The more things change, the more they stay the same. I suppose I should just give up hope that our elected officials may one day show that they have some kind of a vision for the future, because in some ways, it’s like the early 1970s playing out all over again. Just like a tired old rerun, Washington continues to show an all-too-familiar lack of leadership when it comes to the space program.
I was a Space Coast kid from the 1960s. My dad really was a rocket scientist – he worked for the Chrysler Corporation on the Apollo/Saturn IB program. Even though there were political forces to reckon with back then (can anyone remember why Mission Control ended up being located in Houston, so far away from the Cape Canaveral launch site?), at least there was a unifying vision of where we needed to go, and a time frame of how soon we needed to be there. And we got there – the moon – thanks to hopes and dreams and engineers using slide rules.
What we also had were good old-fashioned reliable liquid-fueled boosters that just worked. The Apollo/Saturn IB combination was reliable, and technologically superior to the Soviets’ Soyuz spacecraft. And the Saturn V was THE heavy-lift booster that not only got us to the moon, but also could have been used to really expedite the construction of the International Space Station… had it still been available. Don’t even get me started about how we totally wasted further research opportunities when we allowed Skylab to fall back to Earth.
Unfortunately, President Nixon killed the Apollo/Saturn program, leaving three moon missions on the table, dooming Skylab, and abandoning America’s superior and reliable manned launch vehicles in favor of this political kludge that became the Space Shuttle. Like most other rockets, the Shuttle was built of components made by the lowest bidders.
Unlike other manned launch systems, however, the Shuttle design was compromised along the way with the addition of solid rocket boosters (basically Roman candles that can’t be shut off once ignited) and no escape mechanism for the astronauts on board. Far from a reliable “space truck,” the Shuttle is a very complex and very expensive launch vehicle that has, arguably, exceeded its original life span. Right now, however, the Space Shuttle is our only way of getting people and decent sized payloads into Earth orbit and to the International Space Station. And with only three scheduled flights remaining, we’re about to lose it.
The successor to the Space Shuttle was supposed to be NASA’s Constellation program, featuring the Ares I and Ares V boosters and a larger Apollo-like command and service module assembly. It seems that last October’s test flight of the Ares I-X may have been in vain; the Obama administration is poised to abandon the program in favor of using commercial manned and cargo launch vehicles (none of which have been flight tested yet), or just hitching a ride with the Russians, who still fly the same Soyuz spacecraft they were flying in the 1960s and 1970s (which is what we could still be doing reliably with Apollo/Saturn technology). Even the Chinese have put people into space with their own launch vehicles.
This will leave the United States – the most technologically advanced nation both on and off the planet – without a way to get astronauts into and back from space. Not only that, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of plan or vision as to America’s future in space.
There is talk that Congress may vote to extend the life of the Space Shuttle a few years until we have another option, but without real leadership from Washington, we will no longer be leaders in space. The Constellation/Ares program wouldn’t be ready for manned flight until 2016 in the best-case scenario, with 2019 being a more likely target. The other private sector options still aren’t flight-ready and have encountered delays. Not to mention that the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program will have serious economic repercussions and loss of jobs in Florida and elsewhere.
While some may argue that space flight is a luxury we can do without during tough economic times, I argue that the benefits to humankind have far outweighed the costs in so many areas from technology to medicine and beyond. Besides, when one looks at what the government has wasted billions on over the past ten years, the entire space budget is but a drop in the bucket. And now certainly is not the time for America to hand over our leadership role in space science to someone else. But we need a vision that will set America’s course into the future, one that includes the ability for us to get people into and back from space. If we don’t outline that vision, if we just say, “Forget the Final Frontier,” then the Russians and the Chinese will become the world’s premiere space powers. And we’ll be able to visit our rockets in museums and reflect on our glory days.Relay for Life event at the Community Park, and Saturday solo at the Key Colony Inn. Tuesday finds John again at the Sunset Grille on Knight’s Key, and Thursday, John plays solo at Sparky’s Landing. www.johnbartus.com.