions to study and protect it. But because these life forms are only found on Earth, we consider it perfectly okay to obliterate them or look the other way as they are obliterated. This is not a science-based rationale of extinction.

  37. raymundo

    I would venture to say we don’t need to do the impossible. What we need to do is the unimaginable.

    DARPA started the internet. The rest of the world took it beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

    I think focusing on hard core technologies and leaving implementation to private industry is exactly the right thing to do. The fruits of such research can be picked up by anyone crazy enough, rich enough, and/or skillful enough to take it to the next step.

    Or you can look at it this way: assuming NASA policy is always going to be subject to the whims of politicians, we can either have eight years of solid research and know-how for the future to build on, or we can have eight years of trying to implement some huge engineering program, only to risk having it changed by the next political administration.

    It’s time to take politics out of the equation, and handing launch implementation to private industry is the right way to begin.

  38. Wet diver

    “It’s time to do the impossible once again.”

    Why? It’s amazing that you can write a whole article like this and not once give a reason why we should be doing this. That says a lot more about the current state of space exploration than any political story.

    The vast majority of NASA funding has nothing to do with science. The ISS has nothing to do with science, the space shuttle has nothing to do with science. NASA tries to convince Congress and the public that it is inspiring future scientists by burning money. Why not use the money to hire scientists? Or use the money to put up a dozen more Hubbles? I am really sick of space enthusiasts throwing around the word “science” as if it is a meaningless word that can justify anything.

    (I am also sick of fools who argue that we don’t need any good reason since it is only .5% of our GDP.)

  39. A lot of people here are missing the big point. Let me have a go. I have worked on both manned missions and unmanned science missions. I was old enough to watch and understand as Neil Armstrong stepped off the LM pad, and I find that moment to be the high point of humanity.

    So, can we do that again? No, not now. It’s not about vision, it’s not about taking chances, it’s not about boldness.

    It’s about money.

    The Apollo program, at its peak, took 4% of GDP. Think about that. 1 out of every 25 dollars spent in the US was spent on getting people to the moon, at least for a couple years. The current US GDP is 14 trillion dollars, so a similar level of effort would be $500 billion per year. That’s more than 25 times NASA’s current budget.

    Getting people (safely) into space and back is bloody expensive. Take Apollo 13. Yes, it was great dedication and knowledge and cleverness that got them back alive and safe. But it was also the existence of high-fidelity simulators, a massive infrastructure, and a huge team of ground personnel that made it possible to bring the astronauts back. That kind of backup costs a lot of money. And most of it is salaries, which means it costs the same in real terms now as it did in 1965.

    I won’t argue that today’s NASA isn’t overly risk-averse, and yes, the effect of this risk aversion has been to add layers of review and bureaucracy rather than to really work at improving reliability. But to actually return to the glory days of Apollo would require not just the mental commitment but the financial commitment of the Apollo days.

    The shuttle was over-hyped, but was it really badly designed? Well, if it really were so far from optimal, there would be a better solution by now. Many very large companies with vast resources have been building rockets for decades, with lots of non-NASA customers, and while there have been minor improvements, things really haven’t changed much. Getting into space is just hard, and expensive. Doing it with the reliability we expect if there are people on board is that much more costly. It’s easy to long for the good ol’ days of Apollo, but until we are ready put our moneys where our mouths is, it ain’t gonna happen.

  40. Neil Haggath

    A nit-picking point, but Gene Kranz never actually said “Failure is not an option”. That line was made up by the scriptwriters of the film 25 years later – but the real Kranz liked it so much that he wished he had said it, and used it as the title of his autobiography.

  41. You want goals for the future? Howz about:
    — a meteor avoidance program using Deep Impact technology?
    — Mars Rovers for other planets
    — Optical SETI (forget RF SETI, RF beam width negates that)
    — Move NASA HQ to Pasadena — those folks know how to do science (w/o humans)

  42. UmTutSut

    Charon wrote: “So what if the original HST was flawed? We could have made 20 more, and still saved money, rather than the enormously expensive prospect of sending people into space to fix it.” And without the Shuttle, exactly how would you have gotten 20 more Hubbles to LEO?

    One point about the Shuttle I haven’t seen made: It — and consequently, the ISS — made real international cooperation in human spaceflight possible. I honestly believe when we *do* fly to Mars, it should be an international mission.

