On @ The 90: Atlantis Exhibit’s Opening Highlights NASA’s Malaise

AmericaSpace photograph space shuttle Atlantis Exhibit photo credit Jason Rhian
Yesterday’s opening of the Atlantis Exhibit unleashed a swell of emotions from most in attendance. It was a time to reflect on the past as well as the future. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — As a former soldier and law enforcement officer, I am not one who is comfortable showing emotion in public. So as I watched the introductory presentation that greets guests at the new Atlantis Exhibit, I had an “itch” just under one of my eyes. As the presentation continued I am sure that anyone watching me must have thought I had the mother of all rashes on my face. The opening show alone for the new $100 million Atlantis Exhibit is that moving. It was requested that we not spoil much about this, and even though the event is now open to the public, I’ll  comply. The exhibit brought forth a flood of memories, emotions, and hope for what the future might bring, as well as concerns about challenges that currently face the space community.

The day prior to the Atlantis Exhibit’s grand opening, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, as well as Space Florida’s Jim Kuzma, detailed how NASA had tapped Space Florida to both maintain and operate the Shuttle Landing Facility. The trio highlighted the space agency and its partner’s efforts to modernize, to hand over some operations to commercial companies, and to work to send crew beyond the orbit of Earth for the first time in more than four decades. They also highlighted the need for Congress and the president to collaborate to promote a unified space initiative—more on the likelihood of that happening in a moment.

AmericaSpace Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit Gaseous Vent Beanie Cap Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex photo credit Jason Rhian AmericaSpace
The gaseous vent arm, better known as the “Beanie Cap” which was once at Launch Complex 39B, has been incorporated into the new Atlantis Exhibit. It is one of many elements of the shuttle era that adorn the new exhibit. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

Having seen as many elements of the space program as I have, I am a hard person to impress. Having said that, my jaw was dragging on the floor through a good portion of the past two days. It is a spectacular exhibit. During the “pre-show” a video snippet includes (very) accurate audio of one of the orbiter’s returning to Earth. I had heard those booms more than a few times and had almost forgotten how much they filled me with excitement.

I was bombarded with memories and emotions throughout the course of the past two days. Touching the tires that delivered Atlantis safely to the ground after she completed her last voyage, laughing with Chris Ferguson about the unease he put me through as he trained in the Shuttle Training Aircraft, seeing so many familiar faces and friends—it reiterated how much had been lost. But how much have we gained?

Underside of space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex photo credit Jason Rhian AmericaSpace
Looking up at Atlantis, one can almost see the history etched into the orbiter’s very tiles. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

As stated earlier, Bolden reiterated that Congress should work with the president. He was correct. The budget games, for want of a better word, are destructive, no matter who is playing them. They were wrong when President Obama cancelled Constellation, wasting six years of work and an estimated $9 billion. At that time he directed NASA on a different path than the one it was on. The space agency was told to focus more on supporting commercial companies and forget sending humans into deep space for a while. Congress, in a rare act of leadership, worked to blend the two: commercial companies would manage orbital operations as NASA worked to propel astronauts away from Earth for the first time in 40 years. Sadly, this one breath of rational behavior has since eroded away. The budget games are equally wrong now, just the players have changed. Now it is Congress who is to blame.

The president’s push to have NASA capture an asteroid and deliver it to lunar orbit is already being pushed back by Congress. Care to guess what Congress wants NASA to do instead? Exactly what the agency was directed to do prior to Obama’s 2010 course change: build a lunar base. I strongly support the construction of a lunar base, but what I don’t support is how NASA has been yanked this way and that every couple years.

Is this what we “get” for scuttling so much of our aerospace infrastructure? Is this our “reward” for seeing so many highly trained professionals directed to the unemployment office? A never ending stream of changes, “take backs,” and revisions that make the development phase of the International Space Station look streamlined and efficient by comparison?

AmericaSpace photo space shuttle Atlantis Exhibit photo credit Jason Rhian
It is unclear where the road that NASA is currently on will take the space agency. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

Obama let the genie out of the bottle when he canceled his predecessor’s space initiative. If he had diplomatic skills, he would have taken a page out of President Clinton’s playbook—when Clinton reviewed the wildly mismanaged and over-budget Space Station Freedom Project. Clinton didn’t cancel it; he found ways to stem the budgetary issues, and he included agencies, some of which were from countries who were our “enemies” just a few years earlier. Because of this, now we have the International Space Station (ISS). Make no mistake, the ISS is the furthest thing imaginable from perfect. However, it is far better to have it on orbit than to have it canceled.

