Saturday, June 23, 2007

Blame it on Nixon


Why haven't we gone back to the moon? or landed on Mars? Why 38 years after first landing on the Moon and 35 years since we last set foot on another world have we not left low Earth orbit with a manned craft? The answer lies in the troubled world that was Richard Nixon's presidency. Despite having the good fortune of being in office when the first manned landing by a human (an American) on another world occurred Nixon didn't seize the momentum or chart his on next steps for the American space program. Nixon was too preoccupied with the Vietnam War, later Watergate, but always about his own insecurities. For him, landing on the Moon accomplished the dream of his political enemy JFK. Nixon wanted the NASA budget cut and a cheaper solution found. He positioned it as a new era of space travel, but he really couldn't have cared less. The Space Shuttle was born of that initiative, an incredible machine, but a single method of what should have been a multi-part program. Americans built the amazing shuttle and could have continued enhancing the Saturn program to provide Americans with a versatile launch capability. The Skylab program accomplished much with very little, but Nixon didn't have the forethought to fund America's space program and keep it on a track that would have dominated for decades. He couldn't see the legacy that would have left behind for him much like Kennedy's space legacy lives on today. We would be talking about how Richard Nixon was responsible for Americans on Mars. Instead, Nixon is the man who single handily took the world's preeminent space power and technology leader and set us on a course that would cause the program to drift for years. Today, as a result of Nixon's failed vision for space exploration we are in another space race. We are still ahead for now, but there is a question if we will win this race. Our marvelous shuttle will retire soon and leave a gap where America won't have a manned launch capability and the Chinese and Russians will. Why don't we have Americans on the Moon or Mars? The blame rest solely on the shoulders of Richard Nixon. His space legacy doesn't exist. His failed space exploration vision was just another failure we can add to his presidency.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Interest in the Space Program

Where does the myth come from that Americans don't care or aren't interested in the space program? I recently went down to the Kennedy Space Center to view the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on June 8th. The launch was scheduled for 7:38 and I got to the center in the early morning. The visitor complex was crowded and the gift shop overflowing with people buying space memorabilia who just couldn't seem to get enough of it. The lines to view the space-themed IMAX films were very long and visitors lined up in the hot sun to get a chance to see them. Around 4pm we left the main visitor complex and made the short bus trip into the complex to watch the launch from the NASA causeway. NASA only allows 3000-5000 visitors on the causeway to view a launch. The grassy area was lined with people from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. All were amazed and excited at the launch and mesmerized that they got to see what the majority of Americans will never get to see - the launch of a manned spacecraft. It reminded me of film I had seen of the Apollo 11 launch. People lined everywhere along the space coast to see a part of history. America's space program is a source for American pride, we have landed on the moon and it will still take other countries another twelve years to do what we did 38 years ago. Politicians are the ones who seem out of touch with the pulse of the people. I'm no fan of Senator Barbara Milkuski (D-MD), but she is one of the few who has consistently gone to bat to get more money for NASA. President George Bush and his father are and were supporters of the space program. President Bush directed NASA to take the next steps in space exploration with the Moon, Mars and Beyond initiative. The naysayers argue we have better things to do with our money - my response is yes we have better things to do with the incredible amounts of money we waste on trivial or pork barrel projects, but funding and supporting the manned and unmanned exploration of space should be a top priority. With an election looming it is important in the midst of all of the other issues to understand whether or not the candidates will continue to support the space program those that don't or seek to diminish it's role and vision are not in sync with the will of the people.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Red Moon

China announced today a new heavy lift launch vehicle capable of lifting a space station or propelling astronauts to the moon. The target launch date is 2011. China's space program garners a lot of attention. Each announcement seems to convey a country that just isn't satisifed with getting a man into Earth orbit, but a country that is on a course similar to the United States in the early sixties. China is on a fast track, seemingly achieving one space success after another. Their budget is lower than NASA's yet they appear to be on a calculated path to reach the moon and beyond at or before the United States. This is a different era though and the Chinese space program has the advantage of leveraging the work of both the American and Russian programs that accomplished so much in an era where ingenuity and resourcefulness were required. The Chinese has been able to take shortcuts to getting into space. First, they've leverged the Russian knowledge and hardware. Second, they have had open access to the wealth of public information that the American program makes available. Lastly, the Chinese program is more narrowly focused. The American program is ambitious - the world is learning about the solar system from missions like Cassini, Mars Rovers, ISS, Pluto-Kuiper Express, Messenger, Dawn, Hubble, SOHO, NEAR, Deep Impact and many others. The U.S. Program is criticized for it's expense, but compared to the Chinese program the American program is leading the planet on exploring other worlds. The Chinese programs is focused on getting to the moon, the American program is focused on getting back to the moon, but also in exploring the rest of the universe and continued research on aeronautics and earth sciences. Our program accomplishes so much with limited resources. The budget needs to be increased significantly to further our continued exploration. Space isn't a luxury that some think we can't afford, but a necessity that we must afford to secure our nation's technological preeminence and to take what is considered the next Saudia Arabia - the Moon. The moon is thought to hold enough Helium 3 to power the Earth for a 1000 years. With China's growing energy demands, securing an endless supply of clean fuel would be priceless. If we don't act, don't get back to the moon first, we will indeed gaze at the night sky and see a red moon.