Remembering Apollo 11

My best friend Tom and I were big space program fans back in the day, but in truth most Americans were as well. We were just more obsessed about it than most. The space program was a BFD in the 1960s, and our nation’s progress in space went at an extremely accelerated rate. That can happen when the nation focuses on a problem and it was a good problem to have. It made us feel better about not having put the first satellite or astronaut into space. Unlike the unwinnable war in Vietnam it didn’t involve killing anyone. Rather, it stirred our imaginations and better natures. We felt so lucky to be alive when an event of such importance was happening. Even better, we could watch grainy images of the events at time from 230,000 miles away, the general distance between the earth and moon, with about a second and a half delay.

I was twelve years old at the time, and these events came in rapid succession. Just eight months earlier, Apollo 8 had orbited the moon and safely returned, our first manned journey beyond earth orbit. That too was incredibly dangerous and daring. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module from the safety of an earth orbit, minus the actual landing of course. Apollo 10, less than two months before Apollo 11’s landing, did the same a few miles above the moon’s surface. Even so, Apollo 11 felt daring and in truth it was very dangerous. NASA generally did things cautiously, but arguably it should have been more cautious. The late President Kennedy had challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before 1970, so the pressure was on.

It would take moving to Florida some years later to see an actual rocket launch. I saw two of them: the last Saturn V launch which catapulted Skylab into orbit from about nine miles away, and a Saturn 1B launch that was used for a joint docking exercise between the USA and the Soviet Union from about three miles away (we got a special pass). For one of them my friend Tom made the journey from New York to see it with me. But by 1972 the nation lost interest. Apollo 11’s landing was a great climax. Apollo 13’s misfortune made for a great national story, but generally the nation quickly moved on after Apollo 11, which was a shame because each subsequent mission got more interesting and more challenging.

So my perspective of the landing came from a lot of obsessive reading about the space program and a lot of watching TV. One of the few decisions we had back then was which network to watch it on. We chose CBS because then CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was equally obsessed by the space program. Astronaut Wally Schirra, who managed to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, was Walt’s right hand guy giving an astronaut’s perspective. That was a hard combination to beat. Aside from the many, many commercials from Tang and the International Paper Company on CBS, there was some cheesy CBS animation depicting events that could not be televised. CBS’s animation showed the lunar module landing some thirty seconds before when it actually did. There was no way to slow it down with the animation of the time.

There was that and the static-filled conversations between astronauts in Eagle (the lunar module), Columbia (the command module) and Mission Control in Houston, much of it technical and hard to decipher. The landing happened in the afternoon for us on the east coast. The first moonwalk though was the even more exciting event, which happened sometime around midnight. We got special parental dispensation to stay up late, but Aldrin wasn’t even on the surface before I was shuffled off to bed. The images from the lunar surface were in black and white, and were later broadcast in color in later missions. Buzz Aldrin noted the “magnificent desolation” of the moon and it sure seemed that way to us here on earth. It was a time of great national pride and unity, which is pretty much the antithesis of what we have now. Fifty years later, our country looks like a shell of what it was in 1969, even factoring in the divisive Vietnam War and racial strife that also characterized the 1960s.

I’ll certainly be dead 50 years from now, but there’s probably an even chance I’ll be alive to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing. Two of the Apollo 11 astronauts are still with us (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins), but we lost Neil Armstrong in 2013. Both Michael and Buzz look ancient as they are both age 89 at the moment. But both still have their wits about them. I’m glad they are still around to share their memories.

Fifty years later, we can unquestionably say that this was the biggest event in the history of the human race, at least so far. Even a manned landing on Mars will feel anticlimactic. Should we ever make it as as a race to a planet around another solar system, that will be perhaps a greater event. If it ever happens though, it’s unlikely anyone who watched the crew depart will be around to celebrate.

