Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On This Christmas Eve

Forty years ago tonight America was bringing to a close a year that saw much turmoil and unrest. America's survival through the problems at home and abroad that marked the sixties was tested as we struggled to find ourselves through the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the civil unrest, the VietNam War and the changing of the guard as a new President-elect was waiting to lead the country out of what had proved to be the disasterous year that what 1968.

One of the few bright spots came on this night, Christmas Eve of 1968. Three men from planet Earth became the first humans to circumnavigate around the moon. A daring adventure that showed the world what America could do at her best even in the worst of times. The Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first to see the Earth rise above the lunar horizon and realized that the entire history of humankind and every single person they'd ever known could be hidden behind their thumb. They took turns reading a passage from Genesis in the Old Testament and helped all of us see the wonder of our own little spot in the universe. After their return the crew received numerous letters from citizens around the world. One note simply said "Thanks for saving 1968".

Forty years later America is struggling through a year of uncertainity and crisis, there will be no heroics that will "save 2008". We have a new President-elect and as we saw in 1968 even through the worst of times America will rise again. On this night we remember those that are far from home, those that have lost friends, family and loved ones, those without food and shelter, and those that are affected by the difficult times we are in. The lesson of Apollo 8 is that we can do great things and we can survive tough times if we rely on our spirit and the talents in each of us take bold steps to move America forward again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

No Giant Leaps for ESA (European Space Agency)

The thought of manned space exploration conjures many emotions from the initial “can we do this?” in the late fifties and early sixties to the space race to the landing on the moon and how we’ve progressed since that July day in 1969. On one hand those that are space aficionados can’t get enough and any mission into space is an exciting one that opens up news areas of discovery, scientific findings and wonderment of what we can do if as a people we apply ourselves. Then there is the element of national pride – the pride that led and united many Americans to cheer the space program on as we wanted to beat the Russians to the surface of the moon, but after winning that game we weren’t interested creating a dynasty or hearing the noise of the crowd cheering us on to another great leap in space. There was only one Super Bowl in the space race and that was landing on the moon.

In late November when the eighteen countries that support the European Space Agency met and laid out a three-year plan I was interested to see if manned space flight would make the cut. The European Union is about the economic equivalent of the United States and has a roughly equivalent technical base. One could argue that in some ways ESA is better positioned to conduct future manned space operations than NASA may be in the coming years. Even President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team has questioned NASA about using ESA technology for manned flight or Japan’s HII-A. ESA has a proven rocket in the Ariane 5 that could lift a manned capsule into low-earth orbit. It also has developed the Jules Verne module that successfully launched and docked autonomously with the International Space Station and could be fitted with a capsule to carry a crew. Lastly, ESA members have had on and off discussions with the Russian Space Agency about developing a version of the Russian Kliper (Clipper) for the European space program. The Kliper is a winged space plane for crew transport on a par with the American Orbital Space Plan that was cancelled in lieu of the Constellation program. When the meeting was complete ESA agreed to an ambitious set of unmanned space missions, but no commitment to manned space flight in the next three years.

As we look back, the analogy of the space program to a Super Bowl may have been correct for that one stepping stone of landing on the moon, but it could turn out that in fact the race was a marathon and after the moon landings instead of building on our lead we decided to set a slower pace and may have underestimated the skill of our competitors. For now we have now found that the pack has caught us and we are in danger of slipping behind. ESA’s commitment shows that they are interested in competing, but not necessarily winning. Despite economic troubles Russia remains steadfast, China is in to win and Japan and India will surely stake a claim as will other nations that have dreams of space.

The group that is now out in front is Russia. Despite losing the moon race the Russian strategy for space has been consistent. A brief experiment with a shuttle program had been their only deviation from a steady course and even that experiment did not place them in a position of having only having one system at a time. When the Buran didn’t pan out, the existing spacecraft and it’s production line were still in place. Now, Russian space technology is so reliable we use it to deliver astronauts and cargo to the ISS. China has bought Russian space technology and consulting services to build its program and India will likely follow the Chinese path somewhere in the near future. Russia has become a net exporter of space technology and America may become a net importer of space capabilities if the current indicators are correct.

If the Space Shuttle retires in 2010 we will be a customer of the Russians for at least the next three years, but more likely five years until and if a replacement is built. With all that has happened to our country over the past forty-years it would be an irony and something that we must reflect deeply on if the country that led and won the race to the moon resorted to outsourcing getting American astronauts into space to countries and programs like ESA (European Space Agency), Russia and JAXA (Japanese Space Program). As one of those space aficionados I’m interested in seeing many countries succeed and venture into space, but America’s pride and prowess in space technology would be tarnished if we let those that weren’t even in the race when we landed on the moon provide us with the means to get there.

