Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making space for a space program

From the Department of the Sadly Obvious: "NASA officials admit Space Launch System is a rocket without a plan." This was, essentially, the content of an all-hands meeting last month at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. SLS, of course, is the heavy launch system being built to replace the cancelled Constellation heavy launch system, which was being built to replace the canceled-without-a-replacement-on-hand space shuttle.

All dressed up with nowhere to go?
Is this NASA's fault? Denying reality for so long is on them, but the reality itself originates in the highest levels of American government. Administrations routinely reset plans (most recently from the Bush 43 plan reliant upon the Constellation program to return to the Moon, to the SLS-centric vagueness [see below] with which the Obama administration replaced it). If there were interest at the top in a meaningful plan, what are the chances Congress would fund it?

And at the very highest level of government -- "We the people" -- what happened to our enthusiasm with space accomplishment? What are the chances enough of our fellow citizens (no matter how much we collectively spent to see The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar) would consider a stretch goal for humanity -- and a baby step toward the safety of becoming a multi-world species -- worth funding?

But wait. Doesn't NASA currently have a White House-blessed plan to travel to an asteroid and then on to Mars? So we're told. Only (back to the Department of the Sadly Obvious), "Space experts warn Congress that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” is illusory."

I suspect we'd all be shocked if, in our current heated political season, the national space program elicited -- from any candidate, or any debate moderator -- even a modicum of interest. In the 2012 election cycle, the very mention (by Newt Gingrich) of aspiring to build a lunar colony was considered a grievous tactical error, if not something to mock.

I would like to believe that, in some small way, stories of space adventure, my own among them, help advance us toward aiming higher than pointlessly circling in low-Earth orbit. That such new goals will prove to be the start of a permanent presence, not mainly (as was the case with the Apollo program) political theater. That SF spreads the meme space exploitation is the great thing, not space-themed entertainment  ...

Because if humanity is ever going to leave the cradle, we need optimists. And ideally more than just Elon Musk ...


Keith Kenny said...

"... if humanity is ever going to leave the cradle" is a good question. Have we become so self absorbed that our real striving has ended? The ancients watched the stars in wonder from the tops of Zigguarats. Our children raised in illuminated cities may never have looked at the stars. I've had many young visitors stand in shock on my deck when they see a meteorite. "Wow, what was that?"

The Earth-rise picture from the moon may have been the pinnacle of 21st C. curiosity, making us want to return to our blue marble quickly. The picture that struck me the most was Saturn-rise over Titan. It gave me a glimpse of what was possible.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Keith, the notion of seeing Saturn-rise from up close is just ... awesome. Literally.

If it were me, I'd pick another moon for my gaping. Titan has an atmosphere about 50% denser than Earth's. I'm partial to Prometheus, both because it's close to Saturn and I once fictionally blew it up. Prometheus is one of the three shepherding moons just outside the rings.