  43. Ron1

    35. Johnny Vector Says: “The shuttle was over-hyped, but was it really badly designed?”

    Yes, it is badly designed – a flying deathtrap and a far cry from George Mueller’s original design for a “piggyback’ shuttle system that separated the crew from the motors instead of essentially putting them inside the motors with no means of escape.

  44. Josh

    I would just like to point out a few things.

    First, a reason the shuttle was a small failure is because it couldn’t fly weekly as promised. Also, the politicians had their hands in it more than the engineers at times. As someone said above, the O-ring failure flight was a political decision.

    We need to fund NASA as we used to, if we want the same sorts of advances we had in the 60’s. Yes, Hubble is awesome. Yes we can do better than Hubble, now. But, adjusted for inflation, we spend so little on NASA after the 60’s, maybe Hubble or its replacement would have been launched earlier.

    Or, at the very least, we need to give the engineers the money, say “Have fun”, and see what they come up with in a year, rather than politicians and other unexperienced people nitpicking each little design step. Yes, there will be some failed projects after a year, but you’ll have more successes overall.

  45. Qoheleth

    It was a political decision to cancel Apollo, yes. But let’s not forget that it was a political decision to pursue the Apollo program in the first place. Granted, there were immense scientific benefits as well, but the science was always secondary to the politics, at least as far as those who had the authority to cancel or continue the program were concerned.

  46. Ed S.

    Johnny V makes a salient point about money. As expensive as the shuttle is, it is a fraction of the cost of Apollo when considered as a percent of the nation’s GDP, or when the cost is adjusted for inflation since the 60’s to make an “apples to apples” comparison.

  47. R2K

    As Zubrin is fond of saying, you can’t get to Mars in 30 years. You can’t get there in 20 years. You can only do it in 10 years.

    Rather than simply throw money at the recession, and in most cases throw that money at large corporations and banks, Obama could have given the country a real stimulus injection by demanding that we land Americans on the Mars before the decade was over. That is thousands of new, high quality jobs, and millions of inspired kids who become scientists. Oh and even a major Mars campaign, with half a dozen visits over 10 years, would cost considerably less than half of the 700 billion dollars given to banks and corporations.

    Obama was elected on the idea of change, and this was the change NASA needed. Stopping the return to the Moon was a good idea, lunar exploration is a luxury, not the next step. We must look beyond LEO, as many have said in praise of this Obama plan, but rather than the Moon, we should look to deep space. Long duration missions, visits to asteroids, Phobos, flybys of Mars and Venus, and eventually landing on Mars. That this is the future of manned spaceflight has been known since the 1960s, and has been in the plans since the 1970s (skylab would have transformed into deep space, long duration missions, and eventually flyby missions and rendezvous missions to asteroids.)

    The Shuttle then the ISS killed all of these plans. When I was first born, in the early 1980s, it was a safe bet that I would live to see people land on Mars. Now, 28 years later, it looks more and more likely that I will not see people land on Mars. Or if I do, I will be very old indeed. At this rate, no one will be landing on mars before 2030, or the Moon. That is pathetic.

  48. Gamercow

    When I took a course in college about engineering disasters, we looked at how the Shuttle was designed. One of the things that sticks out in my mind is that at one point during testing, they had to prove that the large fuel tank was re-usable. They did this by putting a metal rod the same diameter as the tank into it in three different locations after retrieval. If the rod touched the sides all three times, that meant the tank was still circular, and could be used again! Talk about faulty design and testing…

  49. ASFalcon13

    “NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds.”

    As has been pointed out in other forums, the move from a specific engineering program (Constellation) to an array of research and technology development mini-projects doesn’t make the overall program more sturdy; rather, it’s the standard government playbook that allows for the killing off of a program by a thousand small cuts.

    Big programs and hardware have political inertia that research and paper studies don’t. We’re talking the kind of inertia that’s absolutely necessary for the program to survive administration changes…hence why the attempt to cancel Constellation is raising such a big reaction. Meanwhile, plenty of other NASA reasearch, development, unmanned missions, etc. have been cancelled in the past without so much as a peep from anybody outside the tight-knit science communities involved; small programs just don’t have the inertia or the public awareness to keep them alive when someone decides to steer NASA in a new direction. By replacing the big rocket programs that would be cutting actual metal for smaller programs with nebulous lofty-sounding goals, it makes it all that much easier to kill off each small program one at a time when they don’t produce the intended results – either because the goals are too wishy-washy to provide serious direction, or because the goalposts are placed ridiculously too high…think Bolden’s “Mars in two weeks” quote.