Mankind is not going to the stars

I’m something of a space geek. It helps to have grown up during the space race. I still find the exploration of outer space fascinating. Our knowledge of the universe is growing by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of planets have been discovered, so many that it no longer makes news to announce new ones. Many of these planets look like they might support human life, although it’s hard to say from such a fantastic distance away. Some of us are waiting expectantly for someone to discover the warp drive, so we can go visit and colonize these distant worlds. Maybe it will be just like Star Trek!

It fires my imagination too and it excites the popular press as well. It all sounds so exotic, fascinating and Buck Roger-ish. The only problem is that almost certainly none of this will happen. We might be able to put men on Mars, but colonizing the planet looks quite iffy. Even colonizing the moon, as I suggested when Newt Gingrich was promoting the idea during his last presidential campaign, is probably cost prohibitive. Which means we need to keep our dreams of visiting strange new worlds in check. It won’t be us, it won’t be our children or grandchildren and it probably won’t happen at all. To the extent we visit them it will occur virtually, using space probes.

I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news but hear me out. We probably won’t colonize the moon permanently because it will be too costly to sustain it. It’s one thing to land a man on the moon, which America did rather successfully. It’s much more costly to stay there. For a sizeable group of humans, say ten thousand or so, to live self sufficiently on the moon is probably impossible. If it can be done it will take a capital investment in the trillions of dollars. My guess is that it would take tens of trillions of dollars, if not hundreds of trillions of dollars. It’s unlikely the moon has enough water that we could mine but if it does it’s likely very inefficient to process as it is wrapped up in moon dust. Otherwise water would have to be imported from earth at ruinous costs. In fact, colonists would have to import pretty much everything. Even if citizens of the moon could grow their own food and recycle their own water, manufacturing is likely to be limited. We might have a small scientific colony on the moon, like we do at the International Space Station. It probably won’t amount to more than a dozen men or women, and it’s likely to cost at least ten times as much as the international space station cost, since you have to move equipment and men a much further distance.

What about man colonizing Mars? It doesn’t seem out of reach. When the orbits are working just right, a spacecraft can transit each way in about six months. The cost of getting a pound of matter to Mars is likely ten to a hundred times the cost of getting it to the moon, which is probably cost prohibitive in itself. The journey there and back though looks chancy. It’s not just the possibility that some critical system will fail on the long journey; it’s the cosmic rays. Our astronauts are going to absorb a heap of radiation, the equivalent of 10,000 chest X-rays. It looks though that this is probably manageable. What of man living on Mars itself?

The good news is that humans could live on Mars, providing they don’t mind living underground. The atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, it is much colder on Mars than on the Earth in general and you can’t breathe the air and live. It’s true that by essentially burying our houses in Martian soil humans could be safe from much of it. Slapping on some SPF-50 sunscreen though won’t do the job. Anyone on the surface will have to wear spacesuits. So far we haven’t found a reliable source of water on Mars either. Colonizing Mars is within the realm of probability, but it is fairly low. Frankly, it’s a very remote, cold and arid place with nothing compelling to it other than a lot of empty mountains and valleys and swirling Martian dust, almost always in a pink or orange haze.

Colonizing distant moons and asteroids have similar problems: no suitable conditions for sustaining life as we know it, insufficient gravity, toxic radiation, frequently toxic chemicals and cold of the sort that most of us simply cannot comprehend it. Both Venus and Mercury are simply too hot to inhabit, and Venus is probably as close to hell as you will find on a planet in our solar system.

What about colonizing planets around other solar systems? Here’s where we need to fire up the warp drive of our imaginations because as much as physicists try to find exceptions around Einstein’s theories of relativity, they can’t. The closer you get to the speed of light the more energy it takes. It’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain. To get a spacecraft with people in it to even 10% of the speed of light looks impossible with any technology we have or can reasonably infer. The closest star is three light years away, so even if this speed could be achieved it would take thirty years to get to the closest star. But it can’t be achieved. In fact, we’d be lucky to get to 1% of the speed of light, which would make a journey to Proxima Centauri a voyage of 300 years. Moreover, if some generations could make the journey, it is likely that our closest star is not inhabitable.

