The last countdown

By Daniel Holz | September 2, 2010 9:22 am

There is a struggle going on for NASA’s soul. Is NASA all about sending human beings into space? Or is NASA about elucidating the secrets of the cosmos? The former is, of course, best embodied by the Apollo missions: pure, unadulterated rocket science. The latter is probably best associated with the Hubble space telescope (although NASA’s contribution to our understanding of the Universe goes far beyond Hubble). Of course, spacewalks and science are not mutually exclusive (as Hubble has demonstrated). But a singleminded focus on the former has led to significant weakening of the latter.

Space shuttle launchAt present, it looks like there will be two more space shuttle launches. That’s it. Within a year, our nation will no longer have the capability to launch humans into space. For some this is a sure sign that America is sliding into mediocrity. Both the first and the last man to step on the Moon testified before Congress last May, speaking out against the Obama plan to shut down the Constellation program (video). Their testimony was reminiscent of a past age, where we proved our worth by beating the Russians to the Moon, and the natural next step is to now prove our worth by beating the Chinese to the Red Planet. The jingoistic associations are unsettling, and these arguments gloss over the staggering costs involved. To quote none other than Neil Armstrong: “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interests.”

It is certainly amazing that we’ve had continuous human “inhabitants” in low-Earth orbit. Rocket science is, indeed, rocket science, and this should never be taken for granted. Launching people into orbit is a massive endeavor, and having them survive in the incredibly inhospitable environment of space is even more impressive. But the simple truth is that the contributions to basic science from the space station have been entirely negligible (especially in comparison with the staggering costs). Furthermore, I would argue that the Hubble space telescope has done significantly more to awe and inspire the world than the International Space Station.

A year ago we discussed an Academy report which criticized the direction of the manned space program, and recommended profound changes. Subsequently the Academy released a separate report sharply criticizing the scientific underpinning of NASA, and recommending similar changes. Two months ago the Obama administration outlined a new vision for NASA, in line with these reports, including the cancellation of the Constellation program (which was the new and improved version of the Apollo program). Given the immense sums of money involved, especially to influential states such as Florida and Texas, Congress has taken the liberty of trying to do an end-run around the White House, and fund Constellation despite the lack of a request for funding. In a triumph of politics over common-sense, money will be poured into building more rockets, rather than funding a broad portfolio of technological development (including better ways to get humans into orbit and beyond) and basic research (including unmanned probes and satellites elucidating the mysteries of the Universe). In the latest salvo, fourteen Nobel laureates, and a few astronauts for good measure, issued an open letter supporting Obama’s strategy, and advising Congress against throwing all of NASA’s eggs in the “heavy lift rocket” basket.

One thing is clear: for better or worse, the shuttle program is at an end. There is no clear successor, and it will likely be many years before another astronaut is launched into orbit by the United States. If you want to experience the thrill of sending humans into space (and it is an incredible, indescribable rush), you’d better hustle on down to the Kennedy Space Flight Center. The next-to-last launch is currently scheduled for November 1, 2010.

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  • Rhacodactylus

    *cries a single tear*

  • viggen

    Within a year, our nation will no longer have the capability to launch humans into space.

    While I know it’s tremendously expensive, I think it’s a mistake to ground the shuttle before there is a clear successor, especially when we’ve made an obligation to keep men on the international space station. As long as there are people there, there needs to be a redundant capacity to reach them. If space flight has taught us nothing, it’s the importance of having redundancy everywhere in the system as long as we’re engaged in it. If we’re in, we should stay in. If we’re out, we should get out. Half-way is asking for people to die.

    More than that, I think manned space flight is a tool that we may need to use on some occasion that we haven’t yet foreseen. It may or may not be needed, but on the off chance that it is, it’s proven, known technology that should be available. If they don’t want to fly the shuttle until there’s a new capacity to replace it, one should at least be maintained in readiness for the potential of use rather than permanently grounded. I’m not about space racing, I’m about prudence in the face of what we don’t yet know in the future. Is there some Earth orbit equivalent to the BP oil-spill which we have yet to realize that may need tools like manned space flight to address?

  • Ross

    Is it really that expensive in comparison to other ‘investments’ we make? In 2010, NASA is 0.52% of the federal budget or about $18B. We spent $20B on ice cream last year in the US.

  • spyder

    While the US will not be human launch capable, other nations will fill the bill, and US citizens will be part of those activities. It isn’t that we are not sending people to space, it is that we aren’t launching them. The test the other day in Utah of the Ares may or may not portend a launch capability (given that this was the first large scale testing), but at least there are windows of option still open. We tend to forget, all too quickly, that the shuttles were designed and tested in the mid-60s (and not tested all that well), and here we are in the second decade of the 21st century using the “same old technology.” Money, it’s a shame.

