To paraphrase something once famously written on a white board by a U.S. Marine, “America is not in space. NASA is in space. America is at the mall.”
In other words, don’t blame the President. We must blame ourselves.
It’s been 49 years since U.S. astronaut and Navy officer Alan Shepard made his historic suborbital flight aboard the NASA Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7. At that time, the United States was behind the power curve in the so-called Space Race with the Soviet Union. Having been consistently beaten to the punch, first by the Sputnik satellite and then by the Vostok flight carrying cosmonaut and Soviet Air Force officer Yuri Gagarin, the United States was rather desperate to push its fledgling space program into high gear. Shepard’s flight lasted just over 15 minutes, but it — along with President Kennedy’s seminal space speech before Congress just 20 days later — signaled to the whole world that the United States was determined to be a dominating, elite player in the new frontier of space exploration.
The zenith of that national ambition occurred on July 20th, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface in their landing craft, appropriately named Eagle.
It’s now 2010 — over forty years since those breathtaking words, “The Eagle has landed,” — and NASA’s stand-alone ability to put people into space is drawing to a close. With no viable Shuttle replacement on the horizon — the STS fleet is being mothballed after three decades of remarkably steady service — NASA will soon have to rent seats on Russian missions, if it wants to keep Americans onboard the International Space Station. The replacement for STS — Ares/Constellation — is being canned, and debates rage in the space-geek community over who to blame.
The usual target is Mr. Obama, but I am not sure I can fault Barrack on this one.
Because Obama is just doing what every politician has done since Apollo 11 put the first humans on the moon. He has decided to talk high, and shoot low. The space program is given lip service, because people still remember NASA for that single, shining moment when it beat the Soviets and accomplished something which had never been accomplished before, in the entirety of human history. But now, nobody really cares. Moon landings were cool, but we’ve moved on. The voting public has declared NASA and the space program to be of little interest.
Easier — by far — to go to the 3D theater and take an imaginary space flight with Avatar than worry about the real space flights launching from Florida.
We — meaning the United States and its citizens — didn’t have to stop going to the moon. In 1970 we had a fully-functioning domestic industry ready and prepared to produce every piece of hardware and software necessary to take three men into lunar orbit, and land two of them on the moon’s surface, returning them later to lunar orbit, then all three back to Earth.
But we shrugged our shoulders, said, “Whoopee, we won!” and the space program has been cruising on inertia ever since. So please, before we fault Obama for only doing what previous men and women have done, I’d like us as voters to take a long, hard look at ourselves and what we’ve done to our beloved and now-atrophied space program.
There’s a line in the marvelous historical drama film, The Right Stuff, that says, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” It was true in 1959, it was true in 1979, and it’s been true through 2009. Everything that happens — every body, bolt and circuit board that goes into orbit — relies on money to get it there. NASA, as a federal agency, thus needs tax dollars to function. And the politicians in Washington D.C. don’t give NASA money unless the voters demand it.
But who, beyond the previously-mentioned space-geek community — mainly men, sadly aging — is going to make any such demand?
Pause for a moment. When was the last time you watched a Shuttle flight on television? Either the launch, or even a news bite about goings-on in orbit? A landing? Did you watch any of the amazing footage of any of the Hubble repairs? The construction of the Space Station? Were you alive to watch the historic first launching of the STS-1, Columbia, with its white-painted fuel tank and a veteran Apollo astronaut at the control stick? I was. I got up extra early that morning and was allowed to go late to school, just so I could stay home and watch on color TV as Columbia rode into the history books and, I was told at the time, a brave new era in American space exploration.
The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger was the first true sign of the inevitable. Even the pyrrhic deaths of the Apollo 1 crew didn’t slam America’s space confidence in the windpipe the way the so-called “Challenger Disaster” did. Everything was put on hold. Everything. And by the time the STS came back on-line over two years later, many people had started to ask: what is space good for any way? Was the Shuttle even worth it? How about the lives of the men and women who rode it?
And budgets continued to shrink. Having reached a high water mark of roughly 5.5% of the total U.S. Federal budget in 1966, the NASA budget shrank along a bumpy slope to its current resting state of roughly 0.5% of the total U.S. Federal budget.
Want to know what gets more money than NASA? Take a look at this pie chart for 2009.
Three of the top six ‘slices’ are purely social in nature, and Defense — where some have insisted NASA belonged the whole time — is smaller than Social Security, while being not that much bigger than Medicare.
NASA is one of the itty bitty slices, competing with all the other little itty bitty — but important — slices; for the scraps.
There are no more production lines producing the Saturn IC main stage, nor the II second stage, nor the IVB third stage. North American doesn’t exist, and cannot build Apollo crew or service modules. Grumman cannot build the Lunar Module. The lone intact examples of the rocket that took humans to the surface of another world, exist as historical displays only. None of them could be retrofitted for flight because we just don’t make “moon rocket” anymore! We can make a fucking MP3 device that can hold all the symphonic classics of the 17th through 19th centuries, but we don’t build moon rockets. We have gigabit-WAN that spans the globe, delivering high-speed, high-bandwidth fetish porn to every sweaty-palmed on-looker in every office and bedroom in the world, but we don’t make moon rockets. We have a national cow if some sports star cheats on his wife — like that’s original — but we didn’t give a hoot when they shut down the assembly lines and factories of Apollo, then wadded up the plans and threw them away.
This didn’t happen on accident. This was planned. Premeditated. Cold-blooded. We as voters were very clear in our priorities. Even now, the two issues most occupying public discourse — the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the National Healthcare debate — are nowhere close to being space-related. Oh, teeny bits of defense-focused technology are space related. And the U.S. Air Force does have its own rockets and capability of putting stuff into orbit. But neither the Air Force nor the Navy can put a pilot up there, nor do they have the spacecraft with which to try. Because the civilian government took that away when it formed NASA, and all attempts in the years since to build in-branch manned space programs have been quietly (and not so quietly) snuffed.
So now NASA itself is practically snuffed. But I am not sure voters care. As noted at the beginning of this article, voters aren’t in space. Voters are playing Warcraft, or surfing Facebook, or watching American Idol, or cruising down the grocery aisles dumping kilotons of high fructose corn syrup products into their swollen grocery carts. Americans would rather watch a bullshit make-believe movie about a fake planet, than fund a real space mission capable of taking us to a real planet.
Not a pretty picture, is it? No, I don’t like it either. And I wish to heck I knew the magic “switch” to pull to get other Americans — beyond the space-geek culture — to give a damn.
Maybe it’s never going to happen? Maybe it’s up to Richard Branson — Heinlein smiles down upon Virgin Galactic — to keep humans in orbit, or beyond? There are more than a few people who advocate precisely for the privatization of space exploration — because the Feds in true Fed fashion can’t manage their way out of a paper bag without going ten years over timeline and ten billion dollars over budget. It is the nature of the Federal beast. Spend more, take longer, produce fewer and fewer results. And nobody in the voting body seems to really give a damn if NASA is gradually phased out of the business of putting and keeping people in space — really, the most compelling reason for its existence in the length of its storied history.
I wish it weren’t so. But I think it is. And the future for America and Americans in space, is more clouded than it’s been since the end of World War II.