The Rocket Experience

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

The Obama administration unveils its controversial new plan for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Credit: NASA

By virtue of the fact that our ancient evolutionary ancestors were graced with five digits on two forelimbs, we humans now have two five-fingered hands, and most of us count in base-10 notation. Consequently, certain temporal milestones are more appealing than others. For instance, media stories this week commemorated the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13, the legendary lunar mission where three astronauts trapped in a malfunctioning spacecraft were saved through an inspiring combination of luck, ingenuity, and teamwork.

This week also saw the 29th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch, as well as the 49th anniversary of Vostok 1, the flight that took the first human into outer space. But, thanks to our ten-fingered ways we’ll all wait until next year to celebrate. So it goes in any product of biological evolution—seemingly insignificant initial events cast shadows measured in eons. This holds true for technological progress, too: Early decisions in development or deployment become locked in, constraining later features and capabilities. Consider NASA: Today’s extremely expensive and somewhat unsatisfying staples of US human spaceflight, the space shuttle and a space station, can be traced back forty years or so to the aftermath of the Apollo program, when President Nixon chose them as its replacements. The legacy of these choices is that no one has ventured beyond low-Earth orbit ever since.

This has far graver implications than failing to fulfill a generation’s dreams of Pan-Am moon flights  and Lunar Hiltons. In the fullness of time, lack of progress in expanding humanity’s sustainable presence off-planet represents an existential threat to our species. Even staunch critics of human spaceflight must acknowledge this. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that keeping all one’s eggs in a single, vulnerable planet-sized basket is an unsound long-term investment strategy. To do so is to court extinction.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden may have had such thoughts in mind on Tuesday when he addressed the audience at the National Space Symposium. “This is a big week for the entire nation,” Bolden said, “and it’s a week where probably more people than ever before will be thinking about space. It’s an important week for all of us in the space industry and it’s a particularly important week for NASA.”

Bolden was referring to the Obama administration’s new plans for America’s space agency, which the president himself presented and defended yesterday in a speech at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. President Obama’s 2011 budget request eliminated funding for the earlier Bush administration’s Constellation program, which aimed to build a fleet of government-run rockets for returning astronauts to the Moon in the 2020s to build a lunar base. Instead, Obama’s plan deemphasizes the Moon and pumps more money into the commercial space sector for creating rockets to replace the aging space shuttle fleet. It also seeks to spark innovation, boosting NASA funds for development of breakthrough technologies in space-based propulsion, life-support, and power generation.

The strategy, it is hoped, will lead to more affordable and sustainable space access, and a wider variety of near-future interplanetary missions for astronauts: not only to the Moon, but also to distant space telescopes and asteroids. Like Bush’s earlier plan, Obama’s cites Mars as the long-term goal. But unlike Constellation, the new approach prizes a flexible and robust spacefaring capability more so than any particular destination.

The timing of Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral was no accident: Americans weary from the Great Recession and leery of record federal deficits might legitimately wonder on Tax Day, April 15th, why they should pay for NASA at all. This is but one of many reasons why responses to the new plan have been so mixed. Billions have already been spent on Constellation at great cost to other NASA initiatives, and it’s unclear how much of that investment can be recouped. More broadly, any time a politician makes major changes to a well-funded government agency and its programs, those changes inevitably translate into destabilizing shifts in jobs and business contracts. It’s no surprise, then, that many of the most vocal detractors of Obama’s new plan are senators and representatives from space-centric congressional districts most vulnerable to his proposed alterations.

A more surprising contingent of critics emerged this week via a sharply worded letter to President Obama signed by Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, and James Lovell. Armstrong was the first man on the Moon; Cernan, the last. Lovell was on the first mission to orbit the Moon, Apollo 8, and was also the commander of ill-fated Apollo 13. Like many, perhaps most, veterans of the Apollo program, they are unhappy with the president’s plan. The trio calls Obama’s decision to cancel Constellation “devastating,” citing the looming multi-year gap between the space shuttle’s retirement and the debut of a new human-rated rocket as a diminishment of US global power and prestige.