Monday, December 1, 2008

War and Space

Civilization has known war and conflict all throughout its history. The Second World War gave birth to the space age, but long before that battle humans gazed at the sky and dreamed of what existed beyond the reaches of Earth while on the ground the use of rockets was strictly as a military weapon. It is thought that the use of black powder rockets started as early as the thirteenth century in China. Crudely constructed, unguided and unsophisticated, the early rockets were meant more to strike fear than to cause actual loss and damage.

As technology progressed and dreamers of space emerged a new thinking on the use of rockets for manned space flight and exploration was born. Leading thinkers like Russia’s Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who wrote the first works and theories on space travel and Hermann Oberth whose works inspired the likes of Werner Von Braun and other young Germans to not just dream of space, but find ways to make space flight a reality put forth bold ideas on how space travel could be achieved. Meanwhile, in the United States, Robert Goddard was testing liquid fueled rockets as a way to achieve higher altitudes with the ultimate goal of reaching space. These men, the founding fathers of space flight laid the foundation for using rockets to send humans into space.

Rocketry’s ancestral heritage was hard to escape and over the centuries the leaders of nations and commanders of armies seized on the opportunity to refine the rocket to achieve greater accuracy and destruction. No more evident is Adolph Hitler whose support was initially lukewarm, but in his quest for domination of Europe left no option off the table including the development of powerful rockets that could terrorize his enemies.

The men tasked to build these weapons were the same men that Oberth inspired with dreams of manned flight, but men whose own ideas and dreams were deferred to focus on rockets as weapons of war. Through the efforts of war came the technology to reach space. The V-2 became the first object to reach beyond the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere. After the fall of Germany the Americans inherited the twenty-five year advantage the Germans had built in rocket technology including the brains, plans and vision to send men into space and the architect of Germany's space technology Werner Von Braun. The Russians were also the beneficiary of the German technology and had their own space pioneer in Sergei Korolev. Korolev was also a man who dreamed of space and was inspired by Tsiolkovsky to build rockets that could put objects and humans into orbit. Both countries would have the technical know-how to put men in space, but both men faced obstacles with leaders who wanted rockets to use as military platforms and not for science or exploration.

Politics have always played a role in Russia’s and in America’s space goals and for different reasons play a role in China’s space program. Harry Truman was the fist President to acquire the means and the vision to develop a space program based on exploration, but the too recent memory of the war in Europe, the Korean War, the threat of atomic weapons, and the growth of communism relegated rocket research to the military as more important issues were pressing. Dwight Eisenhower, America’s top General on the ground in Europe during World War II became President after Truman, but also had the memory of war still fresh in his mind and harbored distrust in the German scientists and engineers. Eisenhower believed in the tried and the true heavy bomber to deliver the increasing arsenal of powerful ordinance. Eisenhower, like Truman also didn’t seize upon a vision to make America a technological leader in space exploration until it was too late and the Russians surprised America with Sputnik.

It wasn’t until John Kennedy became President that a true vision for space exploration was put forth. Kennedy’s vision was bold and involved a daring reach of technology and an advance in rocketry far beyond what had been developed to date. Kennedy’s vision set a goal for space exploration that many thought was unachievable, but would require a concerted national effort and public support to achieve. Kennedy’s goal was laid out during a time when yet another conflict was brewing in Vietnam. His death by an assassin meant the goal of reaching the moon would fall to his successor Lyndon Johnson. Johnson kept the program intact and on course to reach the moon before the end of the decade, but Johnson also escalated the war in Vietnam which would eventually play a pivotal role in the direction of the space program. Johnson also realized that before the decade was out he too would be out of office and the realization or failure of JFK’s goal would fall to a new President.

It was during Richard Nixon’s Presidency that landing a man on the moon became a reality and during the short span of seven years from the early sixties to nineteen sixty-nine America had amassed a monumental technology lead in rocketry and space exploration, but the continued costs, waning public support, the enduring war in Vietnam and a President who had little interest in space exploration sent the program into a tailspin. Technologies were discarded; a cheaper route to space was sought while no vision for our continued immediate or long-term presence in space was articulated.

During that time America continued to lead in unmanned space exploration, but allowed its manned space leadership to wither away. No President before or after John Kennedy has been able to make the case for a robust manned American space program. Jimmy Carter governed during a time when America was in an energy crisis, the hostage crisis in Iran was ongoing, and where the space program found itself still down as the transition from Apollo to the Shuttle had yet to be completed. During the Carter years manned space flight was at an all time low. Ronald Reagan heralded the era of the Space Shuttle and a commitment to a low-Earth orbit space station. George H. W. Bush laid out a goal to reach Mars, but with the Gulf War and a subsequent declining economy his political capital was spent and he failed to win reelection. Bill Clinton continued the space program in a status quo mode without a new vision even though the Shuttle had been operating for over ten years at the time of his inauguration and would be in operation for nineteen at the end of his second term. George W. Bush was content to continue the space program “as-is” until the second Space Shuttle accident and the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board urged the limited use and retirement of the shuttle. As a result, George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration mandated the retirement of the Shuttle and the creation of a replacement, but also laid out goals to achieve a return to the Moon, but America was once again embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now facing yet another economic downturn that threaten the country’s economic capability to continue the space program in a way that will build a sustainable long-term program, and once again America’s space program – the envy of the world would be set to encounter another period of manned space flight downtime while a transition from the Shuttle to Constellation was planned.