Perhaps we could freeze ourselves and wake up millions of years later at our destination. Maybe that would work. Obviously, we don’t have technology to do anything like this now. And given the laws of entropy, it’s hard to imagine any spacecraft that could survive a voyage of that duration intact.

What we need is a warp drive and a starship. But what we will really need is an escape clause from the theories of relativity and the technology that will allow humans to utilize it: a spacecraft that can slip through a wormhole or something. It’s not that this is impossible, but with what we know it looks impossible for us and will always be impossible. In any event there doesn’t appear to be any wormholes conveniently near Earth.

In short, we are stuck to the planet Earth. We’d best enjoy what we have and stop squandering the planet on which all human life depends. So far we are doing a terrible job of it.

Speaker Moon Colony

In case you missed the news, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich jumped the shark last week. While pandering for votes near Cape Canaveral, Gingrich said that by the end of his second term the United States would have established a colony on the moon. Even better for potential colonists, when the colony reaches 13,000 people they can apply for statehood!

It’s all part of Gingrich’s wanting to distinguish himself as a different, big picture kind of candidate. While the unemployed aerospace workers near the space center were enthusiastic, the other remaining candidates quickly realized that his proposal was ridiculous. Mitt Romney was quick to capitalize on it by criticizing his proposal at the next debate. Perhaps as a result, Mitt Romney now appears to be outpolling likely Republican voters in Florida, who vote Tuesday in the state’s primary.

Gingrich’s proposal is technically feasible. We obviously know how to get to the moon, as we have done it many times before. One thing we have learned since the days of Apollo, and has been reinforced through decades of space shuttle flights, is that while we know how to get man into space, we have failed to figure out a way to do it cost efficiently. The space shuttle was originally envisioned as a means for getting cargo into space for as low as $118 a pound (in 1972 dollars). It seemed sort of plausible when it was first launched. Subsequently we discovered it cost a lot more than that. In 2010 dollars, each shuttle mission cost about $1.5 billion dollars, if you divide the cost of the program in constant dollars by the number of flights. The last space shuttle flight was estimated to have cost about $40,000 per pound of payload.

That’s $40,000 to get one pound of payload into a low earth orbit. The moon of course is much further away. To really build permanent colonies on the moon all sorts of heavy equipment would need to be transported there, requiring spacecraft with relatively large cargo bays, something we don’t yet possess. While there is some hope that water can be harvested from the moon, it would certainly be neither easy nor cheap to acquire. For the foreseeable future, water would have to be imported from Earth. A gallon of water weighs about 8.35 pounds. Assuming we find some very efficient way of transporting cargo to the moon, say at a cost of $10,000 a pound, it would cost about $100,000 to move just a gallon of water from the earth to the moon. A hundred gallons would cost a million dollars to transport. Bear in mind that my cost is artificially low and it would likely cost much more like $100,000 a pound. It doesn’t take much back of the envelope calculating to discover that creating a colony on the moon, at least with current technology, would be ruinously expensive.

But when you are a big picture guy like Newt Gingrich, apparently these minor problems can be ignored. It’s unclear how such a major endeavor would be funded. Gingrich after all is a candidate famous for wanting to reduce taxes, not raise them. Based on his proposals, don’t expect a Gingrich administration to touch defense spending, except to increase it. From his belligerent talk it sounds like we might be fighting dual wars with Iran and North Korea too if he were elected president. But even if the money could be found, is it even technically possible in just eight years to have a sustained human colony on the moon? It seems unlikely, as we do not possess at the moment the launch vehicles needed to do the job, as the Saturn V rocket has long been retired. So not only is the proposal cost prohibitive, it appears technically impossible to accomplish as well, at least within eight short years.

Perhaps it could happen if Gingrich were to rescope the mission. Perhaps the goal should be to colonize the moon with a self-sustaining colony of gerbils instead of humans. We could probably do that for $100 billion or so, and chances are the gerbils would do a much better job adapting to the moon that we would. In any event, his proposal should be greeted with derision. Once the costs are understood this by itself should make him unqualified for president.

