Obama to Moon Base: Drop Dead!

Space is the final frontier. We haven’t lived up to the promise of the 1950s and 60s, the heyday of the space race but we still carry with us dreams of the stars. Mike Honig, an avowed space exploration enthusiast, gives his take on the Administration’s recent cost cutting impact on our integalactic future.

I have enormous respect for Barack Obama; a very bright, thoughtful, chess-player-of-a-politician. In many of his policy and political choices, I have my doubts, but am often willing to give him the benefit of those doubts on the possibility that he simply looks ahead more ‘moves’ than I do. I (imho) am no intellectual slouch, so trusting someone I perceive is brighter than I am makes a statement.

Nonetheless, as a lifelong space exploration enthusiast, this decision about Ares and Orion frightens and angers me.

A history lesson … I was 6 years-old when Sputnik was launched, and about 9 when TelStar went up. (I remember sitting in a fully-reclined chaise in my friends’ driveway watching the bright reflection of TelStar pass overhead, just where and when the news had promised. We were amazed, even as kids!)

NASA had grand plans under Kennedy and Johnson: The Moon by the end of the 1960s; space station and shuttle by the 1970s, Mars by the 1980s. Even SPSs (Solar Powered Satellites) by the end of the 20th century.

Literally, for a space enthusiast like me, the sky had become the limit. No. Not the limit. The boundary! And we were going to blow past that boundary into the Great Unknown! This now seems in my mind like some alternate reality sci-fi novel.

I remember the heyday of the Kennedy/Johnson space program; the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon; my anger that President Nixon called the astronauts on the Moon to congratulate them (what, these guys have nothing better to do than make small talk with a space groupie while consuming irreplaceable and expensive oxygen?) without even the intellectual generosity of crediting his predecessors with any role in the achievement; of the plaque that the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) base left on the Moon: ”We came in peace for all Mankind. (signed) Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States.” No mention there of Kennedy or Johnson, either. True evidence that Nixon, for all his intellectual candle power, could be an intensely petty man.

I was angry not only at the petty dismissal of earned historical credit, but at the bitter irony … because Nixon was already showing signs of gutting the very space program from which he was attempting to extract political and diplomatic capital. In fact, he was even then preparing to cancel the last three Apollo missions.

The shuttle – NASA’s ambition for cheaper, more-routine access to space – was already being squeezed between Nixon’s unspoken “penury for science” policy, and the U.S. military’s opinion that (to put it in vernacular), “We don’t need no stinkin’ manned shuttle. We need a freakin’ space TRUCK! Gotta get the weapons, spy satellites and space fighters up there somehow!” As a result, even NASA’s space science people were forced to abandon expendable rockets for their unmanned missions and rely upon (which turned into ‘waiting for’) the shuttle coming on-stream.

In this new ‘space tech-hostile’ political environment, the shuttle slowly evolved from a small manned ‘personnel carrier’ configuration that was fully re-useable (even the booster was a piloted jet/rocket hybrid which would land on the runway like an airplane), to a huge, much more complex, much more expensive craft that was partly expendable (thus more expensive to launch), while development was stretched out for years as these changes were made.

As an aside, this was the period when the eventually-fatal decision was made to use SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) to get the main Shuttle assembly off the ground in the now-absence of the manned jet/rocket booster craft which had originally been envisioned.

At the same time, Nixon let Skylab (the world’s first functioning space station) degrade in orbit because he had cancelled any existing means for reaching it and boosting it into a higher orbit. This duty was now assigned to the soon-to-come shuttle … The shuttle that was now being so changed in design, function and intent that its development timeline would (and did) stretch beyond Skylab’s inevitable re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking the hearts of many of us who believed NASA’s promises that it would be the core of a new, grand, growing presence in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) from which we’d return to the Moon and go the planets.

Nixon, apparently unimpressed with both NASA’s aspirations and the already-made investment in Skylab and its follow-on segments, seemed unconcerned. So much so, that he ultimately canceled the Skylab program entirely.

This singular decision is why, for over 20 years, we had a shuttle with no place to go. Nixon also seemed perfectly happy to kill or delay some major unmanned initiatives that were also now told to wait for a shuttle to launch them. Among these were Voyagers 1 & 2, which had originally been planned to take advantage of a rare planetary alignment (occurring every 178 years; last time it happened, Thomas Jefferson was president). This so-called “Grand Tour of the Solar System” was to take advantage of this rare alignment and use gravity assists to visit each outer planet in turn.

The Voyager craft were eventually able to accomplish much (but not all) of these hoped-for missions, by dint of the dedication of the science community and persuasion levied against NASA and later administrations … But no thanks to Nixon.

So in summation, Richard Nixon single-handedly set this nation’s space program back at least 20 years. This is the context in which I see Obama’s decision about Ares and Orion. This is why I’m both angry and frightened.

I am now a not-young man of 59. I once thought I’d get to see a man on Mars by the time I was 35. Now, I’m not sure if I’ll see a man back on the Moon by the time I die. And if I do, I’m not even sure that he or she will even be an American. (“Ni hao, Moon!”)

Some futurists – i.e., those of us who will live in the future, want to see America stay in the forefront of space exploration and colonization, and also bequest it to our posterity – hope for more.

To paraphrase Robert Kennedy (who paraphrased George Bernard Shaw):

“Some pragmatists see Space and ask, Why? I see Space and ask, Why not, and when?”