20 July 2009

NASA Then and Now

Posted by Ryan Anderson

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Forty years ago today, the world watched as Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. All day today, I have been reading accounts from people who witnessed the landing. They have almost unanimously expressed the awe and wonder of seeing human being set foot upon the surface of another world. But another common thread is that of disappointment. The Apollo program achieved great things in its time, but then after only six landings, the program was over. The world lost interest and NASA lost its direction.

Granted, in the 40 years since Apollo 11, NASA has achieved great things, but never again did it top the headlines in every country. It is estimated that one fifth of the world’s population watched the Apollo 11 landing. That grip on the world’s hearts and minds is gone.

The NASA that I grew up with and now work with is very different from the one that got us to the moon in less than ten years. To my generation, the Space Shuttle is the symbol of human spaceflight, and while it is a beautiful and complex engineering marvel, it is also dangerous, expensive, and incapable of leaving low Earth orbit. Even its name, “Shuttle” suggests that what it does is routine and uninteresting. Right now there are thirteen astronauts and cosmonauts orbiting the planet in the shuttle and the space station. That’s more than all of the Apollo astronauts who set foot upon the moon, all at once! And yet most people (myself included) would have trouble naming one of them.


NASA has aged. The average age of its workforce is almost 50. It has become a world-class bureaucracy with crippling fear of risk. You can’t walk down the hall of a NASA building without being accosted by signs warning about slippery floors and on-the-job accidents. Now, I’m all for minimizing injuries, but those signs also reflect a change in the fundamental culture of NASA.

Remember, the first thing that happened in the Apollo program was the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The modern NASA would have shut the program down for years and possibly for good, convened investigation boards, and written long reports recommending all the new requirements that must be satisfied to fly again. The Apollo-era NASA just redesigned the spacecraft, pressed forward, and two years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon.


The modern NASA is also lacking direction. At an event celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary at Cornell this weekend, Peter Thomas, a research scientist in the astronomy department suggested that Apollo’s success was because President Kennedy gave a concrete goal with a concrete deadline: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Michael Collins had similar comments in the documentary ‘In The Shadow of the Moon’. In comparison, the modern goals are nebulous and vague and frankly not very inspiring even for space enthusiasts. From the Vision for Space Exploration put forward in 2004, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.”

Right now, the future of human space exploration by NASA is uncertain. The shuttle will only fly seven more times. It will complete the International Space Station, and then it will be retired. Without the shuttle, the United States will be forced to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the space station. In recent years, the Constellation program, aimed at a return to the moon with Apollo-like rockets, has been the focus of post-shuttle human spaceflight at NASA, but the program has had some political and engineering problems.


Comparison of past, present and future NASA launch vehicles. Saturn V (left), Space Shuttle (left center), Ares I (Right center), Ares V (Right).

The Obama administration has ordered a comprehensive review of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts by a panel of astronauts and experts from aerospace and academia. This committee is busy studying the Constellation program as well as all of the alternatives on the table. Their report is expected by the end of next month, and although technically only advisory in nature, will likely determine the future of human spaceflight at NASA.

This review may be just the opportunity that NASA needs. It is a chance to put NASA back on track with a concrete set of goals that will excite the world again. The committee is seeking input from citizens, so I encourage you to leave a comment or question at their site and play a role in determining the future of NASA. Where do I think NASA should be setting its sights? Well, I’ve written enough tonight. That’s a topic for another post later this week!