Sunday, July 26, 2009

NASA Old Boys: Where's the Imagination, the Daring, the Profitable?

The U.S. investment in the Apollo space program, which landed men on the moon, paid off handsomely, unlike the $100 billion plowed into the International Space Station, Apollo's pioneering astronauts said on Monday..."We opened the door to future of exploration by touching down on another body," Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, said at a press conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing...NASA is finishing construction of the station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, and plans to retire the shuttle fleet next year. After that, the United States plans to pay Russia to ferry crews to the outpost, which orbits 225 miles (360 km) above Earth..."We've spent a lot of money up there for almost nothing. It's almost a white elephant," Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell said. "Until we can really get a return on our investment on that particular project, then it was money wasted."....Apollo Astronauts Bemoan State of US Space Program, Reuters, 7/20/2009

The 40th anniversary of the first moon landings has come and gone, and with it what has become a depressingly familiar litany by former astronauts: what happened to the adventure, the exploration, the innovation? It seems that on every additional decade's celebration of Apollo 11 we hear the same story. NASA probably doesn't like it. But, what can one say about a project like the ISS that cost $100 billion and will be dumped in seven years?

The original American and Soviet programs, largely canceled or radically transformed in the early 1970s, had detailed plans for permanent lunar bases, Mars missions, and Mars bases by the 1980s. All of that was dropped. No human being has set foot on another planet, or moon, in three decades. In not very long, there won't be any capacity by NASA to put astronauts in space. The organization that put human beings on the moon will be in the same position as any other petitioner for seats on a rocket leaving the earth. "Pretty please?" is a poor substitute for "Tranquility Base Here, the Eagle Has Landed."

The robot missions that explored the planets, Hubble, and the rovers on Mars have been, and continue to be, magnificent missions. Hubble in and of itself has advanced astronomy by a century or more. But, where's the beef with human exploration? For the price of another ISS, we could build a permanent base on the moon, go to Mars, or both. Robert Zubrin has shown the way. So have others. Maybe if NASA can't do it, a consortium of private companies could.


No comments: