Nasa / Space

Can NASA trigger new interest in space exploration?

Wally Bahny discusses a recent SmartPlanet blog that explores what it will take to get the nation excited about NASA again.

In a recent SmartPlanet blog, John Dodge posted his viewpoint about NASA's future. (Disclosure: SmartPlanet is a CBS Interactive brand.) Unlike his fellow blogger, Dana Blankenhorn, Dodge believes that space exploration should at least partially stay within the public sector and not be totally scrapped and handed over to private enterprise. With NASA suffering from underfunding, excessive challenges, and very little direction, it's no wonder that Blankenhorn believes what he does.

So, what will it take to get us excited about NASA again? I think it will require some serious energy by the government, pushing bold new plans for exploration to the moon and beyond. Many Americans are disinterested in the recent patterns of space shuttles to the International Space Station (ISS) and Hubble spacewalks. The Orion capsule as part of the Constellation Program might be able to pull off a reboot into space, but NASA needs more verbal support from the administration. If the general population could see astronauts reaching the moon once more, it might trigger a new interest in space exploration, which could bring the administration around but that won't happen until Orion spends some time in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Also, we need to see real plans for what will come next, so that people don't fall back into the mindset that we've had for the last 30 or so years -- that NASA is only concerned in LEO operations, and a trip to the moon is a one-time event.

Another factor that Dodge writes about is the availability of private enterprise handling the LEO operations to ISS and such. There are commercial services that could handle these tasks in the very near future, and the potential for less expensive trips is much higher than that of NASA-operated missions. This would free up NASA to focus on research and development for further exploration to the moon, Mars, and elsewhere instead of maintaining that which is in relatively easy reach.

What do you think about NASA's plan to send Orion to the moon and eventually to Mars? Do you think NASA can pull off this plan within the next 20 years?

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8 comments
opigg
opigg

I worked for NASA at the Johnson Space Center for 27 years and finished in the Space Station Office in Reston, VA to retire after 30 years. NASA will try to generate new interest and can to a certain degree. My question is should they? In my judgment we have learned that man is not compatible with space travel and that manned missions are much more expensive that unmanned. Man is not going to live permanently on another planet and we should quit watching Star trek type movies and be realistic. In my judgment man in space is outdated and foolish. Do space exploration (which I am not against) with unmanned vehicles.

TNT
TNT

Sure NASA could create interest in its mission once more, all it needs to do is come up with a project that captures the imagination of the people. The Moon mission in the late 60's did just that. Then, in the 80's, the shuttle program inspired many. Since then their best efforts were to send unmanned probes into space and onto Mars and, while interesting and informative, don't inspire. I agree with others that, initially, unmanned exploration is both economical and leads to successful missions, but if you really want to excite the people who fund the organization, you have to take humanity to a new place. Manned missions are the only missions that truly make us feel like we have attained something worthwhile.

misceng
misceng

Michael Kassner has it right in that automated exploration is the way to go. I have been following NASA's efforts since its formation and it is their probes that have achieved most useful science. What seems to be most wrong with NASA is their enormous top heavy administration. There seems to be a mass of controllers each with several assistants with directors of projects and their assistants. This goes on layer after layer until the people who actually do things are so remote from the top that there is no contact. Most of NASA's disasters were the result of this separation of those who know from those in command. For example big chunks of foam could not have fallen on the shuttle wing if the design had taken into account foam's weakness in tension. Wrapping the foam in a very light weight nylon net ( strong in tension ) could have made it impossible for the foam to break away in chunks large enough to do harm but even disaster did not prompt such action.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I suspect the problem is that there was very little direction and what direction that was given was wrong. Are you familiar with Bob Parks and his news letter: http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/ He is all over this subject and I tend to agree with his ideas. Basically NASA is not doing any science. I also agree with Parks in that manned space exploration is not what we need now. It's too expensive and more can be done with automated exploration vehicles. One only needs to read how well the Mars rovers and satellites are doing. Here is a quote from his latest newsletter, where he talks about the findings from the Augustine commission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Review_of_United_States_Human_Space_Flight_Plans_Committee "The Augustine summary was mostly advice on living within your budget. The summary advises extending the life of the ISS, but not because any important discoveries are likely. Rather, as the Economist put it, "spending a quarter of a century building something and then scuttling it looks bad, even if the science that's been done on board could be written up on the back of a postage stamp."

50-50
50-50

If humans can't figure out how to someday live elsewhere than on planet earth, then we might as well just give up and go extinct now. Failure of imagination leads to failure, period. The shuttle inspired folks for a while but its being able to reach only low earth orbit was a design compromise that ultimately proved demoralizing. Losing crews to preventable and predictable disasters didn't help either, of course. In retrospect, it's obvious the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo designers were right to put the payload on top of the rockets, not strapped to the sides of them. Up high, in Geosynchronous orbit and even higher at the LaGrange points, is where we need routine, reusable or recycleable, reliable space transportation systems and continuously occupied habitats. We need the off-planet human presence whether or not the humans occupying those habitats really are necessary to the science being done there. Similarly, we need humans colonizing the Moon and Mars and eventually elsewhere regardless of whether the human presence is strictly necessary to the science and eventual economic activities being done there. It's human nature. Being the smartest monkeys, we want to know that we're monkeying around in a hands-on, mark-1 eyeball, been-there and done-that kind of way. Some of us did find Voyager and (some of) the other robotic missions to be truly inspirational. And yes, "good science" in space is cheaper by remote control. But humans need to spread throughout the solar system and eventually to other stars if we hope for our species to survive long-term. If not, we'll last no longer than the dinosaurs did and likely meet a similar fate even if we manage not to fatally poison our nest first. At the rate we're washing out the night skies with wasteful light pollution, we'll someday soon need routine space tourism or at least inspirational manned missions and fresh photos of earth from high orbit just to remind everyday folks what a beautiful, infinite universe awaits us, full of possibilities. We need that visceral experience of the infinite to keep us humble and inspired. Most of us can't get that anymore by simply stepping outdoors at night and looking up because we've rendered the Milky Way and most of the rest of the heavens invisible from where most of us live.

TommCatt
TommCatt

Sounds an awful lot like, "If God had meant for Man to fly..." Of course, man is not compatible with space travel. So what? When has a problem with incompatibility ever stopped us? We will make ourselves compatible. We will change our bodies to make them stronger, lighter and more resistant to radiation and low air pressure. Have you seen all those photographs from Hubble and other new telescopes? The entire universe is out there, beckoning to us...calling to us. We, as a species, can't close our eyes or cover our ears to this call. We will do it. There is nothing that can stop us for long. If NASA leads the way, fine. If NASA moves too slowly, we'll go around it. I tend to think NASA is now more an obstacle than a vehicle to the future. Look what 30 years of exposure to it has done to your own dreams. The word "not" should never be used when discussing Man's future. Is this what you learned in NASA -- all the things that can't be done?

TNT
TNT

I completely agree with you that unmanned missions are more economical, more successful, less dangerous and practical. But few are inspired by sending robots (unless they are giant robots, lol) into space to do our exploring for us. Send a man into space and the funding will come, because humanity wants to go "further and higher" (as C.S. Lewis put it). Don't do manned missions and, at least in this economy, people are less interested in funding it. So, again, not arguing your point, but wondering if you have a way around this problem?

Sovereign11
Sovereign11

NASA used to paint the external tank, also. I read that they stopped painting it to save about 600 lbs for extra cargo. I don't recall there being instances where the foam came off back during the time they painted it. I wonder if the paint had enough tensile strength to hold the foam in place? I wonder if a study was done to evaluate this?

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