Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A new beginning, or déjà vu?

Among the consequences of the new presidential administration is a change at the helm of NASA. The latest administrator, Michael Griffin, leaves office today. As I write, a new administrator has not been nominated (although of course rumors fly).

Will the change be for good or ill, I wonder? Or more of the uninspiring same?

NASA has been, IMO, adrift for a long time. The international space station is a a money sink seemingly without a mission beyond completion. The ill-fated, soon-to-be-retired shuttle program has been another money sink, with little purpose beyond completing the ISS. The Constellation program is busily rediscovering everything the Apollo program learned.

Robotic science missions have, in general, fared much better in recent years. The Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars rovers, the Cassini-Huygens mission ... merely to think of them (among many) brings a smile to my face.

So am I advocating against human space flight? Absolutely, positively, NOT. As Griffin stated in 2004, "For me the single overarching goal of human space flight is the human settlement of the solar system, and eventually beyond. I can think of no lesser purpose sufficient to justify the difficulty of the enterprise, and no greater purpose is possible."

To Griffin's words I'll add: We need space to inspire young minds, as an impetus to new scientific and technological discoveries, as a new frontier, as a source of new resources, as a place to manufacture goods and to produce energy without polluting our home planet, and as insurance against planetary disaster.

We need consistency of purpose -- and a bit of investment -- to get there.

We American taxpayers are collectively on the hook for staggering amounts in bailouts, debt guarantees, and stimulus payments, with new commitments on the way. New investments in space technology and exploration strike me as far worthier, and often cheaper -- and certainly more forward looking -- than the trillion bucks, more or less, Washington seems ready to spend to clean up past messes. As too often gets lost in the shuffle: Any money that gets spent for space is spent on Earth.

Let's find our way back to the future.

1 comment:

AReichl said...

Many years ago i read an article about the "cheapest" (and most reliable) way to get to space.

To summarize it : NO WINGS!

Keep it simple. Heat shield? - no fancy ceramic tiles; just let it burn away and replace it.
No complicated engines that are maybe some percent more effective.
You will NEVER get the development costs back, because fuel is NOT the biggest part of the launch costs (in fact it's CHEAP).

Yes it sounds like "old" Apollo technology, but it just has to work.

And if you take a closer look you will see all the improvements. Let Orion look like Apollo (same aerodynamical problem, same solution), but inside its new. It's even reusable!

I would say it's a new beginning (with the Shuttle a technological love affair in between). Maybe a little late, but better late than never.