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On @ The 90: The Future

On @ The 90 is AmericaSpace’s editorial feature and is therefore based on opinion. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Predictions are dangerous things. Dick Morris, a political commentator, found this out the hard way recently. He predicted that Mitt Romney would win the U.S. presidential election in a landslide. Yeah, so much for that. Predicting what the space program will be like in the future is similarly treacherous.

With the launch of the Ares 1-X in Oct. of 2009, one would have been thought that NASA was on its way back to the Moon. This assumption would be proven false a year later. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

In 2009, one would have thought that betting that the Constellation Program, NASA’s program of record at the time, would be the path forward for NASA – would be a safe bet. Launch Complex 39B had been renovated to include a new lightning protection system and the first flight of a “new era” had occurred (the launch of Ares 1-X). Surely no politician would come in and cancel all the progress that had been made. No one would scrap all the work that had been done. So much for that too.

The “Vision for Space Exploration” and Constellation Program now rest on the scrapheap of history. The Ares I and V launch vehicles and Altair lunar lander joined the MOL, Venture Star, DC-X and Dyna-Soar in the ranks of spacecraft that never were.

Where we stand today is with a space agency whose foundation appears to be made of ever-shifting sand. Where potential destinations morph and change and in some cases vanish. During a speech given at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2010, President Obama stated that the Moon was no longer an objective of NASA as we had already “been there.” Instead the president selected an asteroid and Mars (2025 and 2030s respectively) as objectives for NASA’s human space flight program.

Now there are rumors and rumblings that the space agency might be turning its gaze once again to the Moon (although NASA’s official position is that it is not planning to put boots on the lunar regolith anytime soon). The one destination that has cropped up recently is Lagrange 2, a point in space where the gravitational influence of the Sun, Earth and Moon are nullified.

As for spacecraft, that too is an interesting factor that is in play. There has been some suggestion that the international partners interest in the International Space Station – is waning. They want to go to the Moon. More so than perhaps with any other faction, this would deeply impact the companies working on commercial spacecraft.

NASA has been instructed to empower commercial companies to develop spacecraft to ferry cargo and crew to orbit. However, if international partners depart from the space station – what business model exists for access to orbit that could offest the expense? Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

If concerns that the ISS will be abandoned are based in reality, and not on the shifting sands mentioned above? They could have precious little time to do what they are being instructed to do. How little? Perhaps less than five years. What’s the value, what is the business model in producing a spacecraft which would only be used for such a short period? There isn’t one, and this fact could become important soon.

With the United States heading toward what is being called a “fiscal cliff” and with uncertainty virtually everywhere it is unlikely that space exploration will top the list of concerns or budgetary allocations anytime soon. Image Credit: NASA

This possibility is, as stated above, based on rumors; comments made in passing that reflect the sands shifting around the feet of those at ground zero. Uncertainty has plagued NASA for years now and that uncertainty is reflected in the recent announcements of layoffs by Boeing and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne.

Rocketdyne’s layoffs were comprised of 100 employees and were attributed to anxiety within the space industry. Boeing let 300 of its managerial employees go; these individuals worked in the firm’s defense division. Space efforts are often tied to defense and it is unclear if Boeing’s decision will also impact its space flight efforts.

There is much talk about how these companies will open up the orbital realm to all of us. Those that believe this ignore one simple fact. Companies are in the business of making money, those comprised of altruists usually don’t last too long. The cost to send people to orbit means that space tourism will remain the property of billionaires for the time being.

Programs and destinations shifting and fading – that has been the NASA of the past two years. Objectives, spacecraft and personnel coming – and going. So, what does the future hold? At this point, it is anyone’s guess.

This much is clear; there is a severe lack of confidence in the direction that NASA is currently on. The layoffs within the space industry and the rumors regarding the possible departure of the international partners from the ISS highlight this. Perhaps, if the messages coming from NASA were consistent – then there would be more confidence. But there isn’t and anyone who suggests other wise should expect the same results that Dick Morris got…

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8 comments to On @ The 90: The Future

  • John

    All too frequently, articles like this one decry the lack of direction “from NASA.” NASA never has been, and never will be, the source of leadership on that question. NASA serves the American people, who speak to it through two sources: the President and the Congress. That is where leadership, or lack thereof, comes from. NASA’s job is to take orders from our political leaders and carry them out.

    No one ever expects the Pentagon to tell us where to fight our wars. When we get mired in Vietnam or Iraq, it’s not the DoD’s fault – it’s our elected leaders’ (and indirectly, the American public’s in general). I really don’t understand why NASA would be viewed any differently. Yet this article and hundreds like it blame the inconsistency of “messages from NASA.” Garbage in, garbage out, I say.

  • Karol

    Perhaps lack of direction “for” NASA instead of lack of direction “from” NASA may have completely eliminated the possibility of any misinterpretation, however, I believe that, given the high quality of the discourse on AmericaSpace, most individuals are aware that NASA is at the mercy of the President and Congress, and that theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do or die. It wasn’t Director Bolden who cancelled Constellation, he could follow orders or resign. Jason makes an excellent point. I wish we had a clear “JFK type” mandate of to the Moon by the end of the decade. Joe Lunchbox doesn’t know what our plans for space exploration are, where we are going, or what we are going to do when we get there. Like Jason and others I am concerned that without a definite well-defined goal with an achievable timetable that the public can support, rather than hearing the cheers we heard when the Curiosity MSL successfully landed on Mars, we will hear the dreaded thud of the budget axe.