    “And NASA needs a goal. It needs to put its foot down and say “This is our next giant step.”

    NASA had a clear goal: Constellation to the Moon, then further expand on that architecture once that goal was achieved to maintain a permanent presence on the Moon and send further exploration toward Mars. Now, with Obama’s plan, we replace that goal with a wishy-washy vision of doing a bunch of paper studies about some really nifty-sounding buzzwords now (don’t get me started on “fuel depots”…), and we’ll think about going somewhere later.

    We’ve also heard about robot precursor missions “to scout locations for eventual human visits”…last I checked, we’ve already had a bunch of missions at the big, obvious landing targets (for instance, LRO is already mapping the Lunar surface at a resolution of 0.5 m/pixel, MRO was imaging objects as small as 3 feet in diameter on Mars), with more already in work (Project M, MSL)…do we seriously still need robots to scout landing sites for us before we can go anywhere? Surely we have enough information to at least make some informed decisions about some preliminary landing sites, right?

    Neil deGrasse Tyson makes the arguments a bit more eloquently than I do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQhNZENMG1o&feature=player_embedded

  50. Patrick

    Constraints. Stress. Pressure.

    From reading a lot about software development. One thing all failed, over budget, delayed, late and sometimes canceled software have one thing in common, bad constraint management. Many lack direction in the beginning and get completed under heavy stress and pressure when running up against publisher deadlines to release. Those that work under constraint from the beginning tend to achieve more and be more focused.

    My space history isn’t good but if I’m correct the anniversaries above are happening during the cold war. Which brought the constraints, nations competing under pressure to win the race. That’s when people do the impossible, with very clear constraints from the beginning and heavy consequences. If you look at the situation now, who are we racing? What are the constraints? What are the consequences? I think it’s hard to get a clear vision without a good answer to these questions.

    Also, this blog rocks.

  51. Messier Tidy Upper

    @48. R2K Says:

    As Zubrin is fond of saying, you can’t get to Mars in 30 years. You can’t get there in 20 years. You can only do it in 10 years.

    I wish Zubrin were in charge of NASA then … Or had the required funds to do the job.

    Because that I *REALLY* want to see happen.

    If only ..

    Must we really always be dragged down by lack of money and lack of political will and social chutzpah? :-(

    Can we please light this candle*, get the rockets to Mars ready and just GO for it? Durn the torpedos & full speed ahead I say!

    Because, yes I do think it is well worth it – in fact every human advance into space marks a new pinnicle of our technological and arguably overall human progress.


    * I’m currently reading – well have actually just borrowed from the library & am about to start reading Alan Shepherd’s biography – guess what its called? 😉

  52. I too remember staying up all night to watch the first launch of the Space Shuttle; and all that queazy excitement about the future of spaceflight. Then reality settled in.

    Ho hum.

    I still think it’s one of the coolest machines humans have ever built and was quite excited to travel to Florida last year to view a launch for myself. Alas, coolness does not overcome that it never lived up to its promise.

  53. Ken (a different Ken)

    @49 Gamercow: You’re thinking of the Solid Rocket Booster segments. As I understand it, even now when the segments are re-stacked in the vertical assembly building one step is to measure with those three rods, and if it’s out of round clamp & crank opposing sides to squeeze it back into round (or round enough to get the bolts to meet). I don’t think the external tank was ever meant to be reusable (thought it would have been interesting to see them stored in orbit until they could be used for something).

  54. Fly by day

    There is an article in the NY Times on congressman fighting to save NASA pork barrel spending:
    Why is this in the science section? NASA is not a science agency! It does some science on its unmanned missions, but the bulk of its budget has nothing to do with science.

  55. “NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds. I’m hoping that Obama’s plan will streamline NASA…”

    Obama’s plan does not provide the “clear vision.” It sets no goal other than “technology development.” While some aspects of it are very promising (e.g., commercial crew vehicles), it is more likely to turn NASA into a big directionless hobby shop than anything. If he had only put his plan in the context of a specific goal or roadmap so that technology development could be done accordingly, it would have been much better received.

