July 9, 2012

First Anniversary of Final Space Shuttle Launch


A year ago the final space shuttle mission roared off the launch pad and into orbit and the history books.
Credit: Art Harman

In the year since Atlantis took that historic flight, has the administration set specific goals and timetables for NASA to allow it to focus like a laser beam on launching Americans to the moon, Mars and asteroids? Or by neglect is it still an agency adrift without specific long range plans for human exploration beyond earth orbit?

Sadly, a year after the last shuttle mission and more than two years after Constellation was cancelled, the essential goals and timetables have still not been set. During his short time in office, President Kennedy accomplished everything needed to send America to the moon.

The greatest tragedy in cancelling Constellation was not the billions of dollars lost and the years of delay added in getting the very similar Space Launch System (SLS) ready for construction. The greatest tragedy instead was the loss of NASA's specific manned deep space exploration goals, and the timetables to get there, resulting in confusion, poor morale, and an inability to properly plan and develop missions.

Simply to allow NASA to identify one specific asteroid and state "in 20XX we will go to this asteroid" would make all the difference for mission planning, public enthusiasm and Congressional budgetary approval.

America's national space strategy up to the point the White House cancelled it would have had the US return to the moon by 2019, begin construction of a lunar research base so we could learn how to live on Mars, and then go to Mars.

These specific plans were replaced by vague and undefined plans to go to an un-specified asteroid about 2025, and perhaps in the mid 2030's to either orbit Mars and return or to land. Without the intermediate learning step of a research base on the moon, a Mars mission would be far more hazardous.

It is almost impossible to accomplish such technically demanding and expensive tasks without a detailed and specific roadmap.

Credit NASA
Had President Kennedy tasked Apollo with a similarly vague plan to "go to the moon sometime in the far future," we never would have gotten there. Perhaps funding could have been found for such a vague program, but the result would have been perpetual delays, cost over-runs and continual redesigns--exactly what plagues NASA today!

The contrasts with the precisely planned and executed Apollo program and today's rudderless NASA could not be more glaring.

The solution is to follow the successful example of Apollo and set specific timetables and goals--best articulated by President Kennedy in his 1961 address to Congress:

"I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."

The solution indeed is to follow JFK's wise advice and "specif(y) long-range goals on an urgent time schedule."

The stakes are higher than many may realize. America does not live in a vacuum in this world; and other nations will not patiently wait until we get our act in gear. They will happily seize for the next generation the lead we relinquish in high technology; and they will go to the moon, Mars and beyond--making it seem pointless to follow in their footsteps. It will be they, not us who reap the incredibly valuable benefits in patents and innovations, jobs, investments, and national pride and international respect.

China recently announced their plans to land on the moon by 2025, and last month completed a successful mission docking with their prototype space station. While the US is indeed building our moon/asteroid/Mars rocket--the SLS; specific plans, timetables and budgets for specific missions must be developed, or the space program which launched America to worldwide leadership in high tech could become an easy prey to budget cutters, leaving the US second-rate in an increasingly competitive world.

This is a call, on the occasion of the anniversary of the final shuttle launch, for the current or next administration to develop a serious and well-funded national space strategy which will see America continue to lead the world in technology, discovery and prosperity.

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