Monday, November 9, 2009

Mojo and Space Exploration: Washington Has Lost the Plot

For anyone unfamiliar with the term "mojo," one definition is "the magic touch." Another way to put it is the title of the splendid 1983 movie "The Right Stuff" about the U.S. manned space program.

And to be an astronaut (or cosmonaut or taikonaut), a person has to have it. Even people with advanced degrees who are in excellent physical condition with thousands of hours flying jet fighters sometimes come up short of mojo, of The Right Stuff.

Happily, none of our astronauts (or Russian cosmonauts or Chinese taikonauts) have turned out lacking, to the best of my knowledge. And that applies to current space farers, those who crew the International Space Station, fly in the American Space Shuttle fleet, and ride up in Russian Soyuz space capsules. And, of course, the two flown-in-space-already Chinese taikonauts.

You know it's dangerous, this business of blasting off into space, even into the lowest of low-Earth orbits. The fatal fire in Apollo 1, the near complete loss of Apollo 13 (though those three astronauts narrowly escaped back to Earth from the Moon), and the deaths of two entire shuttle crews all testify to that for the Americans, as does the undisclosed number of Russian cosmonauts who met their ends pushing the envelope into what the famous television and movie franchise "Star Trek" famously and memorably calls "Space: The Final Frontier."

But our space farers still have it, as I said.

But what's happened with NASA???

Well, as an avid and constant follower of space exploration, I'm convinced that NASA, and it counterparts in other countries, still would have the required mojo -- if they had clear missions with proper funding. My concern, as an American, is particularly with NASA, of course.

When President Bush directed NASA to get us back to the Moon by 2020, I was thrilled speechless. But one little critical detail escaped my attention at the time: a mission was given -- but no money to execute it.

Whose fault was that? The President's? Our Congress? NASA's top leaders? Bureaucrats?

I don't know. But my money's on the President, Congress, or both. I doubt NASA's bosses would willingly take on more than the agency could accomplish with available resources. As for bureaucrats, when the program is big enough -- and colonizing the Moon is pretty damned big, by any measure -- bureaucrats can and do get squished.

And now NASA has been left slowly twisting in the wind, a day late and a dollar short. It can't possibly keep the Space Shuttles flying and the International Space Station orbiting beyond their present use-by dates, and begin to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, and venture beyond the Moon -- the asteroid belt? one of Mars' tiny moons? Mars itself? -- when it's got a beer budget and a champagne assignment. Or series of wanna-do stuff, I should say.

Yeah, we could go with robotic missions, and certainly there are many excellent reasons to continue those, whatever's decided to do regarding the next two or three decades' manned space exploration. There are compelling examples of the value of unmanned craft. Among the best-known are the Hubble Space Telescope, which has brought the universe to tens of millions for the first time, often enthralling them with its spectacular images. Then there are the extraordinary twin Mars rovers, each with an initial mission of 90 days -- and that was a keep-our-fingers-crossed hope: five years on, they're still functioning, even if one is stuck in the sand. The list goes on, and includes the venerable two Pioneer spacecraft launched to cruise in space forever, now well beyond the orbit of Pluto, the outermost planet. (I still am unpersuaded by the arguments to demote it from planetary status.)

Yes, when we look at the total price tag, the number is big: NASA needs about $3 billion extra per year just to fly the Shuttle a little longer and get a crew back to the Moon -- but by about 2025, not 2020. But think of it another way: that works out to roughly $10 per year per American.

Besides, why not push for the commercialization of near-space even harder, so private companies can take over stuff like ferrying astronauts up to the ISS and resupplying it? That could be part of an international effort -- after all, the ISS itself is run (and funded by) a consortium of 16 nations, though that group is led by the U.S.

Of course, it's not simply a question of Washington opening up the spigot -- not when politicians are involved, which of course they are. Each wants the biggest slice of the pie to go to his district or state, even if that means paying a vastly inflated price -- gotta keep the voters happy, the rest of the country be damned, you know?

It doesn't help that some folks, both in and out of government, feel the space program is nothing more than (1.) a terribly expensive boondoggle (2.) whose funding could be better used to fund programs here on Earth, (3.) which translates to pork and payola for politicos and their pals (4.) and which utterly ignores the countless benefits we Earthlings have gotten as a direct result of the space program -- both its manned and unmanned missions and the related research.

Of course, even politicians can sing more than one song. If a vote comes up for some launch site in, say, Virginia (there is one), just ask a Florida CongressCritter or Senator about that -- he or she will scream bloody murder; after all, think of the jobs that could go to Cape Canaveral. Wanna move Mission Control out of Houston to some other state? -- well, better duck; I bet every single member of the Texas delegation would be reaching for their six-shooters.

Sure, Representatives and Senators are supposed to represent their respective districts and states first -- but I grew up believing that elected officials of our national government are also supposed to consider the national benefits (or negatives) as national representatives.

Silly me.

NASA had mojo right up through the end of the Apollo program (the final flights of which President Nixon canceled, by the way). The space shuttle program has been plagued before the first shuttle even flew with cost overruns -- enormous ones -- and, once it began flying, serious safety concerns. (See: Space Shuttle Challenger, January 28, 1986 and Space Shuttle Columbia, February 1, 2003.)

But how many ships and sailors were lost at sea, especially during the Age of Exploration? Our astronauts know, way down in their bones, that when they strap on a towering rocket ship to blast themselves into space, there's a very real risk their ride will be one-way, a very brief, as in the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which explode a mere 73 seconds or so after liftoff.

And what's happened to our spirit? Our ancestors had mojo when they boarded tiny, rickety ships to cross the Atlantic, as did their descendants who pushed the Westward Expansion across the continent? Sometimes, we seem like "America, the Land of the Scared and Sissys." No wonder our politicians pander to us. . . .

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