The manned space program is finding itself at a crossroads again during a time of war, an economic downturn and a changing of the guard with a new President coming onboard. During each decade of the space age America has found itself engaged in a war or military conflict that had the potential to broaden and those conflicts have come at times when the choice of how to spend limited resources needed to be made. The lack of a long-term strategy and vision has made the space program vulnerable at each of these crossroads.

The technology of missiles and rockets played only a minor role in World War II, but led to the development of rockets that to a large extent kept the peace between countries that otherwise would likely have destroyed each other. There is another irony that internationally the quest to reach for the stars has been the one area of common ground that nations that often disagree finds ways to cooperate.

Incoming President Barack Obama will inherit two wars and a space program that has a vision, but not a sustainable vision and doesn’t have the funding that will allow a program born of war to survive being constantly caught in the middle of war. The lack of a post-Apollo vision for space has made it susceptible to changes in direction, vulnerable at times when America is engaged in conflicts around the globe or when the country is in economic trouble even though space exploration is a unifying theme and a common goal many nations share. Kennedy’s vision carried the program through the sixties, but the seventies brought change and the lack of a vision. The manned space program has been riding that lack of vision ever since and has incurred larger costs and a technical “draw down” of our space leadership. While painful, perhaps now is the time to go back to the drawing board to create a long-term vision in space that separates it from the turmoil that always seems to plague the program. Barack Obama would be well served to find a way create a new vision that lays out ambitious goals, but goals that are to be achieved over a twenty-five year time frame and goals that continue to grow and diversify the program’s technology while achieving progressively larger achievements in manned space exploration.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Air Force X-37B (Orbital Test Vehicle)

In December the Air Force will launch its first OTV also known as the X-37B Orbital test Vehicle. This small unmanned Space Shuttle-type vehicle will launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station grounds on an inaugural mission to test out its systems and capabilities. After the mission is completed it will land at Edwards or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California where it will be inspected and subsequently prepped for another flight. The OTV is one-quarter the size at twenty-seven feet in length compared to the Shuttle’s length of one-hundred and twenty-two feet. The OTV has a cargo bay about the size of a large refrigerator at seven feet by four feet compared to the Shuttle’s payload bay which could hold an object the size of a bus or a railroad boxcar. The OTV operates on the same principle as the Shuttle – it is a winged vehicle with thermal protection system and a payload bay for deploying and retrieving satellites or for conducting experiments.

The X-37 was originally a NASA initiative - dubbed a “mini-shuttle” it was later transferred to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) when budget constraints affected the program. The OTV was built by Boeing’s Phantom Works and it was Boeing’s Rockwell division that was the original contractor of the Space Shuttle. The X-37B is rumored to have a more advanced heat shield and can do something the Russian Space Shuttle Buran could do, but the America Space Shuttle couldn’t and that is operate without a crew and return to a landing strip on its own.

Hopefully, the X-37B is just the beginning of a program that will continue the legacy of the shuttle program. If as former astronaut Story Mugrave put it that the shuttle can’t be made safe then the versatility and the capability of what the Shuttle program is will live on in an unmanned capacity through the OTV. An unmanned shuttle that could do all the things the current Shuttle does without the risk of crew would be the perfect vehicle to fulfill the original promise of the Space Shuttle program.

This little known program could play a significant role in the future of the space program. While this version of the OTV is small by comparison to the Space Shuttle it presents an ideal opportunity to test out the systems and advanced technologies to develop a much larger unmanned Shuttle or perhaps another winged crew delivery vehicle along the lines of the proposed European Space Agency’s Hermes or the Russian Clipper. The OTV program allows us to avoid a critical mistake we have repeated during the history of the American Space Program - that mistake was to follow a path to “develop and discard” technologies that we’ve worked hard to perfect and advancements that we’re paid with both sacrifice and national treasure.

While this is an initial small step towards a future larger unmanned Shuttle it is nonetheless an important step to retaining and evolving winged reusable spacecraft. We’ll watch this initial checkout launch carefully and hope that the current budget and economic conditions that doomed the original X-37 program don’t haunt the Air Force’s reincarnation of this much needed capability.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy 10th Birthday International Space Station!

