Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Next Step, America’s Future in Space

Knowing my passion for space exploration, a number of people, my parents included, expressed surprise that I didn’t have anything to say when America’s Shuttle Program ended last week.


When OV-102, Columbia, lifted off for the first time in 1981, I had tears in my eyes.

When Atlantis came home for the last time, I didn’t even bother to watch it land.

I didn’t have anything to say last week because I’ve already said it.

I said it here, on the bitter anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing.

And I said it again in the following article, which appeared February 1st, 2010, the day President Obama announced the cancellation of the Constellation program. 

However, in answering a comment under the previous post, I started thinking about writing yet another article on the subject. Then I looked up what I had written and realized that a new post was unnecessary, I’d said nearly all I have to say.

I’m not in the habit of reposting old material, but since many folks asked my opinion and because Stonekettle Station has seen such a massive increase in readership since this article first appeared, I’ll repost it here with some additional thoughts:

One Small Step, One Giant Leap

Forty years ago, on July 20th 1969, Americans first landed on the Moon.

At UTC20:17 - about quarter after three in the middle of a rainy summer afternoon, there in Michigan where I watched it on my parent’s tiny black and white TV - a fragile spidery spacecraft called Eagle set down on the desolate airless regolith in the lunar Sea of Tranquility.

Onboard were two extraordinary human beings.

Even as a seven year old kid, I knew just how utterly profound Apollo 11’s mission was.

Damned near everybody who owned a TV, or knew somebody who owned a TV, or could get themselves to a place with a TV, watched that landing – and those who couldn’t watch listened via radio – and they were still watching and listening a couple hours later when Armstrong and Aldrin floated down that ladder and became the first human beings to stand with their own feet upon the soil of another world.

It was an unbelievable moment.

It was a moment that burned itself into my memory and has haunted my dreams ever since.

It was a moment in time that changed the very world we lived in.

On that night, in that moment, five hundred million Earthmen peered into their TVs and wept at the daring of the species.  Those wavering ghostly images from another world captivated the entire race. Strangers in Times Square spontaneously hugged other strangers.  All over the world, people turned to one another, struck dumb by wonder and amazement.  Others cheered and shouted with joy until their throats were raw.  Stodgy TV commentators broke down unashamedly on live TV and the tears streamed down their faces.  People stood in their yards and stared at the night sky, at the moon hanging there, and marveled that men walked upon its ancient and sun blasted surface.

They dreamed of how the world would change now that man had finally broken free of the Earth.

They dreamed of becoming spacefarers, of going to Mars and Venus and the moons of Jupiter – and beyond.

They were inspired.

They were awed.

They were humbled.


It didn’t last long.


Barely a year later, when Apollo 13 lifted off and shaped orbit for the moon, so few people tuned in to follow that voyage the networks canceled their coverage of the mission and substituted sitcoms and laxative commercials instead.  Americans were already bored with space, lost as they were in the horror of Vietnam, the ever present nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, civil unrest, OPEC, and Richard Millhouse Nixon.  Interest roused briefly when one of Odyssey’s oxygen tanks exploded and it looked like three Americans would die on their way home from the moon.  It didn’t happen, of course, and that brief flare of interest faded into the background of South East Asia and the Cold War and the energy crisis and the rapidly souring cultural revolution and the myriad of other things that made up the churning chaos of those decades.

All in all, NASA landed six tiny ships on the moon.  In two years, two short years, it was over.

Twelve men walked briefly upon the surface of another world.  None stayed and none have ever returned.

Nor are they likely to.

The reasons, of course, are many and varied.

Personally I believe it’s a lack of vision.  A lack of hope. Of courage. Of passion.  Of inspiration

We Americans once dared greatly.  We once revered those who dared and flew and dreamed. We were proud of those extraordinary men, and we dreamed that ourselves or our children would one day follow in their footsteps. There was a time when America was captivated by the moon, by Mars, by space, by adventure, by destiny.  There was a time when pictures of fanciful and speculative spaceships, each with an American flag and the NASA logo displayed proudly upon its shining hull-plates, graced the covers of Time and the front pages of the Wall Street Journal.  There was a time when every failure was ours as a nation to bear, we knew that space was a dangerous place, and each setback only redoubled our resolve.  Oh certainly there were those who didn’t believe, who didn’t dream, who didn’t want to go, who told us to keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the sand and bemoaned how NASA’s budget could better be used here, on Earth, rather than up there in the sky. They were shouted down.

But, no more.


See, Apollo, for all its daring, for all its astounding achievement, was little more than a stunt.