    • Leonidas

      Dear Karol,

      As much as we want it, a new ‘JFK mandate’ ain’t gonna happen. Apollo was a program of its own time, conceived because of the geopolitical climate of its time. Kennedy issued the mandate largely because he didn’t want the Soviets controlling of the ‘high ground’. Also don’t forget that when Kennedy realised the high costs of Apollo, he extended his hand more than once to Khrushchev, proposing a joint US-Soviet Moon program, something that Lyndon Johnson deeply opposed. If someone cared more for space exploration than strategic defense, maybe that would be Lyndon Johnson, but he didn’t stay long in office to have an extended effect. Then came Nixon, and well, the rest is history.

      As for today, the ‘acceptance of risk’ everyone is willing to take, is much less than what it was in the ’60s. Back then, people had guts and ‘balls’, and they ventured out into the unknown oceans of space, willing to accept the risks. Today, everyone is so obsessed with the ‘dangers’ of space exploration, that’s why we’re where we are. I don’t mean that space isn’t dangerous and potentially deadly, of course it is, but at some point, you have to take the bold step forward and sail the uncharted seas! The alternative is to always postpone doing anything, out of fear of what *might* happen out there. That’s why a manned Mars landing will always be “20 years into the future”. I’ve being hearing this phrase since I was a small child, and I’m still hearing it today that I’m 33 years-old!

      People back in the 60’s weren’t ‘foolish risk-takers’ and ‘stupid’. Many people today may view them as such because it suits them, and helps them to justify today’s unwillingness, but people back then were just more brave, focused and determinded. In 1967 three men died tragically on the launch pad, but a year later, men were orbiting the Moon and 7 months later they were landing there. And when they landed they weren’t even sure if they could ever return back or if the lunar dust would swallow them! Can you picture something similar today, with everyone’s obsession on ‘avoiding risk as much as possible?’ Were people in the ’60’s ‘criminally stupid’? No they weren’t! They understood the risks and still went ahead and landed on the Moon and had been given the go-ahead, would have landed on Mars as well.

      And when you don’t want to do something, you make up all shorts of ‘perfect’ excuses to justify it, like ‘We can’t afford it’…

      • Karol

        Leonides
        I never fail to be impressed by the extremely high quality of your posts, and your unwavering dedication to, and support of, the American space program. Your insight as to the the “JFK mandate” and the US-Soviet moon race is indeed quite accurate, as supported by Craig Nelson in his book “Rocket Men”, and no doubt by AmericaSpaces’ own Ben “The Master” Evans. Unfortunately, even if we were to resurrect the Cold War boogeyman in the form of a permanent Chinese-Russian lunar base, it probably wouldn’t inspire Americans to anything more than “We’ve been there.” (Grrrr!) In the early space program Americans knew the names of, and revered, our astronauts. Americans were in awe of the mysterious German geniuses of the von Braun team, and they followed the advances of the ominous cosmonauts and wondered what was next to come. Now more Americans care about the travails of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, and China graduates more English-speaking engineers every year than does America. I hope I am wrong, but I would guess 95% of Americans don’t know the destination of Messenger, Juno, New Horizons or GRAIL. Some have been spoon-fed images of Mars returned by Curiosity on the six o’clock news, but how many have bothered to see the image of the landscape of Saturn’s Titan sent across a billion kilometers of space by Huygens? Leonides my intelligent friend, I would like to agree with you that we have shied away from manned exploration of space out of concern as to the cost in human life tragically demonstrated by Challenger and Columbia, but with the ongoing loss of life in places like Afghanistan, I don’t believe that is the reason. Most Americans couldn’t find the country on a map that didn’t have the borders drawn in. They’re not sure who we are fighting or why (most think it’s the Vietnam era “stop them there before they get here”). And, after all, the body count isn’t really that high (unless it’s your body or that of a loved one). It certainly isn’t to create a Jeffersonian democracy in a tribal 11th century region where shooting a 14 year old girl in the head and throwing acid in the faces of two others because they so blasphemously sought an education is acceptable. No my friend, I don’t think we fear the loss of life that is inherent in any great exploration. It is worse. I think that we, as Americans, just don’t care anymore. Please somebody, tell me I’m wrong.

        • Leonidas

          Yes Karol, I have to agree with you that the reasons run deeper, but the ‘acceptance of risk’ is just one angle of the whole problem.

          I’d highly recommend a book I came across very recently, if you haven’t read it already. The title is “The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity” and the writer is Wyn Wachhorst. You’d be blown away! It’s the book I was searching for my whole life, cause it explores spaceflight as an essentially spiritual undertaking (which has always been my view as well), the nobler expression of the human spirit, a journey that goes hand-in-hand with the exploration of inner space.

          The book also explores the reasons as to why people just ‘don’t care anymore’. And it has to do with losing the sense of awe and wonder towards the universe among other things.

  • The article contains “Lagrange 2, a point in space where the gravitational influence of the Sun, Earth and Moon are nullified”. That is incorrect.

    For a start, in _any_ system in which a medium body orbits around a large body without much external influence there is a set of five Lagrange Points where a small body might co-orbit with the other two. There is an Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2, which we cannot see because it is behind the Moon; and there is a Sun-Earth L2, which is overhead at midnight from any place on Earth where the Sun is currently overhead at noon.

    A large proportion of descriptions of the Lagrange Points currently in press releases and from journalists is wrong, though few are as bad as that one. Likewise for Web sites.

    Encyclopaedias, including Wikipedia, are generally approximately right on the subject.

    See http://www.merlyn.demon.co.uk/gravity4.htm and relevant linked pages.

  • The WWW is an international medium. The time-stamps that are added to these comments are meaningless without a clear indication of their offset from GMT. It would be better to use GMT or UTC.

  • “Dr” Stockton – the description of L2 was made so that the layman could grasp the concept. From a general point of view? The influences of the various bodies gravitational influences are essentially neutralized.