These men are legitimate heroes, with unique experience informing their words. Still, one could speculate why they didn’t voice their concerns years ago, when the coming spaceflight gap was already clear and Constellation was already over-budget and behind schedule. Perhaps it’s because they support what they know, and what’s been proven to work before. Constellation’s nickname, “Apollo on steroids,” was well earned; in architecture and execution, the program took many pages from the Apollo playbook. Obama’s plan, on the other hand, relies more on private innovation and as-yet-untested technologies. From the perspective of these steely-eyed rocket men, it perhaps seems unnecessarily risky, more foolish than bold.

Shortly after the astronauts’ letter hit the news, another missive surfaced from an equally reputable source: Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon. Aldrin differs from nearly all his Apollo peers, both in supporting Obama’s plan and in his personal demeanor and outlook. Unlike Armstrong, who rarely gives interviews and has pursued a life of quiet privacy post-Apollo, Aldrin seeks the public spotlight, and thrives on trying new things. He’s boogied on Dancing with the Stars; he’s collaborated with Snoop Dogg on a rap song; he has a Twitter account and even an iPhone app. You could uncharitably call all this showboating, but the truth is more layered. Behind Aldrin’s pop-culture veneer, there is a deep and pragmatic thinker far more concerned with the human future in space than with past glories. To him, fame is just another tool, another way to get a lackadaisical public connected with and excited about space exploration again.

I met Aldrin briefly for a story in 2008—which is a memorable story in itself, but for another time. In the span of a half-hour, he marshaled a dizzying number of facts and figures arguing against arcane details of Constellation’s architecture. He also suggested more points of collaboration between public and private space sectors, and presented his ideas for flexible future human missions to the Moon, to near-Earth asteroids, and to Mars—and this was all before I’d even begun asking him any questions. In short, he was “endorsing” something much like the Obama plan before it even officially existed.

Aldrin’s openness to novel ideas and approaches isn’t new—it was in part his experimentation that made Gemini, NASA’s run-up program to Apollo, an unqualified success. In the microgravity of low-Earth orbit, the Gemini astronauts were struggling like fish out of water during their extravehicular activity (EVA). Aldrin decided to try something new for his upcoming EVA on Gemini 12, and began simulating the on-orbit environment by training underwater, tweaking EVA procedures based on what he learned. Once in orbit, Aldrin’s training allowed him to smoothly perform a record-setting EVA, finally proving that humans could work in a space environment. Underwater training became standard, as did several of his innovative tweaks, which are now used to enable orbital construction projects like the International Space Station.

Of course, tweaking a mission profile isn’t the same as revamping an entire nation’s spaceflight infrastructure. Only time will tell whether Obama’s riskier innovation-heavy plan will succeed, and whether today’s policy decisions lead to a tomorrow where not only space exploration, but also habitation and commerce, can flourish unconstrained. But given the relative stagnation of human spaceflight over the past several decades, it seems a good time to try something other than business as usual.

As the winds of political intrigue swirled over NASA’s uncertain future, they overshadowed other events this week that serve as simple reminders that humans—and their robotic emissaries—continue to do and see awe-inspiring things every day beyond the Earth. It would be a dereliction of duty to not share some of them with you. A spacecraft orbiting Saturn imaged a lightning storm on the ringed planet, and imaged a duet between two icy moons. Another spacecraft captured the Sun belching enormous sheets of plasma and radiation, and news came of a breakthrough in imaging extrasolar planets. A record-breaking four women orbited the Earth, and NASA announced plans to furnish the International Space Station with a humanoid robot. A Mars orbiter found more evidence for liquid water on the Red Planet, and the space shuttle Discovery wrapped up its penultimate trip into space. For anyone fascinated by the cosmos and our potential place in it, it’s a good time to be alive.

Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.

Originally published April 15, 2010

Tags policy politics space

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