We did what we set out to do, and we did it well.

But we went to the Moon for all the wrong reasons.

It’s right there, on the side of the Eagle’s descent stage, still up there, still hanging over our heads in the night sky, a mockery of modern America’s lack of will, untarnished and unchanging, as bright and as shining as that day in July, 1969 when it was carried to another world by two extraordinary Americans:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon

July, 1969

We came in peace, for all mankind


But, of course, we didn’t.

Come in peace, I mean. Or for all mankind either, for that matter.

We went to the moon to show the Soviets that we could.  We went to the moon as a strategic move, a front in one of the many battles of the Cold War.  We went to the moon because even at a cost of a hundred billion dollars it was still one hell of a lot cheaper than using any of the those nuclear bombs we’d built and pointed at each other.

And we won.

We beat the Ruskies.

We set a goal, and we reached it.

We fulfilled the promise of a murdered president.

And then we came home and we lost interest within a year, distracted by other battles, by other fronts.

See, governments don’t dream.  Nations don’t dream.

Rarely do governments inspire. Kennedy did, but that’s a very rare thing, to capture the imagination of an entire nation and, more, to hold it for a single short decade.

It is not nations who explore, who seek the limits of human endurance, who push on over the horizon.  It is not governments who quest or go a-Viking or chase adventure upon alien shores simply for the sheer joy of it. There is no government existent, ours included, that has the will and the stamina and the intestinal fortitude to break free of this world and journey to the stars. 

Governments are subject to the whim of the mob, and the mob doesn’t give a good Goddamn about outer space.

The great explorations of history were never government enterprises.  If left to government Shackleton would still be waiting for funding, his ship the faithful Endurance would be the size of an aircraft carrier and hold no more than three explorers.  If left to government, Columbus would still be tied to the pier, pending a review by Congressional subcommittee of his navigational skills and while the fitting out of Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria kept 10,000 defense contractors employed for the next three decades.  Stanley would have no trouble finding Livingston, because Livingston would never have gone anywhere – and the source of the Nile would still be unknown.

Governments don’t explore.

Governments conquer. Governments grandstand and stage stunts. Governments argue and bicker and squabble and wage war. Some are good and some are bad and some are indifferent.

But they don’t explore.

It is human beings who explore. Individuals of courage and daring and burning passion and enterprise.

It is private corporations who explore, hunting profit and new markets and assets and resources.

If we are ever to truly break free from the bonds of this world, we must first get government out of the business of space travel.

Governments own ships for one reason, to protect the interests of their citizen upon the high seas.  Governments send warships to sea, and law enforcement vessels, and vessels for safety, rescue, and navigation.  Until there is need for such ships in space, i.e. until there are civilian and private vessels in significant volume, there is no need for government to build ships of its own.

The internet is a twitter with the news today.  President Obama’s 2011 budget essentially ends America’s time as a space faring nation.


It’s about damned time.

If you didn’t see this coming, you’re a fool.

Obama didn’t kill Constellation. The Constellation program has been doomed from the start.  Hell, the Constellation program has been doomed since July 20th, 1969.  We’ve been there, we’ve done that – and America as a nation wasn’t interested in continuing when we had the hardware and the resources, what makes you think we’ll do it now when we have to recreate the entire infrastructure at a hundred or a thousand times the cost? Access to space hasn’t gotten cheaper or less complex, just the opposite in fact. The age of national daring, of the test pilot astronaut is over – it’s the age of the bean counter.  Constellation has always been underfunded, organized by committee after endless committee, awash in adminstrivia and paperwork and government bullshit – and really, it was never more than a political gambit by an uninspired and uninspiring twit of an anti-science President who tried to pull a do-over of JFK but couldn’t motivate his own Administration let alone galvanize the nation (maybe he should have gotten himself assassinated right after the speech announcing America’s return to the moon, or found terrorists hiding on Mars.  But I digress).

Constellation has always been doomed.

Obama just put it out of our misery.

Constellation has always been doomed because governments don’t explore.

Bean counters and bureaucrats don’t explore.

Because when Congress runs your space program, you are doomed from the start.

I’ve said here and elsewhere that I never expected a single human being to ride Ares into orbit.  I have never expected to see Orion falling between the worlds, or Altair standing on the moon.  When NASA unveiled the program and we got our first glimpse of a Shuttle SRB with what was essentially an Apollo capsule on top I knew I was looking at the Flying Dutchman of space programs, cursed to rounding the Congressional horn forever. Building a government designed rocket to the moon isn’t going to be any cheaper or more efficient or be any longer term now than it was the first time we did it.