Neither the president nor Congress are innocent in terms of the situation that NASA is currently in. They are both complicit in the rudderless space agency that we currently have. Make no mistake, we too are responsible for this mess. One side will say that we should scrap NASA and hand everything over to commercial companies; the other side will say commercial still has much to prove and has to wait. The truth is somewhere in the middle, regardless of the emotion-laden rants that are sure to accompany the posting of this op-ed. Neither side is completely right or wrong, and we are better off together, rather than battling one another. As a community, spacers are fractured, splintered, and therefore we are more easy to control.

Many think the shuttles were retired before their time, but some among them felt that if it allowed for missions back to the Moon, to Mars, and to points beyond, it would be worth it. If the space agency is yanked this way and that every few years (lately it has been led by its nose in all manner of directions far more frequently than just every four years)? It will be rendered incapable of ever finishing anything. If this trend is not halted? It will mean that the “loss” of the shuttles will be for naught.

AmericaSpace Photographspace shuttle Atlantis payload bay exhibit KSCVC Photo Credit Jason Rhian AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

I sat down underneath Atlantis and mulled the winding road that has deposited us where we find ourselves. The end of the shuttle era began with the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. It looked like this disaster might be used to get NASA back to the business of space exploration. Politics, however, had other ideas. As I said earlier, I served as a law enforcement officer for a little over six years; I worked in corrections. I didn’t consider a member of one gang to be any more (or less) noble than the member of some other gang. I view political parties similarly. The constant yanking back and forth that NASA has endured has not changed my perception of them one iota.

Looking around, I sincerely hoped the children who come and play around Atlantis will be inspired by this exhibit, that they will fight to maintain the U.S.’s leading position in space efforts. Would they stay the course? Would they work to mend fences? Or would they succumb to the forces that created this situation? I looked at Atlantis again, and it was clear she had no answers for me. I was not disappointed in how most of the orbiters have been treated in the post-shuttle era (except for Enterprise). I am deeply disappointed that, given the shuttle’s retirement was announced in 2004, we are not further along than we are. Seeing Atlantis above me I realized we are at a crossroads, and it is painfully obvious that the future is anything but certain.

The comments in this feature are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of AmericaSpace.

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  1. Excellent op-ed as always Jason!

    Indeed, the US needs a long-term strategy towards space exploration and the right rationale and justification for it. Also, the US can learn a thing or two from the Chinese space program, which is going forward rather slowly but steadily for the past 20 years, each time ticking off an item on the milestones list.

    As to what that long-term strategy in space could be, there is no shortage of opinions. My personal choice, would be the development of cislunar transportation infrustructure, between the Earth and the Moon. An excellent article about this, and the rationale for doing it, is written by dr. Paul Spudis, titled ‘Human spaceflight: Why and How?’, here:


  2. Jason,

    Just for fullness sake – we can’t actually say that Congress wants to go to the moon. You could argue that there is a sizable faction within the House that wants to go to the Moon, but we have no idea where the Senate will come down on the issue of destinations beyond LEO (indeed, we do know that Senator Nelson is backing the Asteroid Recovery Missions).

    Rumor has it that there will be a Senate NASA authorization bill coming soon. Then, we’ll have an idea of what the Senate thinks.

    One other thing – I won’t claim to speak for all NewSpacers, and advocates of commercial space, but the ones I talk to don’t want NASA to close up shop. We want NASA to reform itself, so that it creates a better alignment of users of space.

  3. Whatever happened to the REAL Space Act which was intended to create a more rational, long-term management of NASA with a directorship similar to that of the FBI, a panel of planetary scientists, astronauts, and industry professionals who would provide direction and goals, and means for long-term funding to support long -term projects? It sounded like a great idea, a small “de-politicization” of NASA. Without long-term planning to accomplish a clear publicly-supported goal (which, unlike the asteroid capture, a return to the Moon seems to have) supported by adequate funding for longer than a budget cycle, you are exactly right Jason, we will continue to remain splintered, fractured, and easy to control. As Jim Hillhouse pointed out in a previous posting, many of our European partners are expressing real reservations about continued support for the ISS, and if the commercial sector does not step up with plans and financial resources to continue operations, the situation will become even more “interesting” very soon.

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