  • Derek Moyes

    Good riddance to gov’t waste. Wait… Congress will just spend the money elsewhere. Drat. Oh, well, private sector… Step up to the plate, it’s your turn to fly this baby.

  • Markk

    We will still have the capability with a year or two if the private efforts succeed. I have written elsewhere that I (as a longtime space advocate and L5 member and NSI member back then) am really happy to have finally started to see real private enterprise – still ultimately government funded but not government controlled happen. The fact that this great “conservative” policy is happening under Obama shows where our real conservative movement has gone… nowhere.

  • réalta fuar

    It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the 3 decades of space shuttle flights are also the 3 decades when the u.s. lost, quite possibly forever, its leadership position in ground based astronomy. And of course space based science supported by NASA has also suffered horribly (even with some spectacular successes, funding was decimated by the shuttle program). A compelling case can be made that the space shuttle has been the single most unsuccessful vehicle ever built by humans. ISS was built almost entirely to give the shuttle something to do (I remember vivdly the time in the early 1980’s when a respected young astronomer told me that “we have to support ISS, or NASA will cut astronomy”. Of course he and many others did, and NASA cut astronomy funding to pay for it. The ex-astronauts who have come out against the Obama plan are sadly living in the past. The Mars rovers and Hubble have orders of magnitude more support among the general public (at least those younger than 50 or s0) than do the shuttle and ISS.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    For better. Definitely for better.

  • Lab Lemming

    While the purpose of the Apollo mission was to beat the Russians to the Moon, the scientific importance of the lunar sample return is huge. Most of what we know about terrestrial planet formation comes from insights gained from the moon rocks, and the entire field on microanalytical geochemistry was kickstarted in the 60’s so that the moonrocks could be studied. Instruments like the ion microscope and the electron probe are still the bread and butter of naalytical geochemistry 40 years later because of the gruntwork done to prove up the technologies before the moon rocks came back.

    The other concern I have with the Obama plan is that it basically suggests starting over. However, much of the success of the Russian program, for instance, lies in its slow and strady refinement of 50 year old rockets. The Proton is still the cheapest per kg ride to orbit, and Soyuz has also changed incrementally. The Americans, in contrast, threw out all of the Apollo era technology and started from scratch with the shuttle, which was a disaster. So repeating the same mistake by starting from scratch again in hopes of an emergent, game-changing technology seems a bit short sighted.

  • gss_000

    “But the simple truth is that the contributions to basic science from the space station have been entirely negligible (especially in comparison with the staggering costs). Furthermore, I would argue that the Hubble space telescope has done significantly more to awe and inspire the world than the International Space Station.”

    This is a horrible canard. The cost argument is silly. A panel, including physicist Frank Close, in the UK found that science programs got less funding when not coupled with a manned program.

    Furthermore, you’ve decided how to designate what is a reasonable cost (ignoring the fact that the ISS will be up there for at least 10 more years and possibly more), but let’s look at practical applications. Taken to an extreme, what has Hubble provided other than pretty pictures? How does studying a black hole millions of light years away help me here on Earth now? If that’s your criteria, the Hubble is a huge waste of funds. Instead, from the ISS we’re now getting salmonella vaccines (how is that egg recall going?) , studies that can be directly applied to elderly or those with osteoporosis, and experience being applied to help the trapped miners in Chile. Or is that not worth the cost?

    Now, I love the Hubble, but pitting one side against the other means both lose.

  • Gary

    The shuttle slowly killed the American manned space program. Sending people to space doesn’t need to be expensive. Because of continually supporting the shuttle, NASA failed to cheapen spaceflight and make it available to the masses.

    Manned spaceflight has its advantages for science. Heavy-lift launchers used for Moon and Mars missions will allow for more larger and more sophisticated telescopes to be launched. Repair missions to the increasingly popular Lagrange points will inevitably be required. The Moon provides an ideal location for physics and astronomy experiments. Hands-on missions to the Moon, Mars, and NEOs will provide much cheaper scientific discoveries per dollar than robotic missions. But of course, the ultimate goal of manned missions should be colonization, which will require numerous jumps in engineering that will be useful on Earth as well.

  • Doug

    As our capabilities in robotics (more precisely, telerobotics) increase dramatically, the argument that in situ humanity is necessary for accomplishment in space gets less and less convincing. During the technologically primitive Apollo era, doing things on the Moon was arguably cheaper with humans than it would have been with robots. Looking ahead, we can be servicing telescopes at Lagrange points, turning over rocks on Mars, or running bulldozers and refineries on the Moon with sophisticated enough robots and, for the cost, doing it a lot!