We need something new. Something better. Something inspired.

Those who know me, know that I am an unabashed space nut.  I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab.  I belonged to the Junior Space Club and the Planetary Society, I collected all the pins and built all the models and memorized the names of every astronaut and knew the specifications of every rocket.  When NASA named the first Shuttle Enterprise I was ecstatic (until I learned later that it was little more than an empty wasted gesture). I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Niven. I grew up dreaming that I would someday go to the stars.  I’ve waited for forty years to look into the night sky and see the lights of Luna City shining back at me from the darkened crescent of Tycho Crater.  I’ve turned on the TV every day for the last four decades hoping to see men and women setting foot upon Mars the way I saw Armstrong and Aldrin do on that night so long ago.

It pains me so much to know we’ve squandered our legacy, that in my lifetime human beings may never set foot again upon another world, indeed maybe ever, that’ll I cheer any human endeavor that returns us as a species to space and to the moon and beyond – even if those who do it are Chinese or Indian or Russian.

I’ve known for some time that America will not return to the moon, will not go to Mars,  will not explore the solar system let alone go beyond it, not while the dreams and hopes and spirit of exploration are held captive in squabbling congressional subcommittees by petty and uninspired men who dream only of their own glory.  It will not happen when the bean counters and administrators smother the spirit of human endeavor like a B-movie alien slime mold. It will not happen as long as we leave it up to government. It will not happen as long as we leave it to these people:

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-AL), "The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight. The cancellation of the Constellation program and the end of human space flight does represent change, but it is certainly not the change I believe in."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL.), "The president's green-eyeshade-wearing advisers are dead wrong. And I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs."

Shelby doesn’t give the contents of a NASA urine bag about the future of human space flight, the cancellation of Constellation, like Iraq or 911 or Wall Street, is simply another opportunity to advance partisan politics. Nothing more.  Shelby’s constituents in Huntsville make up a significant fraction the NASA workforce, if they didn’t you can damned well bet that his interest in the future of human space flight would be exactly nil.  The same with Nelson.  To Senators and Congressmen, Constellation, indeed all of NASA, is nothing more than a cash cow.  A endless source of money that nobody expects success or results from.

Don’t get me wrong here.  NASA does some wonderful science.  NASA pays direct dividends back to the American public every day, in increased air safety, in advanced technology, in aeronautics, in engineering, in medicine, and many fields far too numerous to name.

NASA does many things well.

But not manned spaceflight. Not exploration. Not commercial ventures.  And sure as hell not profit.

That’s right, I said profit.

Americans, conservatives in particular, should be cheering Obama’s “capitalist” approach to space exploration.  Republicans especially should be applauding the president for his repudiation of socialist space travel (Well, what do you call it when the government owns all the ships?), his slashing of wasteful government spending and pie in the sky government programs, and his market driven approach to space exploration.

See, by law, the one thing our government can’t do is make a profit.

But private space companies can.

And if we are ever to make space travel a self-sustaining endeavor, then we must make a profit doing it.

We’ve built government spaceships. We’ve sent government employees to the moon and it is government employees who flew the Shuttle and it is government employees who live on the International Space Station. We been there, we’ve done that, and yes, we even got the T-shirt, the ball cap, and the coffee mug.

Now, right now, It is time for America to pioneer the next step.

And that step is no small step by a single government employee, it’s the biggest giant leap humankind will ever take.

We must privatize space travel and return government to its proper role in such things. 

And what is that, you ask?

Why, the same role that government has always had in exploration; as a customer and as a provider of grants, bankrolls, support, advice, tax breaks, access to data and knowledge and research and technology - and an eventual share in the spoils.

NASA should be National Space University, a place of research and development and education, a place where we train citizen astronauts to fly and float and live and prosper beyond our own little world.  A place where we teach our children how to build spacecraft and habitats and hardware.  A place where we teach spacemen how to manage the business of space, of exploration, of construction and funding and exploitation of the new frontier.  A place were civilian, government, and military people develop standardized engines and components and software and a place where we can rent time in the wind tunnels and weightless pools, on the rocket test stands and in the vomit comet. A place where we teach our kids to dream, to push the boundaries of the human spirit, and to seek beyond the far horizon.

Hell, NASA employees bemoan the loss of a thirty year old Shuttle based on fifty year old technology, and Senators decry the loss of jobs and pork for their states – but if done right, if NASA were to become Space University, why we’d be looking at an entire new civilian industry, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of new jobs, and limitless opportunity not only for our own nation but for the entire world.

If done right, and right now, we could set the course for the entire future of our species.