The ISS turned ten today and isn't it truly amazing how time has flown by. In those ten years the station has covered just enough miles in space to have gone to Saturn and back. The station has grown from that first module to the largest man-made object ever put into space. Let's hope that now as construction in nearing an end that we will maximize the potential our orbiting outpost has and leverage it as a platform to assemble and launch other vehicles to enhance our capabilties in space.

The work shouldn't end when the construction ends. We'll need a robust vision and plan to keep the station maintained and a vision to continue to enhance its function beyond research. The participating nations in the station program have antied up somewhere in the neighborhood of one-hundred billion dollars to get to where we are today with the U.S. portion of that projected at forty-one billion. With such a world-wide committment and investment we can't walk away now or leave the station to be ravaged by time and space. The right plan and vision and we'll be celebrating another milestone birthday in another ten years.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Retire the Shuttle?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. I don’t like the answer any more than most Americans. The thought that we’ll be without this magnificent machine and that the remaining fleet of Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour will be relegated to static displays in a museum would signal the end of an era in spaceflight. A winged space vehicle was the initial dream of Dr. Eugen Sanger and Irene Bredt of the German Air Ministry who in 1944 worked on the calculations for a winged manned rocket bomber. Throughout the fifties the U.S. Air Force worked on its own plans for a winged launch vehicle. That project “Dyna-Soar” which stood for “Dynamic Soaring” eventually fell victim to the “all-hands on deck” approach in the quest for the moon, but the learnings from it and the lifting body program eventually proved useful in the shuttle development. The strategic capability a winged vehicle offers cannot be matched by capsule configurations. It would be a loss to abandon decades of research and work and equally important to lose the strategic value that a winged vehicle can offer by retreating once again to capsule technology.

Upon the Shuttle’s retirement America will be without a manned launch capability until the ARES 1 comes on board in 2015 or perhaps a year sooner if the stars align properly and the combination of additional funding and an expeditious vehicle testing program can be achieved.. That’s far too long and it didn’t have to be that way. So retire the vehicle’s we must, but abandon the concept – no.

It’s hard to imagine that this could happen to the country that put the first man on the moon; the country that launched probes that have flown to or explored every planet in the solar system (or in the case of New Horizons will fly to). After a carefully orchestrated and very methodical plan to land on the moon through a progressive series of more capable capsules and rockets we hastily searched for an alternative whose function was based not on strategic goals, but on budget constraints. In the twenty-seven years since Columbia’s maiden voyage on April 12. 1981 we have done almost nothing to plan for the inevitable day when a successor to the shuttle would be needed. We’ve squandered the learnings from Apollo and now are about to discard the learnings from the Space Shuttle Program. Let’s look at three key points: 1) Why retire the Shuttle? 2) How did we get in this position? 3) What is the right course for the future?

1) Why retire the Shuttle? – First, I would argue that the Space Shuttle program is in its prime. When the shuttle was designed and the launch stack configured we didn’t realize the full capabilities or dangers of the system. It wasn’t until the loss of shuttle’s Challenger and Columbia that we began to understand how complex and dangerous a machine this is. However, we have painfully and slowly figured out over time how it works and how to make it fly safely and we’re doing it just as the program is ending. Any rocket launch is dangerous and carries the risk of failure, the shuttle with a million moving parts is in a higher risk category, but that isn’t the main driver behind retirement. Of all the lessons we’ve learned about how the shuttle operates and the dangers involved in spaceflight there is a category where we still know little about and it carries potentially the biggest unknown risk: Age. Everything in nature ages and usually does so until the point where graceful aging transforms into breakdown and failure. With the youngest shuttle Endeavour at seventeen years old and the oldest active shuttle at twenty-five years old (Columbia was older, but was lost on reentry) we have now chartered into unknown waters as to the effects age has on metal fatigue, corrosion in the airframe and deterioration of the wiring inside the shuttle’s complex shell. We don’t’ have to look far to see how we’ve been “surprised” by event’s that were previously not thought to be issues until a disaster struck. An F-15 fighter breaks apart in mid-air due to metal fatigue in its airframe. So concerned is the Air Force about this problem that pilots are instructed to avoid unnecessarily overstressing the aircraft with excessive speed or maneuvers for fear that they will fail. How about the airline whose aging 747’s wiring caused a spark that ignited the center fuel tank because the casing around the wires had worn or cracked due to friction and age? These are things that we should have known about and anticipated, but didn’t think about until tragedy struck. The shuttle deals with one other issue that other complex machines don’t have to worry about. When the shuttle isn’t flying into or returning from space it sits at the Kennedy Space Center just miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Inspections on the shuttle have shown some corrosion due to constant exposure to the moist salt laden air. Without disassembling every part and every inch of airframe and wiring we can’t eliminate that age is an increasing safety issue in shuttle flights. Aging is a risk – How big a risk we don’t’ know, perhaps small enough to run out the planned shuttle schedule, but as we’ve seen in other craft it can happen at anytime. Even though the airframe is put through enormous stress and strain at launch and reentry what we did learn from the Columbia disaster that even as the shuttle was losing it’s structural integrity as the interior of the left wing began to melt the shuttle fought the strain and held together longer that anyone thought possible. These are incredibly well-built machines, but not invincible.

