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Space Exploration – Getting Back on Track

By: Mark Flavin

I clearly remember sitting in our small living room, my eyes locked on the tiny black & white TV images of Alan Sheppard’s ride into space in the Mercury spacecraft. A human pilot atop a flaming column of volatile fuel and oxidizer blazing into the azure Florida sky. Although it was a short sub-orbital ride, the US was in the game, and I say game with purpose. Everyone in the U.S., including the kids, knew that our efforts were in playing catch up to a rival culture. It didn’t matter what the reason, the exciting fact was that we, our nation, was exploring the most hostile environment imaginable with silver suited all American men. Not with robot probes sending data streams so the guys in white coats could spend their careers pouring over endless pages of numbers. A legion of scientists straining to find some esoteric answer to what? How did we morph the excitement of human exploration of space into cute little lunch box sized “explorers” landing by bouncing along the surface of Mars like a giant beach ball? Maybe it was Hot Wheels? It would have given them a sure market for millions of darling little lifeless “robo explorers”. It equals Christopher Columbus and his crew having been told that instead of dispatching them on a second trip to the New World they would just send a row boat with three pigs, named “faster, better, and cheaper.” Human achievement crowned by exploration has always been driven by the thrill of adventure & discovery, political objectives, raw ambition or the prospect of gain, never to discover something that is irrelevant or meaningless to people. Instead of the defunct faster, better, cheaper, the new motto needs to be; discover, visit, inhabit.

Consider the binge NASA has been on for years, to discover water and ultimately life on Mars or maybe Europa. What a colossal misuse of our money and resources. Did you know that you and I are funding a project to build a robot to drill through the ice sheet covering Europa to find life under there? If that isn’t the all time, award winning boondoggle to the tune of millions of our tax dollars. NASA is driven by an agenda set by the misguided scientist aristocracy who need to prove that the Earth is not special at all, and water is their holy grail. To them water equals life, although there is zero extraterrestrial, or for that matter terrestrial evidence to support this pseudo science hypothesis. The goal of finding micro life on another planet will never motivate the broad taxpayer base necessary to explore space as Project Apollo did. Consider this obvious fact: If there is life on Mars or elsewhere it will eventually be discovered when we (translate humans) get there. Robots have a place in space exploration, but it isn’t spearheading it. Instead they should be used to assist human explorers, not supplant them.

So why not send humans to do the discovery? Other that a handful of scientist and professors, no one is thrilled by drilling in rocks looking for signs of water, that is unless it’s an American finger on the trigger of the drill with red dust on their space boots. We want… no, we demand to see our heroes standing on alien worlds in defiance of distance, time and the vacuum of space exploring, and discovering. There is zero enthusiasm seeing a mission controller wearing an E=MC2 T-shirt sitting in a darkened control room watching as a robot scoops into a sterilized canister what might be, could be, or perhaps be, invisible viral life. Now before you judge me a technology basher please understand that I have spent my career as and engineer passionately involved in aerospace. We need scientists and engineers to solve the tough problems of sustaining human explorers & their machinery in space, but we don’t need them setting the agenda for exploration. Ask the American people for their preference, looking for microscopic life with Lego set robots, or men and women standing on alien worlds as our agents of discovery. I think the answer is a no brainer.

You must have seen or read of the hype about the cancellation of the Constellation, or as it should have been called Consternation; subtitled Project Apollo Part Two. It highlights the lack of imagination at the NASA (No Advances Since Apollo) bureaucracy, known as NASA. Why have we spent thirty years plus in near earth orbit? It is uninspiring to watch a space truck, shuffling back and fort between the ISS, the Ineffective Space Station and earth. The popular media comes alive when a Shuttle blows up or disintegrates during reentry. Then they launched into a hyper frenzy of self-doubt and recrimination about the “dangers of space travel for humans”. Let’s face it the ISS is a “research platform” is an accretion of unaesthetic modules resembling shipping containers. At best it looks like a wreck between a locomotive and set of gymnastic apparatus, not an assembly point for missions into the solar system as it should be. You can bet that the Shuttle with the ISS were sold to congress to further exploration of the moon and beyond, instead it wound up as a silly looking hodge-podge that became a welfare program for the Russians. The latest failed proposal was that we go back to the moon “Using History to Design the Future” (no kidding I didn’t make this up it’s on the NASA website.) Meanwhile the flight hardware that could have taken us there in the ’70s is corroding in museums. I’m talking about the two completer, ready to fly, built in the sixties Apollo / Saturn rockets that put Americans on the moon! Never mind the real space station orbited and occupied in the seventies, Sky Lab that is now lying at the bottom of the Pacific after a spectacular reentry because of NASA’s wrongdoing.

How did we allow the inferior spirit of the current NASA scientific aristocracy to set priorities? Answer: Our political leadership had placed no one of vision in charge for a long time. Take the example of Werner Von Braun. I know, I know, his Nazi past makes him tainted goods now, but look objectively at his achievements for the American space program aside from his questionable past in WWII. It is worthy to consider his contribution, for this reason: He almost single handedly conceived, guided and motivated Kennedy’s “put a man on the moon” doctrine with the obvious enormous success for his adopted country. Van Braun had vision, and it was infectious. Read his book, Conquest of the Moon written in the fifties, the title says it all. The early space program was all about sending humans to conquer space. Even the non-human monkey we sent up in a Redstone rocket was a celebrity!  What excites ordinary citizens? Look at current popular culture and entertainment, which type of space fiction do people watch and read? The entertainment industry does not create science fiction about amoebic life interacting in the methane clouds of Titan. Why, because the author and maybe his mom would be the only people who would go see the movie or read the novel. Look at the example of the classic science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. It was about humans in the cosmos. We have the capability, technology and resources to send human explorers to stand on a virgin world, not just “return to the moon.” What we lack is the primarily leadership, but also motivation and will.

The private sector is pursuing the final frontier. Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are a few examples of visionary use of space. They have the will and vision to exploit near space, but not the bucks (translate, our tax dollars) to go to Mars or elsewhere. We watch as NASA squanders more money on the Inert Space Station, Russian space taxi services all the while we sit planet side hoping for a miracle in Virginia that frankly ain’t gonna happen.

It is now time to re-direct the lethargic, mindless government civil service bureaucracy called NASA to get back on track. Give up the “search for water” no one who counts cares anyway. We want human explorers heading for the red planet and beyond. To boldly go where no stuffy technical administrator has ever, would ever go; to undiscovered worlds that awaits us. Let’s get on with exploring the solar system and beyond or we will become passive spectators in front of our wide screens watching in high definition as lesser nation does something that we are capable of doing now; that is to have an American stand on Mars. Write NASA, your congressman or senator, the president, you mother if she has the clout,  implore the spineless admistration to knock off the “looking for life” lunacy and re-focus this nation on a truly noble and worth effort, the human exploration of space beyond earth.

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