Governor Jerry Brown in his first term as California governor was famously called “Governor Moonbeam” for the sin of being New Agey. If I were Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, I would be attaching a “Speaker Moon Colony” label to Gingrich then let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind.

And that’s the way it was

Forty years ago, I was a twelve-year-old boy whose voice had yet to change living in Endwell, New York. Like most Americans I was glued to my TV set because what appeared to be the most monumental event in the history of mankind was underway: man was about to land and walk on the moon! 1969 was a crazy time. It made no sense that such an epic achievement was taking place amongst the chaos of The Vietnam War (which was going badly), assassinations and great civil unrest. Fortunately, absconded in our upstate New York suburb we were largely insulated from these events. We could however gaze into the night sky, look at the moon and marvel that our species was about to land and put a foot on the lunar surface.

On July 20th, 1969, the day astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the network coverage was nonstop. All the networks had continuous coverage but like most Americans we were tuned into our CBS affiliate. Why? Because the moon landing was being covered by trusted news anchor and space nut Walter Cronkite. Between many commercials from The International Paper Company (“where good ideas grow on trees”), Uncle Walt and his space buddies (which typically included astronaut Wally Schirra and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) gave us the inside scoop. They were amply assisted by the CBS animation department, which created animations of events that we could not see live, like the landing of Eagle on the moon. (As I recall the simulated landing happened at least thirty seconds before the actual landing.) Americans may have been culturally divided but on July 20th, 1969 we were all watching TV or listening to the radio. It was not just America; it was the entire world. This triumphant event was simply not to be missed.

Yesterday, veteran CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite finally passed into the great hereafter at the ripe old age of 92. Wally Schirra died in 2007 at the age of 84. Arthur C. Clarke is still among the living at age 90. America’s space program, which reached its zenith on July 20th, 1969 is now nearing its nadir. The space shuttle is about to be retired. A next generation vehicle to take Americans into space is years away, at best. This means that soon for the first time since the 1960s the United States will have no way to put a man into space.

In many ways, July 20th, 1969 will probably be seen as the United States of America’s greatest moment. Since then America has felt like an empire in decline. In 1969, the universe seemed within our grasp. If we could put a man on the moon, we said, why not a man on Mars? Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, called for putting men on Mars by 2031. In reality, we could put a man on Mars by 2020 if we summoned our collective will. It would actually not be that large an engineering enterprise, at least compared with putting a man on the moon. In ten years, we went from Alan Shepard’s suborbital spaceflight in a Mercury capsule to putting a man on the moon. During the 1960s, we discovered that as a nation we could focus on what seemed like this crazy national goal and within a decade actually achieve it. In 2009, we struggle to even summon the will to limit our nation’s greenhouse gases.

What the hell happened? Part of the problem was that after the moon landing there seemed to be no satisfactory encore. Subsequent landings seemed anticlimactic, even though the later landings were far more interesting. By December 19, 1972 with the end of the Apollo 17 mission, our interest in exploring the moon largely ended. NASA tried to reinvent itself as a more practical agency. It reused surplus Apollo hardware and sent Skylab into earth orbit. The Skylab launch was the last time a Saturn V would rocket into space and I was five miles away to witness it. NASA then created the space shuttle as a next generation reusable space vehicle. Unfortunately, the space shuttle proved to be a great idea in theory, but not so much in practice. It was complex, hard to maintain and magnitudes more expensive than anticipated. At one point NASA was saying they could get cargo into orbit on the shuttle for $200 a pound. Each shuttle flight now costs in the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, marginal crowds of tourists will show up for a shuttle launch. By becoming commonplace, shuttle launches have lost their fascination. In fact, our manned space program today is a product of 1970s engineering. The people who inspired us to marvel in the space program, like Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra, are largely dead or retired. With so many pressing needs and our government vastly overextended, there appears to be little will to reinvigorate our manned spaceflight program.