  56. Paul A.

    If you had told me when I was a kid watching the Apollo program in the 60s and 70s that we we hadn’t built a permanent moon base and gone to Mars by the year 2010 , I would have said “what happened, did we end up fighting World War III ?”

  57. Gamercow

    @54 ken(different ken) yes, that’s it. It was 16 years ago, so my brain doesn’t remember it fully, and I was stunned by 3 rod theory at the time. I’m amazed that technique actually is still in existence.

  58. Mag Lev….not war.

    It should be noted that Constellation wad headed down the same path as the shuttle and ISS, except Constellation wouldn’t be pushing the envelope on launch systems. Despite using launch hardware already with 30 years of testing, it was still behind schedule and over budget. The retirement of the shuttle (Bush) and the cancellation of Constellation (Obama) and increasing of NASA’s budget (Obama) frees up LOT of money formerly going nowhere.

  59. Ghost

    “Obama’s plan does not provide the “clear vision.” It sets no goal other than “technology development.” While some aspects of it are very promising (e.g., commercial crew vehicles), it is more likely to turn NASA into a big directionless hobby shop than anything. If he had only put his plan in the context of a specific goal or roadmap so that technology development could be done accordingly, it would have been much better received.”

    Technology development is a goal. We need to develop better technology so we can do something interesting. The last time NASA committed to a “specific goal or roadmap” we ended up with the International Space Station. That is $100 BILLION THROWN AWAY. Get your head out of the clouds. Life isn’t a movie. “Failure is not an option, we need to do the impossible.” You guys care more about the sound bites than about what we do up there. We have given NASA the money, and nothing has come out of it because idiots keep forcing ridiculous, meaningless goals on them. Stop. We need to do things right.

  60. To the people quoting percentages of GDP… NASA was never 4% of GDP, it was 4% of the US Federal budget… at its peak, in 1966: $5.9 billion dollars, which is $32 billion in 2007 dollars.

    In 2010, it will be 0.52% of the U.S. Federal budget, or $17 billion. In total, from its inception, the NASA budget is just over $400 billion. In comparison, the military budget for 2010 alone is about $533: in other words, the U.S. military budget for a single year is larger than the entire NASA budget in the last 50 years.

    It depresses me that even such simple math is beyond so many of the people posting here. But of course, the death of the U.S. space program is largely a result of the dumbification of society, and so I should not be surprised.

  61. gss_000

    “Move NASA HQ to Pasadena — those folks know how to do science (w/o humans)”

    Right. How’s that MSL doing? It’s always been right on track and perfectly under budget right? No several year delays needed?

    Space is hard. And its not only about science. What manned spaceflight does better than unmanned is engineering, which is about utility. The systems designed for the shuttle and the ISS can have more of an immediate utility on Earth. This is not just rhetoric: look at the recent Launch:Water conference, which NASA ran with others. That didn’t come off of the unmanned program, but the manned.

    Also, manned is a lot more inspiring than unmanned. I know that seems weird for people on a science blog, but its true. How many astronomers do talks at elementary schools? Check out the twitter accounts of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the best popular science person out there, versus astronaut Mike Massimino (who also has more followers than Buzz Aldrin). Sure this isn’t a study, but it does show the power of manned spaceflight.

    But these distinctions of one is better than the other is plain stupid. Both are needed and work together. What I continually see is scientists, and I used to have this view too, feel that somehow their work makes the engineering feats possible and it doesn’t flow the other way. Well, that’s not how it works. I bet few if any people know here that they are developing demonstration tests at the ISS to show you can refuel a satellite in space, which was inspired by the work done on the Hubble repair missions. Think about what that means and soon the savings from not having to always build new telescopes becomes astounding.

    The two work together. It’s not one or the other. To say “we could build 20 Hubbles” is the same as saying “we could spend it exploring the oceans rather than sending a probe to Mars” or the “its better to spend it on Earth” canard.

  62. Spectroscope

    The two work together. It’s not one or the other. To say “we could build 20 Hubbles” is the same as saying “we could spend it exploring the oceans rather than sending a probe to Mars” or the “its better to spend it on Earth” canard.


    You can say this or that, coulda shoulda woulda – fact is we DIDN”T and wouldn’t have.

    WHat matters is what we actually do and are imminently doing not what we talk about or (day)dream about.