And if we as a species are to survive, if we as human beings are to reach our ultimate potential, if we as Americans and our allies and partners and friends are to ever break free from this tiny little rock, then we must get government out of space exploration while we still have a chance.

Killing Constellation may end America’s manned space program, but it opens the doors for Americans.

NASA’s vision is limited to the space station.

For the rest of us, for the generations yet unborn, the sky is not the limit

It is only the beginning.


Governments don’t explore, but, if they do the job right, their citizens do


  1. Did you say next step? How about the next chapter?


    Welcome to the Spaceport America Website!

    The next chapter in space transportation is being written right now in the State of New Mexico. Forward-thinking pioneers are developing both vertical and horizontal launch vehicles using the power of free-market enterprise.

    As the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, Spaceport America is designed with the needs of the commercial space business in mind. Unique geographic benefits, striking iconic design, and the tradition of New Mexico space leadership are coming together to create a new way to travel into space.

    When it comes to outer space, New Mexico is bringing it down to earth!

  2. No, I don't believe it. I'm a space junkie, too. Had I known about it when I was little, and subsequently later when I was in university, I would have applied to the astronaut program.

    Yes, programs are cut. But that is simply not the end. Something is going to reemerge. Count on it.

    The same drive and curiosity that got us here (Rocket Boys) will move us beyond. I know it.
    We're a society that has become complacent and stupidified. A culture of movies, politics, a preoccupation with celebrities and boob jobs has changed people's expectations. Space travel, yaawwwn...been there, done that, saw that movie.

    I hate to say this, but it isn't the government or Obama or the Republicans that killed the space program. It was us. We voted it off the show. It wasn't marketed and it isn't sexy. Too hard to say anything about it in 140 characters.
    The U.S. has gone quite a few steps backward in the last 15 years. It's costing us.

    A little boy who met an astronaut in a remote village community in bush Alaska 15 years ago has applied to the Naval Academy. We owe him a space program. We set up his expectations and he has delivered.
    Richard Branson, move that bus!

  3. If there's anything up there that's going to make a substantial profit it's in the asteroids and not the planets or moons.

    Most of the cost of space flight is getting out of the Earth's gravity well. It doesn't make things any cheaper if the first thing you do is drop down another gravity well even if it's a very small one.

    Somebody's gotta go up there and grab a asteroid.

  4. Rats, I must have gotten something in my eye, again (blinking furiously). I started reading Heinlein in '54, and was so sure we'd keep on going...

    If you hadn't seen this, I thought you might enjoy it - I first heard Anne sing it in the early '80s.


    It's seldom in Chicago that you see the stars by night.
    The skies are red and angry with sodium vapor light
    But I have seen the heavens from a high and lonely place
    And I know that that's the closest I'll ever come to space.

    But I have seen the harbors, and the tall ships point the way
    And our children or their children will go out there someday.

    If I live a long time, and if mankind turns once more
    To dare a present danger, to reach some future shore
    Then I may yet see pictures of distant foreign skies
    And know them for reflections in my children’s questing eyes.

    And I have seen the harbors, and the ships are proud and bold
    And the children born this morning may already be too old.

    In our mundane life, there's no one happier than I.
    I'm contented to live planet-bound, for time has passed me by
    But my children and their children are well worth dreaming for
    The glories of tomorrow lie golden at their door.

    And I have seen the harbors, and the ships' departing gleam
    And the witnesses of wonder are forgiven when they dream.

    For we have see the harbor, and the tall ships point the way
    And our children or their children will go out there some day

    -- Anne Passovoy

  5. The evidence of collaboration and shared knowledge evidenced in the ISS is simply awesome, in the true sense of the word. Inspiring. Moving.

    I had the good fortune to see the workshop with the pieces in progress and the people doing the work, at Kennedy Space Center. It really was truly one of the most dramatic, amazing, impressive things to me. And I've seen a lot of stuff.
    Genuine collaboration between countries, staff, science, with barely a wink and a nod toward the political shenanigans of international leadership who don't even know what they're looking at. A pervasive energy of partnership, community and mutual accomplishment. Staff and astronauts training in each other's national programs.

    Might go out of focus and perhaps thin a bit, but that kind of energy does not dissipate.
    The U.S. led the astronaut training sequences, along with Russia. Everybody else's national programs depend on us, our facilities and labs. That cannot just go away - they've got to have some kind of plan.

  6. The first shuttle, which was never intended to actually fly, was not to be named Enterprise until a bunch of Trekkies, who knew bat shit, started screaming. I was never a Trekkie, the helmsman being bounced out of his chair by a near by explosion bothered my sense of physics.