2) How did we get in this position? – The “how” we got here is well documented and a lesson for future leaders of how not to manage our space program. I haven’t thought much over the years about “what if we didn’t have a space race with the Soviets”. Would we have methodically laid out a long-term, well-paced, sustainable vision for space exploration? We landed on the moon because we were in a race, we pushed the limits of technology and took great risks and overall we escaped without a loss of crew in space. Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon in 1960 set the stage for the first space race. Nixon’s victory in 1968 allowed him to bask in the glory of Kennedy’s goal and the accomplishment of man’s greatest achievement, but as men were walking on the moon Nixon was already on the verge of canceling the program and he did cancel the last few scheduled flights not because of risks, but because of budget constraints due largely to the costs of the Vietnam War.

Nixon was cool towards the space program. It wasn’t something he championed and despite being in the enviable position of being able to pick up on Kennedy’s challenge and take us a step further he only wanted to keep it on life support. “If” it had to be done how could it be done as cost-effective as possible? It would be Nixon’s staff that sold him on the space program. Without John Ehrlichman and Casper Weinberger pushing a space capability we would have been without a manned program long after Apollo ended. To meet Nixon’s “do it cheaper” mantra required revision after revision to the shuttle design. In the end what resulted was a smaller, multipurpose vehicle. What was lost was a heavy-lift capability to launch bigger components into space and a lighter capability to launch crew only.

It took only eight years of aggressive determination to step through a program to land on the moon and then thirty six years after the last moon landing to circle back to a place where we were before only this time we need to reinvent a new way to accomplish old things and again the driver is not strategy, but budget. Had we maintained the Saturn S1-B for crew capsule launch, the Saturn V for heavy lift and smaller versions of the shuttle for crew delivery and an unmanned shuttle for medium lift we would have created a sustainable, robust program that leveraged all the knowledge we’d accumulated. The strategy we followed was a course that lost our leverage and our learnings to time only to land us back in the late 1960’s where we find ourselves again in turbulent times, facing an economic crisis, a war and at a crossroads for the space program.

3) What is the right course for the future? - The planned ARES V is a must have to add a sorely missed heavy-lift capability, after that the needs become debatable. Should be move back to a capsule configuration? In a perfect world we would have more than one choice. A capsule and ARES I configuration as needed for specific missions and a lighter HL-20 type craft for transport of crew only to and from low earth orbit (International Space Station). Combine that with a new fleet of unmanned shuttles that could deliver medium lift capability such as supplies, fuel and station components would allow the United States to retain the use of shuttle facilities and manufacturing while eliminating risk and costs by converting the configuration to an unmanned capability. This configuration would provide versatility to the program and not the Swiss Army Knife approach of having a one size fits all. It doesn’t work and it’s not cost effective over the long run.

So yes we need to retire the shuttle, but we need to leverage the fifty years of knowledge we’ve developed about space and spacecraft. We need a sustainable approach that we can build on to accomplish our goals and leverage what we’ve built, a strategy that is cost-effective over decades because it is a staged, progressive plan that isn’t dependent on a single capability, but a versatile one and not just one that fits a budget today – and of course one that includes a winged launch vehicle.

The shuttle fleet has served us well and taught us many lessons about operating in space and about winged, reusable space vehicles. To watch a launch and landing of this incredible machine is a spectacular sight and one we'll miss, but the time has come to pass the torch and look at the next generation of space vehicles and where the program needs to be twenty-five years from now.

Read more about how we can create a robust American space program by visiting my report on Creating a Sustainable Manned Spaceflight Strategy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Art of Imitating Life

This past weekend I ventured down to the Kennedy Space Center to catch the annual airshow on the grounds of the space center complex. While there I took the time to catch the 3D IMAX film “Magnificent Desolation”. When I had first seen this movie several years ago needless to say I was stunned at the visual impact and the realism. After following the space program my entire life and after having seen every piece of footage about the program, including every film, photograph, documentary, and reenactment through movies like “Apollo 13”, series like HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and countless others none could do justice to the computer simulation of landing and walking on the Moon portrayed in “Magnificent Desolation”. Though the landing and walking simulations are just a small part of the story told in “Desolation” they nonetheless provide a visual perspective we’ve not seen before and short of being there none of us will ever get the chance to see. I actually felt like I knew was it was like to walk there and be there. It gave me a perspective the “real” footage could never provide and therein lay a dilemma for the future of the space program.