    We don’t need 20 Hubbles – we’ve got one & having nineteen more would be nice but redundant. (& although it would enable a lot more science to get done and triple all its fantastic images and results if we had say a couple more ofthem there’s no way that we would be able to get more than 3 or 4 HST-type in the next ten or twenty years whether with shuttles or without.)

    Obama’s penny-pinching, mean, short-sighted, dull and plain dumb plan NASA-wise has cost us a return to the Moon and any hope of a human expedition to Mars within the next few decades at least. Obama’s space policy needs to be reversed – and if the Democrats aren’t going to reverse it then we need a Republican govt elected in that will.

  63. Gary Ansorge

    63. Spectroscope

    “Obama’s penny-pinching,,,”

    Only took you 4 paragraphs to get to the Obama bash. Impressive(ok, not particularly).

    Not much penny pinching there, since he RAISED NASAs budget. He just followed the study recommendation to quite throwing good money after bad with the Constellation Program. Bush never intended to really accomplish anything with his Mars goal, since he didn’t actually propose funding for that project, just left it up to NASA to gut other programs to build the new launch vehicle, which they needed anyway and they took the most reliable/known engineering approach with the Constellation.(no new tech)

    I’ve been waiting for my nuclear powered rocket for 50 years. Of course, these days I’m a big fan of leaving the power PLANT on the ground and just beaming the power to our space craft(see; Leik Myrabos; Light Craft).

    Gary 7

  64. Ron1

    @61 Kelly …

    Bang on! Well said.

  65. Jae

    Stirring post. I was suppressing tiny tears of hope for the future.

  66. Chris Winter

    Johnny Vector,

    Yes, the space shuttle was badly designed. Of course, when $12 billion in then-year dollars is requested for development, and the administration (Nixon’s) gives you $5 billion, that precludes the totally reusable system that Ron1 mentioned — one with a large carrier aircraft and an orbiter that rides on its back partway to space.

    Another factor was that the design was supposed to do so many things. The reason for the 15-foot diameter of the payload bay, AIUI, was so it could carry military spy satellites. It’s generally true that making one system to do many different things means it won’t do any of them well. Think of McNamara’s swing-wing fighter, the F-111.

    Much more could be said about the space shuttle’s design deficiencies. Despite that, it was a remarkable technical achievement and performed much good work. But at what cost? Fourteen lives, some expensive payloads, and the near loss of Galileo due to delays in converting it for launch on an expendable booster are just part of the cost.

    NASA needs a new launcher; but more than that, it needs a new paradigm. I think Obama provided that new paradigm, or at least the seed of it. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  67. Robert Carnegie

    The reason why we don’t have a MANNED Arthur C. Clarke space industry yet – why we didn’t have [2001] by 2001, and why [Defying Gravity] is hokum as well – is that the physical economics of space flight aren’t good and didn’t get enough better to make it happen. Pushing a human body into orbit is about as much hard work now as it’s ever been. And now the relative cash economics of manned space flight stink, because we have robots. And all that 1940s science fiction is wrong. We’ll never touch other stars even with robots in a thousand human lifetimes, and we’ll only touch the other worlds in the solar system with robots in our own lifetimes, and the only substantial thing we’ll bring back to Earth from space missions, from studying and visiting the planets, the moons, the Sun, comets, asteroids, is knowledge. And that should be okay. Knowledge is good. Knowledge is worth spending money on. But in this century, with robot geologists on wheels trundling around on Mars while robot photographers soar over their heads, while storms and drought and global thaw sweep across the face of Earth and our own robot guardian angels keep watch over it all (they can’t DO anything, but they watch real good), while robot telephone exchanges in the sky send sports shows and erotic e-mails right around the globe in a split-second, and sleek sinister death machines, maybe, look down on us as well – with all that happening, putting human bodies into space is just a big circus. For entertainment value only. We find out what happens to human bodies when they live in space, and it’s mostly not good things. I don’t mind that, and I love science fiction fantasies too, but in the real world, until we invent warp drive or the Transporter Ray or a minuscule electronic circuit with a living human mind, when we do space, we should be doing it with robots. We’ll never live out there; not really – not now.

    Do the armed forces conduct manned operations in space? Mainly, no. Because there isn’t anything up there worth taking by human armed force. Weapons up in orbit are a different story, and one that happily we’ve mostly avoided up to now. But even then they’re robot weapons, aimed at other robot satellites or back at us down on the ground.

    Sorry, kids – space isn’t for us.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar