OPINION: What will it take to reignite U.S. interest in space?
Few would dispute that NASA has been in turmoil since President Obama canceled the Constellation Program in 2010, or at least in a state of declining activity. Faced with a vague and undefined mission, inadequate funding, poor leadership, and mounting political tension with Russian, the country that’s providing astronauts with transportation to and from the International Space Station – the future for NASA looks bleak.
NASA engineer Don A. Nelson described potential, fundamental problems with the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle as such:
“…which NASA is hyping as ten times safer than the space shuttle. There is no feasible technique to design the Orion capsule to be safer than the shuttle because its small size and parachute weight limitation prevents the installation of escape pods. Every Orion crew re-entry will be in an untested capsule.” “There is a culture of optimism,” Nelson continues, “where project forecasts are knowingly made too low with the expectation that the politicians will always increase their budget to provide jobs for their constituents. Unbiased technical oversight is virtually nonexistent within NASA. There is not a united NASA, as each center has its own agenda.”
In 2013, Representative Bill Posey (R—FL) introduced H.R. 1446, the Reasserting American Leadership (REAL) in Space Act, which would direct NASA to return to the Moon by 2022: “to develop a sustained human presence there in order to promote exploration, commerce, science, and U.S. preeminence in space as a stepping stone for future exploration of Mars and other destinations.”
On June 24, 2013, the bill was referred to the House Subcommittee, but so far there has been no vote. There seems little hope of H.R. 1446 being enacted. NASA’s mission remains in the hands of Obama, who seems more interested in golf than providing the space agency with a clear mission. However, NASA does not have time to wait on a president whose concern about these issues has been severely “under par.”
It takes a long time to build a space program, and when the next administration comes along, it’s likely things will change course yet again. In 2003 the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) pointed out that NASA’s consistently low budget, the lack of interest from the Presidents and Congresses since the Apollo Program coupled with the lack of a coherent mission had severely limited the agency’s ability.
H.R. 1446 could restore a unifying mission to NASA and would give the United States a tangible and achievable goal in space, both in the short and long term. But most people are unaware H.R. 1446 even exists, and as it has evidently not even been debated since June of 2013, most members of Congress don’t appear to even be aware of it. During the 17th Annual International Mars Society Conference held last month former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin stated bluntly, but accurately, that the United States is not a spacefaring nation. “The bottom line, for me, is that we have better stuff in museums than we have in operations today. I can’t think of another technical discipline in which that statement would be true.”
Is NASA beyond hope? And if so, is the United States finished as a world power in space? There are new advancements every day in private-sector space flight. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are launching payloads to the International Space Station on an impressively regular basis. Bigelow is close to launching its own inflatable space station. But those private ventures, though impressive, are mostly promissory notes. No manned Dragon spacecraft has yet flown. Bigelow’s space station is still a glossy painting in a magazine just like innumerable paintings since the inception of the space program of hardware that has never come to pass.
And none of the private companies stand a realistic chance of sending humans beyond low-Earth-orbit anytime in the near future. But then, neither does NASA. However, unlike a private corporation, NASA is not controlled by a CEO who makes all the decisions. National policy in space flight is ultimately controlled by the American people. The depressing state of our space program can therefore be attributed to the general lack of interest on the part of our own citizens. There was no national outcry when President Obama canceled Constellation, and therefore Congress made no priority of restoring it. America is, quite literally, getting the space program it deserves.
NASA has failed because we have failed to make it a national priority. It’s that simple.
Of course our democracy is not dead. We can reverse course. We can put space back on the national radar. But it will take more than the core group of space enthusiasts who read Spaceflight Insider to make it happen. And is the general public interested? Or even informed? Not judging by the reactions of the country when Constellation was shut down. Some of the blame can be placed on the news media who devote virtually no attention to space activities. But then perhaps the news outlets would report more on space if the public asked for it. They have not.
Has the U.S. lost its appetite for space? Is the U.S. even interested anymore in the future? Only time will tell. It’s encouraging that for the first time in a decade, space-based motion pictures are appearing again, from Moon to Gravity to the upcoming Interstellar. People’s interests are reflected in pop culture. But whether they’re interested enough to pick up the political debate is quite another matter. If there was a direct correlation between public interest and politics, we might have had a mission to Mars in the late 1980s.
The inception of the space program and the ensuing race to the Moon were driven not by curiosity or the thrill of adventure or idealistic dreams of a better tomorrow…but by fear. The launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957 scared the Western world into aggressive competition with the “bad guys” in space. Once that fear faded, so did interest in space, except among a core group of aficionados.
For that reason, it might be the best thing that ever happened to our space program if China puts the next footsteps on the Moon. To paraphrase a comment attributed to racecar driver Niki Lauda in the 2013 film “Rush” – while we are certainly inspired by the actions of our friends – we seem to be driven even more – by those of our rivals.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.