Our modern triumphs in the manned spaceflight program these days are somewhat muted and amount to the International Space Station, now actually close to completion. This is just as well because the space shuttle is the only vehicle big enough to ferry its largest components. The ISS too is largely being taken for granted. Its research is of marginal value. It is most useful simply as an exercise in learning what is required for people to live in space for long periods. It turns out that piecing together an international space station in orbit is hard work. It is also challenging to keep it in orbit. Rocket and satellite debris careens around in near earth orbit. The ISS needs occasional boosts so it doesn’t fall back into earth. What is its future? You would think that after investing about a hundred billion dollars we might want to keep it orbiting, but NASA has plans to de-orbit the ISS in 2016. Apparently, it cannot find the money to maintain it beyond then, so it might as well fall back to earth. With the shuttle’s retirement, we have to depend on Russian space capsules to service the ISS anyway.

The truth is the nation’s manned spaceflight program is on critical support. It is not clear that there is the political will to ensure that the United States maintains a manned spaceflight program at all. We have had great and sometimes stunning success with unmanned spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. Unless the dynamics change quickly though, the future of manned spaceflight may belong to the Russians and the Chinese.

We simply have lost interest. But perhaps, if enough Americans take the time to appreciate the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, we will summon our collective will toward more manned space exploration of our universe.

Unsafe at any hyper-speed

Oy, this is a hard entry for this space enthusiast to write. I hate to say it, but I believe that our shuttle fleet is too risky to fly. It is time to retire it permanently. I think a convincing case can be made to retire it immediately.

On April 18, 1980, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on the first space shuttle mission. As a manned spaceflight enthusiast, I was proud and excited. Surely, I thought, the shuttle was the catalyst that would open space to the masses. I believed that manned spaceflight was going to become routine. I hoped that there would soon be no more need to send up disposable rockets and spacecraft. Our marvelous shuttle technology would let us get to and from space with minimal cost.

I wrote many of these thoughts in an enthusiastic letter to The Washington Post (which they published). In it, I bubbled about how the shuttle would open up the commercialization of space. I envisioned weekly shuttle flights. I bought into NASA’s notions that shuttle cargo could be delivered for as little as $100 to $200 a pound. I saw this new shuttle technology creating a path for better and sexier reusable space vehicles. I saw myself in the latter half of my life taking a trip into orbit as a tourist, and perhaps spending a couple days at some vast orbiting space station right out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, I was pretty naïve. But hey, I was only 23!

Fast-forward twenty-three years. On the same day that I turned forty-six (February 1st, 2003) that same shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry, killing its seven astronauts and leaving a trail of wreckage across Texas. When I learned that the shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff in 1986 I, like most Americans, was profoundly upset. However, when I learned of the Columbia disaster, while sad, I was not surprised. By the mid 1990s, I understood that the space shuttle was getting old and another catastrophe was simply a matter of time.

I think it was clear to NASA too. They knew as the shuttle aged it became more accident prone. That is why NASA funded the X-33 project with the expectation that it would eventually replace the shuttle. Unfortunately, the badly managed X-33 project turned into a fiasco. It wasted $1.3 billion before it was killed. Instead of metering out relatively small bucks over many years for a shuttle replacement, what we needed was a serious debate. Did this country want to stay in the manned spaceflight business? If we were to continue a manned spaceflight program then we needed to come up with a viable and well-funded plan to do it. In addition, the replacement needed to be ready before the laws of entropy tripped up our aging shuttle fleet again.

Okay, I was a wee bit off on my hopes for the space program in 1980. I grew up in the middle of our manned spaceflight program. I was hooked by the adventure of it all. I expected that everyone could share my sense of adventure. Moreover, I was hardly alone. However, it turned out that sending humans into space reliably and cheaply was far harder than NASA had touted. It currently costs about $10,000 to ship one pound of cargo into space today on the space shuttle.

In a way, politics killed the seven Columbia astronauts. Our astronauts died in part because our Congress and presidents found the shuttle program not terribly interesting. Instead of acting as overseers, they acted as mere politicians. The easiest political act was for the Congress to pay for occasional and increasingly expensive shuttle flights and hope for no more catastrophes. Congress bought into the illusion that we had made the shuttle safe enough.

