What’s Going on at NASA?

The Thinker by Rodin

My friend Tom and I were big space program enthusiasts growing up in the 60s. It was hard not to be excited about the space program during that time, but we were something like fanatics about it back then. The space program embodied the best of American ingenuity at a time beset with otherwise pretty nasty problems like Vietnam, toxic waste and large city riots. In a country that at times seemed to be teetering on the edge of anarchy, it provided focus and pride.

What we accomplished in so short a time was amazing. Alan Shepard took his first suborbital flight on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. We landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, a mere 8 years, 2 months and 15 days later. We did it in an environment in which pretty much everything was unknown, including whether humans could even survive in weightlessness. In such a short time we created three types of manned space capsules (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) and a number of manned launch vehicles (Redstone, Titan, Saturn 1, Saturn 1-B and Saturn V). Except for the Apollo 1 accident, which killed three astronauts testing on a launch pad, it was a casualty free.

Many of us who were alive then will remember those days as glory days. It was so damned exciting! Moving to Florida as I did in 1972 was something of a mixed blessing, because I was close enough to Cape Kennedy where I could actually see a few launches. I felt the pressure of a Saturn V rocket against my chest launching Skylab into orbit, fully nine miles away watching it from across the lagoon from Merritt Island. The future seemed pretty limitless.

Reaching the Moon turned out to be something of a problem because suddenly there was no goal to shoot for anymore. After Apollo 11 each subsequent lunar mission seemed less compelling to the public and Congress seemed less inclined to open its checkbook to NASA. That pattern has continued to the present.

I have never worked for NASA but my brother Jim worked for it for a while as an intern and as a post-graduate. My brother in law Jim joined NASA in the mid 1980s and has risen pretty far in the organization, and has been program director for a number of projects. More recently my sister Doris, who has been on the edges of the manned space flight effort for years, accepted a job with NASA.

But as you know these are not great days for NASA. The Columbia disaster on February 1st shook me but at the same time I was wondering why it took so long. It was remarkable, under the circumstances that no manned space flight fatalities had happened in our program since the Challenger disaster.

Perusing the compulsory blue ribbon report the other day, there were technical reasons for the disaster, but equally important were the policy reasons for the disaster. It is clear to me that the real cause of the disaster was that the manned space program has been short shrifted by Congress and ignored by the White House for many years. Apparently we haven’t learned much from the Challenger disaster. After that disaster there was a similar blue ribbon commission. There were pledges to make safety a number one priority then too.

But the space program wasn’t sexy any more, and there were tax cuts, and budget deficits, and a lot of silly ideology that NASA was saddled with that really never made much sense but which NASA had to follow anyhow. Over the years funding for the space shuttle was cut 40%. As a result there have been fewer flights, and each flight became more expensive, and despite assurances NASA lied even to itself and made numerous shortcuts around safety.

Perhaps the stupidest decision NASA made was to turn over much of the operations to a consortium. It resulted in decisions being made by contractors that should have been made by NASA. NASA employees were increasingly disconnected from the technical reality of what it took to run a space program. Cost concerns became the primary concern. As much as safety was considered the top priority, it is clear that Congress was not going to provide the money to fund shuttle safety properly. And NASA managers, being managers, weren’t going to tell Congress and the Administration they couldn’t ensure safety anyhow. They knew who provided the butter for their bread.

We wanted to run a manned space program on the cheap and it didn’t work. The idea of a reusable shuttle as a cost effective means of providing transportation to space has, unfortunately, been discredited. This is not to say it is not possible, but it wasn’t possible with the technologies we had available in the 1970s. And we continue to limp along with that because Congress doesn’t want to pony up the money to replace it. And so old hardware continues to deteriorate, accidents happen and people die. Congress will browbeat NASA, but if it wants to see the true cause of the problem, it only needs to look in the mirror. This is the consequence of underfunding, inattention, lax oversight and one size fits all agencies ideology from both parties.

I wonder now if there is the will to even continue our manned space flight program. I suspect it will survive somehow, but it will be a long time before our geriatric shuttle fleet is retired and replaced by something else. That something else, perhaps the National Aero-Space Plane, seems a long way away. It will require much more money than it is getting now to make it a reality. Its technology may be too advanced at this particular time in our history. Time will hopefully tell. But so far Congress hasn’t invested much money in a replacement to the space shuttle, beyond basic research.

I do hope our manned space flight program survives. It continues to inspire not just middle-aged people like me but plenty of youth. If it is killed it will be like sticking a knife into the soul of our country. You can probably trace the beginning of the decline of the United States from such a decision. A space program doesn’t look all that good to administrations driven by capitalist ideology and enamored with balance sheets. We need a new goal: a colony on the moon perhaps, or a manned trip to Mars. None of this is beyond us. But it costs money.

It would however continue to be an excellent investment in our human spirit and potential.