The first space race tested our technology prowess on many fronts as we traversed a quarter of a million miles through the vacuum of space to land humans on another planetary body and we did that in a vehicle comprised of thin aluminum sheets built in two stages with two engines being driven onboard by a computer that had less power than a desktop calculator and barely enough space for two standing astronauts. Back then seeing to believe wasn’t necessary as we lacked the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives to impress us more than the reality could. Life was simpler back then and it was an era where we dreamed to take small steps and managed to make giant leaps.

Feats like landing a man on the moon seemed so much more impressive to us back then because we lived in a world that overall was so technically unimpressive. Throughout the early space race most Americans still had black and white televisions, there wasn’t cable or satellite television (there were barely satellites), no around the clock news channels (most TV stations ended the day at 1am with the playing of the National Anthem), no NASA channel, no internet, no video games, no computer generated graphics, no PCs, no insight into other countries space programs via an endless stream of documentaries and books and online archives. The world was a vastly different place back then. Technologically, we were still growing up and the promise of technology, not the fear inspired us to use it achieve great things. When we look back it is amazing to see how far we went when the words of a single man challenged us to be daring and bold. That “challenge” to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth came just after we had sent another lone man on a single suborbital flight into space that lasted just a few minutes. We have lost to time how impressive a feat that was in much the same way the heroism and scale of World War II has faded from our memories only to be replaced by less than accurate films that romanticize rather than provide the “guts and glory” feel of what it was really like to be there.

During the space race our view of space travel was cemented in the classic movies of the fifties. The space related movies and TV shows of the era were often campy and unrealistic. Movies like “Destination: Moon” and television shows like “Lost in Space” provided moments of fantasy and escape, but lacked the feel of what it was like and we all knew it. Even Stanley Kubrick’s masterful work 2001: A Space Odyssey which was far ahead of it’s time took a leap that was just too far ahead and made it too futuristic and thus not a portrayal that late sixties Americans could relate to, but even in 1968 when the movie came out and we had yet to land a man on the moon we believed that it was a vision of where we would be.

With the pervasiveness of technology into everyone’s lives today across all age groups and with powerful computers and astonishing computer graphics that one-up reality and seem so realistic that we can’t distinguish the difference between real and animated so it should be no surprise that the actual footage of humans setting foot once again on the moon will surely be a disappointment. The lives of modern day Americans has come to be so dominated by our technology wizardry that landing on the Moon seems like something we should have been doing or something we should be able to do with ease and when it happens again we’d want it to be as good or better than the IMAX. I remember hearing Buzz Aldrin’s comments after Apollo 13 (the movie) had been released. He asked where the additional footage of the launch had come from as he had not seen it before. The reason was that the footage was not real, but computer generated. So good was it that it had caught an expert by surprise.

In a flip from sixties America we’ve become so enamored with capabilities of our technology that it is reality that doesn’t impress us anymore and hand-in-hand is another “side-effect” of technology in that it has made us impatient. We want the “Headline News” or “SportsCenter” approach. Show the pertinent highlights, leave out everything else and move on to the next topic. We expect information on demand and we want it in short doses. We want to see people land and walk on the Moon from every angle, but aside from liftoff and landing all the days’ in-between, the real journey would be of little interest. That was all too apparent post Apollo 11 as each subsequent mission received less and less air time.

It will be a tough sell to Americans to expand our manned space program to venture back to the Moon and Mars, but space exploration is an area where international cooperation transcends politics. As countries like China and India now see the space program brings worldwide recognition and prestige and showcases what a country can with its intellect, talent and resources much like it did for the United States and Russia. America is still the premier space program, but others aspire to great things with their programs. We need not fear competition, but we also need not cede our technical leadership only because the chase no longer thrills us. The history of the human race has shown that we are explorers and our quest to reach out beyond our shores has led us to new challenges and forced us to be innovative to continue our growth and expansion. We can’t become complacent or bored with exploration because we can relive it through a film or video game. To continue to grow as a civilization we must continue to challenge ourselves and continue to venture beyond our shores and explore.

If you get the chance to see Magnificent Desolation at an IMAX or at the Kennedy Space Center I highly recommend it. You’ll enjoy the experience, but when you leave the theater don’t be satisfied that it is a substitute for what we can do, but only a preview of what we will do.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Dangerous “Trek” to Tranquility Base