The delayed launch of the shuttle Discovery last Tuesday, rather than bringing some relief, brought home just how precarious the space shuttle is twenty-five years later. After the Columbia disaster, no one faults NASA for being hyper-vigilant. Yet it hardly gives citizens a comfortable feeling when the Discovery launch was delayed due to flaky parts whose root problem could not be discerned. In addition, NASA engineers were clearly surprised when foam from the shuttle’s booster rockets ripped off during launch. While it did not appear to damage the Discovery, it means that future shuttle flights are grounded until a viable fix can be manufactured. Nor was it good news that during the launch two strips of filler material separating tiles on the orbiter’s belly partially pulled out. Fortunately, astronaut Steve Robinson was able to remove them during a spacewalk this week. Meanwhile, a thermal blanket on a less sensitive spot on the orbiter’s skin also pulled out, presumably during launch. NASA engineers say it should not cause a problem during Monday’s reentry. Therefore, the odds look good for a safe shuttle landing. Still like most Americans, I am left with a disquieting feeling that the shuttle is getting too old and too fragile to be used within a reasonable margin of safety.

While it may be technically possible to keep flying the shuttle within a reasonable margin of safety, it is looking increasingly cost prohibitive and dangerous to even bother. The hyper attention to safety is certainly better than another dead shuttle crew. However it suggests that we have reached our limits on what we can do with the aging shuttle technology. It may make more sense to acknowledge that safety margins are now unacceptable, and we should ground the shuttle fleet permanently.

We need a new manned spaceflight vehicle to replace the shuttle. The good news is that Congress and the White House are finally awake now. President Bush’s 2004 space initiative may act as the catalyst to finally retiring the shuttle fleet. Bush’s plan calls for spending $6.6 billion over five years to develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). (The total eventual cost is estimated to be $15 billion. Anyone want to bet the real cost will be a lot higher?) Bush’s initiative also calls for a return of men to the moon and an eventual manned journey to Mars. The CEV is merely one part of a NASA Exploration System Architecture Study that is underway. It proposes a variety of new or reengineered rockets and capsules that will enable both a manned space presence by the United States in the future, and provide heavy-duty rockets to lift very heavy payloads into space. (One design under consideration would be as powerful as the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo moon flights.)

The proposed timelines for these endeavors strike me as wildly optimistic. President Bush called for test flying an unmanned CEV in three to five years. NASA’s plans discuss retiring a shuttle as early as 2007. In 2011, NASA envisions a manned flight of the CEV. This all sounds wonderful but NASA has yet to select a design for a next generation manned spacecraft vehicle. Instead, there are proposals for vendors to submit designs. NASA plans to pick a design by March 2006 for the CEV.

I wish NASA luck, but this is not your father’s NASA. Where once it was smart and agile, it appears to have become bureaucratic and politically correct. It has always been an institution where contractors do most of the work. What is different from the 1960s is that contractors also make many of the tactical decisions. In addition, those at the top are not necessarily qualified with sufficient engineering skills to make informed judgments. Therefore, while I wish new NASA Administrator Michael Griffin luck with his accelerated schedule, I am also wary. Decisions made in haste can be as bad as those that are over pondered. My sense is that NASA is no longer agile enough to manage properly a program as large and aggressive as the one President Bush is proposing. Taking smaller bites might be a better strategy. I would hope that NASA would worry about putting men back on the moon or sending them to Mars after NASA first demonstrates that it can competently manage and deliver a shuttle replacement.

Because this accelerated schedule is politically driven, do not expect any shuttles to retire in 2007, or even 2010. Instead, expect them to be used more sparingly, and at greater cost and risk. If we are lucky, something well engineered will replace it in the next decade. Let us hope that as long as we are unwise enough to keep using our shuttle fleet that our hyper safety practices are effective. I think we will also need a lot of luck.

What’s Going on at NASA?

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.