    Ultimately, the single undeniable rationale for human space flight is … leaving. Whether for escape or colonization. You simply can’t do that robotically. The question then becomes how important it is to leave, or to learn how to leave. A side question is whether it’s important for our nation to develop the capability to leave before some other nation does. Is it about preserving humanity, or is it about preserving us?

    These things are never discussed by space policy makers. Perhaps it’s time that they are.

    With regard to space, we’re having a hard time wrapping our arms around the word “exploration”. It’s a word that all our efforts hide behind. To the extent that exploration is a self-defined “good thing”, is it something that requires in situ humans to accomplish? The human space flight program at NASA has pretty much hijacked that word in the last half-decade. The historical narratives for exploration on which our space cowboy literature is based don’t cleanly apply to space.

    I will note that, concerning gaps in human space flight for the U.S., we’re not looking at the first one. We had a six year gap in human space flight before the shuttle came on line in 1981. What makes the upcoming gap less survivable?

  • Ghost

    NASA lost my support with the ISS. You can’t burn $100 billion of our tax dollars to no purpose, and then expect people to rally behind you. The whole organization should be shut down. Start a new one focused on science.

  • Paul

    Doug, there was a clear program (the Shuttle) in place after 1972, and it was proceeding in 1975. The reason why it took 6 years rather than 3 years to fill the “gap” was because of developmental problems with the Shuttle, particularly the main engines. The Obama cut leaves NASA without any real direction. There is no real Mars directive, just some talk about funding advanced propulsion etc. Look at it this way, the Constellation program makes use of existing technology where possible, which means it’s got much lower development time and costs than something wholly new, which hasn’t even begun yet. AND it’s already been some 5 years in the making, and is not yet ready with present funding. How long do you think it will be for a brand new replacement to come about, and how much funding do you think it will need?

    This is really an old argument. It comes from NASA’s earlier budget cuts in the post-Apollo era when ever more of NASA’s budget was put into Shuttle development, and robotic exploration was curtailed. The assumption, and doubtful, is that Obama’s “plan” is going to develop better science. I think the truth is that he doesn’t want to find money for Constellation, at least in part because he doesn’t want to find the money for it. Without a big name project, or headline catching goal, watch NASA’s budget slowly shrivel.

    As for the “conservative” Obama and private enterprise comments. Well I do believe that private enterprise will be what ultimately opens up space for “the masses” and full comercialization. But the President’s Health Care agenda is hardly “conservative”, and shows he believes in State intervention on things he really believes in. This “privatization” reminds me of various “solutions” to global warming which ultimately is putting a big “carbon tax” on energy, and just hoping that “private enterprise” will come up with some new energy source as a result. No need for the government to put more money into solar research, developing thorium reactors or fusion research! I feel the President is looking for ways to cut NASA’s budget, and feels the whole thing is a waste of money.

  • Sarah

    The “Last Countdown”, or “The Final Countdown”? The latter could have a nice soundtrack.

    Yes, it’s a shame we’re shutting it down without identifying a successor. But I have confidence there will be one. Not for me though, which is just something I will have to get used to. Only way I’ll be going into orbit is in freeze dried powder form.

  • Lemuel Pitkin

    For better. Human beings are about as useful in orbit as horses.

    There’s all kinds of amazing science that can only be done in orbit, from analyzing the composition of the atmosphere of extrasolar planets, to using the microwave background radiation to answer the most foundational question sin physics. I’d rather not use those resources for Evel Knievel-style stunts.

  • réalta fuar

    The same general tenet applies whether you’re talking about sports, politics, or space exploration: you always change a losing game. There’s a term for doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result……..

  • Bob

    People lauding unmanned science programs over manned programs are forgetting some important things. First of all Hubble would not have accomplished anything without shuttle mission STS-61.

    Second of all, the public supports endeavors such as NASA because of the Astronauts. While people in the know may cheer Mars Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity for what they can get done on a small budget, what Neil Armstrong did actually moved people to aspire to scientific accomplishment. Future careers were launched in the hearts of four year olds that day.

    And if I might add a third point: human astronauts on a Mars mission can do some things no lander will ever be able to do – operate in real time, get themselves unstuck from that rock, apply ingenuity. The question of whether life exists on Mars (and there are many tantalizing clues) probably can’t be definitively answered until a crew capable of instant sophisticated decision making can get there.

  • Brian Too

    My guess is that the opportunity to make the most advances at the cheapest cost, today and for the next 20-50 years, is in robotics. Most plausible destinations beyond the Moon are far away, expensive to get to, and middling dangerous.

    People will go, I have no doubt of that. However the electronics, the autonomous hardware, the remote capability, all are burgeoning with potential right now. The opportunity is obvious.

    Machines will go first, paving the way for people. You can say that this has already happened but there’s far far more to do yet. Far more that can be done with the robotic systems.


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