Astrobotics has announced an exciting and ambitious effort to land a robotic rover on the lunar surface at the site of the Apollo 11 landing as part of the Google LunarX Prize competition. Dubbed the “Tranquility Trek” they plan to land and explore the historic site where humans first set foot on the moon using caution to not disturb the site. As exciting and admirable as Google’s initiative to promote private efforts to return to the moon is this specific plan by Astrobotics to visit and explore the Apollo 11 landing site merits reconsideration and a call by NASA, Google, historians and leading space authorities to preserve the landing site from those that now wish to explore and those that at some point may wish to exploit the site by retrieving artifacts for return to earth. Astrobotics promise to not “disturb” the site is not enough. We need look only to the Titanic for a lesson in what could happen to a site of historical significance. Once thought unreachable after it was discovered and visited in 1985 for exploration it didn’t take long for the commercial exploitation to begin. In the twenty-three years since it was rediscovered the site has been damaged by frequent commercial visits and salvage operations. To prevent the same fate from befalling the Apollo 11 site we must act now. It took seventy-three years to find and reach the Titanic - it has only been forty-years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but the pace of technological achievement is rapidly providing private enterprises and countries around the world with the capability to disturb and exploit a site that otherwise would be preserved for hundreds of millions of years.

The steps we need to take –
  • Enact legislation that designates the Apollo 11 site as a historic site to be preserved.
  • Prohibit organizations from exploring or exploited the site for commercial gain.
  • Prohibit the sale or possession of artifacts removed from the site in the United States
  • Implement a series of actions for companies or individuals that violate the ban.
  • Eliminate federal funding, federal support or contractual opportunities for any company that violates the ban.
  • Encourage the President and Senate to work internationally to designate the Apollo 11 site as an International Historic Site of significance to all peoples.
  • Work to implement a treaty banning disturbance or removal of artifacts from the site.
As more nations and more private efforts take robotic and manned missions into space and back to the moon it is inevitable that some will try to exploit history in the name of exploration. There are those that believe that we never reached the moon and therefore this is just another attempt to “cover-up” an event that never happened. Soon new lunar orbiting vehicles will photograph the Apollo 11 site and end any doubts. However, for Astrobiotics mission and any other efforts that could potentially reach the site there are five other Apollo sites in relative close proximity to Apollo 11 that could be reached and used for the same research and analysis, but the Apollo 11 site should forever remain off-limits. As the saying goes “it may take an Act of Congress” and that’s exactly what we need right now.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A New Vision

The economic bad news is never far away. All anyone needs to do is pick up a paper, turn on the local or national news, the radio or even talk to a co-worker or neighbor. We have major problems at every turn in this country including a massive deficit for 2008 and an accumulated national debt that now exceeds ten trillion dollars. Caught in the middle is the space program. While it is hard to argue for an increase in program funding in these times when so many are in need nonetheless there is a lesson for all that the situation the space program finds itself in could have been avoided – more importantly it’s not too late to avoid making the mistake in the future by acting now.

Today’s economic environment and as a direct result the money the space program needs and receives is slowing down our progress in space only because the strategic vision to put in place a program that is efficient and sustainable is lacking. Our deep space program is the envy of the world. No one can achieve what we have done to cover our solar system. From Hubble, SOHO, Cassini, Dawn, Messenger, New Horizons, the Mars Rovers, the Mars Polar Lander and many other current and past achievements we have blazed a trail no one can match, but slowly the world’s other space dreamers are beginning to flex their muscle. There is no need for competition in this arena. We should all cooperate to gain the most we can from everyone’s initiative. The dreams of space exploration have been the one area that transcends geographic boundaries and politics, but as we are seeing and as we have seen in the past – it is the space program and a nation’s ability to achieve goals beyond our planet that are a source of national pride, but we as a planet can be much more productive if we pool our resources.

In the manned program however we are losing ground, the latest potential setback with the ARES I rocket is an example of what can happen when we try “space on the cheap”. The billions we are spending will inevitably end up costing us more simply because we will in the future as we have in the past continually reinvent the program instead on building on what has been learned (and paid for) in previous initiatives.

We desperately needed a Manned Spaceflight strategy for our long term presence in space, but instead what we have in the Vision for Space Exploration is a series of goals that once again gives us a “point and shoot” and “here and now” capability and not a sustainable or economically viable strategy that leverages what we’ve done with Apollo, the ISS, and the Shuttle packaged in strategy that is “sell-able” in this economical and political environment.

All of us that are passionate about the space program and want to see our manned program thrive and succeed should speak out at this critical juncture to push for a program that builds on our past to strengthen our future. So fragile is the program with a retiring Space Shuttle and a no demonstrated replacement that if we don’t act now and don’t lay down a new vision that our country’s magnificent efforts and sacrifices in manned spaceflight could once again be just a dream.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Triumph for the American Space Program