    Enterprise had been reserved for the second shuttle.

    Lewis and Clark, was an example of government exploration, but Jefferson had a reputation for ignoring committees.

    All in all a good post.

  7. This is one of your best posts ever.....

  8. Interesting and informative post. Having spent my life married to a Rocket Scientist, I enjoyed your "space" side of this.

    It was the work of land and space knowledge, paid by the government to use the technologies of rockets into space and rockets (guided missiles) in finding how to pinpoint controlling of our nations safety.

    Was almost futile for him to gain advanced degrees in Areo Space Engineering as the work they were doing is the information to go into the curriculum to teach it to others. The professors often asking the student if the information was viable! Often having to slow up till the books caught up with their work. Horse and cart placement situation! It was a challenge to keep the horse in a leadership position when the funding for technology was in the hands of the government. Much of the time he spent trying to convince those holding the purse strings for more funding so defense and space could move forward. The positioning of satellites in outer space was the controlling factor of what happened on the ground, if nothing more than getting the weather report for testing and actual work on the front lines of defense.

    Outer space was the whipped cream and cherry on the whole thing. Unmanned space exploration (Hubble etc) has paid for itself in the knowledge we have gained in the long run. Manned exploration needs to take a back seat until we know more about the unknown to risk lives and money in the future.

    It is now time for private companies to take the information we have found and see if it is feasible to go where no man has gone before or just make the science we know will make our own planet a safer and better place to live. What will drought and floods on the opposite side of our globe affect how we can sustain life if this is a change to the norm...does the phrase global warming/climate change ring a bell? When things change, we have to correct the course of our exploration for answers...with or without government financing.

  9. Couple of thoughts this provoked for me this a.m.:

    I was 4 years old in '69 and watching the moon landing is one of my earliest memories. (My first political memory is watching Nixon's resignation speech.)

    Richard Branson seems to be on track to make space travel a commercial venture; and going into space and looking back on the Earth and out into the Universe is a major bucket item list for me.

    I had a conversation about a decade ago with a rich, white, conservative male. We were discussing the destruction of the planet through loss of ecosystems and the wide spread pollution of our air, water and soil. His response to me? - That is didn't matter if we were trashing our planet because by the time we made it uninhabitable for humans, humans will be colonizing space.
    Needless to say I walked away from that conversation shaking my head in sadness. I wonder what he thinks about that subject now?

  10. Whilst I hope that space exploration continues I have many deep reservations about how private industry might approach it. Government beancounters are nothing against those who are beholden to the sacred shareholder. I have visions of low-bid spacesuits exploding on first contact with real vaccuum because proper field testing was to much of a strain on the bottom line and vessels being launched with half empty tanks because that's all it was calculated they would need and damnit, fuel is expensive you know...

    Every injury or death in the space program was investigated and changes made to try and avoid future tragedy. Based on it's history the corporate world seems far more likely to try to hide, sweep away and belittle the efforts of it's minions to actually survive. Every frontier has it's costs and it's martyrs but there has to be some measure of control. I for one fear the ascent of naked capitalism into the heavens...

  11. Consider this an "amen" from the choir and a home-rolled link-back:

    The Union Pacific and NASA

  12. If senators from states with no financial interest in the Space Program spoke out, it would mean something. But senators have gone the way of the house - solely concerned with what is in the best interest of their state and not the nation.

  13. Excellent.

    I do, though, have the same concerns as MikeB regarding the private sector taking control of the reins.

  14. My wife and I,here in the 50th state, and both former Navy types, are keen followers and admirers of your blog from the 49th. Good thinking, sir. Well expressed and on the money. Keep it up. Your friends. aloha, Gerry and Carole

  15. I'm late to the party, but I enjoyed this entry. I remember reading “You Will Go To the Moon” in my beginner books in first grade and I’m still disappointed. (I still want my personal jet-pack, too.) Like most kids of that era I remember where I was when they landed (at an SPJST dance hall with my family – we were pretty sure Neil Armstrong would find my uncle’s beer bottles since he had also successfully launched that evening), watching the first steps and hoping that I’d at least get to visit someday.

    As MikeB noted, there are some possible drawbacks to having private enterprise run the whole show (if you liked the O-rings on the Challenger, just imagine what an unregulated space industry could do.) But that's not an insurmountable problem because it doesn't have to be unregulated. Jim listed many things governments can do to support space travel, and one of them that must be added is regulation. That can be awkward and troublesome, but practically speaking, there will have to be an FAA for space at some point. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday.


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