Half A Century After Glenn’s Flight, NASA Tries To Make Up Its Mind

Perhaps NASA has outlived its ability to achieve simple, clear goals, and it would be easier to start over with two or three different agencies.

In February of 1962, I was eight years old. That was plenty old enough to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS-TV narrate the countdown for astronaut John Glenn’s attempt to be the first American to orbit the earth. I say “attempt” because at the time, nobody knew for sure if it would work. When the rocket fired up and sailed safely into the sky, Cronkite dropped his objectivity enough to say, “Go, baby!” The world of space flight (and journalism, for that matter) would never be the same.

By that time, NASA had gotten on the one track to the moon, passing by logical waystations during the sixties: the Mercury single-man capsule, the Gemini two-man unit, and the Apollo, which became the way we ultimately got to the moon. There was a breathtaking simplicity about the program, which belied the infinite technical complexities of manned spaceflight. We were going to land men on the moon before the Russians did—it was that simple. Even an eight-year-old could understand that. And we succeeded.

Now I’m 58, John Glenn is 90, and NASA—well, I hate to admit it, but NASA is no longer the stripped-down, single-minded Cold-War-by-other-means fighting machine it was. Try explaining the current NASA budget to an eight-year-old, or a twenty-eight-year-old. Unless he has degrees in accounting and political science, he’s not likely to see much to be excited about.

There are two main initiatives at NASA these days concerning manned space flight (all of which, incidentally, is anathema to many scientists who would rather see dollars go to more efficient unmanned robotic flights). One initiative is called the Commercial Crew Program. This is aimed at developing not only crews, but an entire program, that commercial firms design and build with NASA’s “guidance.” NASA has always had contractors—it has never been in the business of manufacturing major flight hardware without commercial help—but the Commercial Crew Program is intended to move the entire enterprise closer to a free-market model, somewhat like the airlines.

Of course, the average profit margin of commercial airlines over several decades is about zero, so that may not be a good model. Add to that the fact that there are not a lot of customers for manned-space-flight services, other than the U. S. and some other governments, and you have a very strange economic proposition, to say the least. This has not kept lots of companies from flocking to NASA’s information sessions to see how they can get a piece of the pie, but when Congress cut the 2011 allocation for this project to only $400 million, the schedule stretched out and it is not clear that NASA will get the $830 million it’s asking for in the present budget cycle.

One big reason for that is the Obama administration is proposing an overall flat budget for 2013 for NASA, which means the increase for the Commercial Crew Program might have to come out of the other big initiative for manned space flight, the Orion/Space Launch System. Orion (for short) is intended for deep-space activities, to asteroids or beyond. It has gone through several transformations, but clearly needs a lot of money (around $1 billion a year) to go anywhere anytime soon, which means probably ten to fifteen years. Orion is the logical extension of the quasi-religious feeling that man is destined to keep on exploring farther and farther reaches of space.

Its supporters include hard-core spaceniks and a lot of Congressmen and contractors (many in Texas) who want to keep NASA’s existing facilities busy and its employees employed. If all NASA did was to contract out manned space flight to commercial firms, you could do that out of a couple of buildings in Washington, and what would we do with all those other labs and things?

I am sympathetic with people who do not want to lose their jobs. But I would also like to know that their jobs are worth doing, and will issue in some meritorious achieved goal within the foreseeable future. The way NASA is thrashing around like a canvas bag full of cats fighting does not encourage the belief that we will see strong, clear, directed effort come from the agency or its contractors any time soon.

NASA was once a great organization, and achieved great things. It still has pockets of high-quality and unique talent that we should keep around in some form for reasons of national pride and capability. John Glenn was once a strong, brave, 40-year-old astronaut. And in 1998, at age 77 he became the oldest person to go into space, on a Space Shuttle flight. But even Glenn has wisely put space flight behind him, personally, and long ago passed the torch to younger people.

As some commentators have proposed recently, perhaps NASA in its present form has outlived its ability to achieve simple, clear goals, and has become such a battered political football that it would be easier to start over with two or three different agencies, each directed at a specific goal that you could explain to an eight-year-old. But the way things are going with political paralysis in Washington, the chances of this getting done are small.

Manned space flight is a novel activity in historical terms, deeply tied to technology, which I think deserves to continue on some basis. It is so costly that turning the whole thing over to private hands is practically to give up, so the government needs to be involved at some level. But trying to do too many things at once, especially when you’re older, is a recipe, if not for disaster, at least for a lot of wasted effort. And engineers hate to waste effort.

Sources: I consulted two articles on recent NASA activities in the Commercial Crew Program, one published by Aviation Week at http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=space&id=news/awx/2012/02/14/awx_02_14_2012_p0-425174.xml&headline=Commercial%20Crew%20Push%20Has%20Some%20Concerned

and another at a website that promotes the space industry called www.spacefellowship.com: http://spacefellowship.com/news/art27725/commercial-crew-program-introduces-ccicap-initiative.html.

Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

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