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives defied the wishes of President Bush and by a wide margin of 409-15 approved an extra $2b dollars for NASA. The rare, almost unanimous support sends a strong message that the space program is vital to America and still the most visible sign to the world that America is a technological leader. Both Democrats and Republicans came together and found a cause they could unite on and in turn made clear to the next administration that the space program is off limits. As Rep. Gene Greene, a Democrat from Houston put it "The price we pay to fund NASA is a bargain". Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas , said this was "no time to be shortchanging the space program". While the bill must now go to the Senate the support shown today reflects the passion that America has always had and continues to have for the space program. A few have continued a drumbeat to end the manned spaceflight program, but with dwindling resources here on planet Earth our future and survival may indeed lie in the stars. Kudos to both parties in the Congress for having the courage and strength to stand up for the program and help guarantee that America's space program will remain the world's leader.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Militarization of Space

The recent action by the United States to shoot down an errant satellite spy satellite was met with condemnation from China and Russia and prompted a call from Presidential Candidate Barack Obama to ban weapons in space. The course taken by the United States whether to protect the populous from the minute chance of danger from debris or the hydrazine fuel or to protect our technology from the prying eyes of our enemies was fully justified. The Chinese response was especially hollow considering the shoot down of their own aging weather satellite that left orbiting in space a large debris field that is now far more dangerous than all the other "space junk" combined. Foolish we are to believe that the countries that call for a ban on weapons in space are the same that keep their societies and their capabilities secret while criticizing those that aspire to a free and open society.

The United States owes no explanation to any country for any action we take above the clouds or below. Countries like China and Russia are surely planning for an eventual battle in space while chiding us into taking a higher road that they themselves would never follow. Candidate Obama's singling out of "no weapons in space" ban, while vowing to drastically cut back the space program and his plans to largely disarm the United States military once again show us his naivete. No informed or capable leader would make such a claim knowing the capabilities of our adversaries.

America must prepare for the day that China and Russia will use space as a platform for waging war against the United States. We must continue to develop all of our space capabilities and make no treaties or promises that would not allow us to militarize space. Remember, it was Ronald Reagan's promise to develop an anti-missile shield dubbed "star wars" that sent fears through the Soviets. The Soviets knew then that they couldn't afford a race with us, but now, buoyed by new riches from energy reserves they are a more formidable opponent then at any other time in history. China will continue to use the dollars we send them to buy trinkets, toys, shoes, and a host of other items for build their military capabilities on the ground, in the sea, in the air and in space. We must be ready. Don't be fooled by those among us that call for a weapons ban in space. They are the ill-informed and are as dangerous as our foes abroad.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Yesterday and Today

50 years ago yesterday America entered the space age when Explorer 1 successfully lifted off and became the first American satellite to orbit the Earth. The first in a series of flawless triumphs that resulted in man landing on the Moon. Today, February 1st marks the anniversary of the Columbia tragedy. On this day in 2003, Columbia failed to return safely taking the the lives of seven astronauts. From the humble beginnings of Explorer 1 to the Moon landings to launching the first reuseable spacecraft the space program in the United States and in Russia has acheived great triumphs and suffered tragic losses. History tells us that those that venture into uncharted waters take great risks no matter how well prepared they are. The continued exploration of space is neccessary and part of all of us for all us are born from the stars. Loss may again find us, but we must prevail and continue to move forward. The manned exploration of space is vital to the progress of the human race and ultimately to its survival.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Today, and the next week marks a time when several tragedies occured in the quest for space. Sixteen American astronauts risked their life to advance the cause of space exploration:

Apollo 1 (January 27, 1967) - Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee
Challenger (January 28, 1986) - Francis "Dick" Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Judy Resnik and Greg Jarvis
Columbia (February 1, 2003) - Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon

Their sacrifice will always be remembered. Those who love space exploration and dream of space know that there are always risks, but that the destination is worth the journey.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Decision 2008 and the Future of the Space Program

Perhaps no election is more important to the future of the American Space Program than this one. Americans will have a difficult decision to make with pressing isssues on many fronts, but buried in those issues is the very fate of the space program. During the late sixties, no one thought for a moment that Richard Nixon would take the program from it's highest triumph and slice the budget until the program was barely on life support. NASA was formed under a Republican Dwight Eisenhower and flourished under Democrats Kennedy and Johnson, withered under the mismanagement of Nixon, Ford and Carter, was somewhat revived during the Reagan years, George H.W. Bush attempted to garner public interest, but no one was listening. Under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush the program has held it's own due largely to a few key Senators who have steadfastly believed as millions of Americans do in the space program. However, to avoid a repeat of 1968 voters must include each candidates position on the program into their decision process. No assumption can be made that the program will again flourish under a Democrat or flounder under a Republican. One candidate has already made his position clear Barack Obama is no friend or supporter of the program and has vowed to cut exploration and divert the funds to education. Electing Barack Obama means the end of the new space race, the end of exploration, and the end of America as a technology leader. Other countries are working on getting back to the Moon not as ego trip, but to harness the energy sources locked in the soil. Obama's shortsightedness is nothing short of terrifying. If you support the space program do your' homework and support the candidates that will take the program to new heights.