The future of space exploration

Posted on April 15th, 2010 by george.
Categories: Uncategorized.

My friend Amin asked me today, in light of President Obama’s speech, if I thought the new plan for NASA was a good thing or a bad thing.  First, let me say thank you to the President for taking the time to visit the Kennedy Space Center, and recognize that the last time we had the Chief down here was during the Clinton Administration.  Landing Air Force One at the Shuttle Landing Facility is a serious gesture, and I appreciate that.  I believe the President when he calls himself a champion for space exploration, not least because he’s promised an extra $6 billion to NASA over the next five years, even while the country is in an economic crisis.  That’s commitment, if you ask me.

As for the plan, it is what it is.  I don’t make the call.  I toe the line.  One of the unique aspects of our system of government is the term limit; it doesn’t always make for the greatest continuity of vision for NASA, but we deal.  I’m grateful to have a job here, doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing.  I know we’re capable of building a heavy lift rocket to rival the Saturn V.  I’m glad Orion gets a second chance as an ISS lifeboat.  I have high hopes that SpaceX will succeed and Falcon9 will make access to LEO cheaper and more routine.

Everyone is so resistant to change…but that’s life.  You really have to let go of what you can’t control if you want to have any chance of being happy.  It’s much easier to describe the set of what you can control:  your own actions.  That’s it.  So I chose to work here.  They tell me what to do, and I try to do the best job I can.  That’s all you can ask of anyone.

I don’t get too caught up in the Team America rhetoric.  I have more respect than I can express for what NASA and the United States have accomplished.  But I’m just as happy to see other nations succeed with the peaceful exploration of space.  Look at what just happened today:  India launched a rocket with a homegrown cryogenic third stage.  It failed, tumbled out of control at 11,000mph.

Hey, we’ve been there.  We feel your pain, India.  But you’ll analyze the failure, address the problem, learn from your mistakes, and move forward.  Just like the Corvette racing team at Sebring this year, after the two Vettes collided in the pits.

Yes, I am a broken record, but I’ll say it again until it sinks in:  we are one human family.  I look forward to the day we can all collaborate, instead of everyone reinventing the rocket ad infinitum.  Not that it’s not a good engineering exercise.  But think of what we could achieve if we pooled our resources and worked together instead of competing, much less fighting.  Gather the brain trust of every country in the world?  Take all the money we spend trying to kill each other and turn it toward social justice, education, science, discovery, and exploration?  We’d already be on Mars.  We’d be on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.  Permanently.  Today, Antarctica.  Tomorrow, the solar system.  Our fortunes would be diversified, and I can’t even begin to imagine the technologies we’d develop and how it would improve the lives of all humans, no matter which rock they ride.  It’s an unspeakably beautiful universe out there.  Look a little further:  can you see the day we set off to another star?

What matters to me is the question, “Are humans exploring space?”  The answer is a resounding yes.  Humans have lived in space, nonstop, since the year 2000.  There are more planetary probes and telescopes in space and on the ground than you can shake a stick at.  Spaceflight is exploding worldwide.  We learn new things every single day.  And let’s not forget:  if it weren’t for the Russians, the Europeans, the Canadians, the Japanese, and all our other brothers and sisters, the International Space Station wouldn’t be possible.  I don’t care what percentage of the bill was footed by the United States:  everyone helped.

How soon we forget that when we grounded the shuttles after the Columbia accident, ol’ Soyuz was the only ride in town.  How convenient that we omit that the very first satellite lofted by humans launched from Kazakhstan.  Yes, that’s right, the same Kazakhstan that Sacha Baron Cohen lampoons.  Now, when the whole fleet retires, we get to thumb a ride with Yuri again, and pony up a little gas money.  Let me be the first to say:  that’s not a bad thing.  Suck it up, America.  Show a little humility.  And a little gratitude.

I think it’s high time we Americans stopped thinking about everything in terms of us.  You wanna lead the world?  Fine.  Take the lead by inviting others to help.  The ISS is an incredible precedent, and a model for international cooperation.  We would be fools to let the bonds we’ve forged with this effort slip away.  Let’s propose a new vision that everyone can take part in.  Let’s throw our weight behind it, and put our money where our mouths are.

It’s not a party if you’re the only kid there.



Comment on April 22nd, 2010.

Well written and so true. I was sad to see Constellation tabled, but that won’t stop space exploration, innovation, and international cooperation. I’m sorry NASA won’t be selecting an astronaut class this year, but I know there will soon be private space commerce and there will be opportunities there. I’ve always imagined a global scientific think tank with real influence tackling humanities goals and challenges. I hope I live to see that transformative pooling of intellectual and spiritual capital on a grand scale. I’ve always wished that I would see a time when space travel becomes more accessible, and I’m still hopeful that I will. Until then, I’m content to be an avid spectator and supporter, praying for the safety and success of my brothers and sisters in space and glorying in their achievements.


Comment on April 22nd, 2010.

I share your hope, especially of seeing the pooling of all human capital. We’ve already seen a handful of private spaceflight participants. It will be interesting to witness the first commercial astronaut.

As I type, the Air Force’s X-37B is twenty minutes from launch. While there is an enormous legacy of military and intelligence satellites, and one could argue the Cold War fueled the space race, I hope we never see a military astronaut or a space-based weapon. The last thing we need is to take our warmongering to the next frontier.

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