s The Space Review: For Armstrong (page 1)
The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

O'Keefe, Bush, and Foale
The Vision for Space Exploration had an auspicious start, but without a clear goal does it have any chance of success? (credit: White House)

For Armstrong

So, 35 years to the day after the Eagle touched down in Tranquility, they begin again—the Budget Cuts.

But honestly, is anyone surprised? Given the past record of NASA’s struggles—perhaps that should read fights—with its political masters, is it really such a shock that the knives are out already, that the pen-pushers and short-sighted bureaucrats are hacking the first bloody slices off the flanks of Bush’s bold new vision for opening up the solar system? NASA’s budget—NASA itself, in fact—has always been a political football for committees of pale politicians to kick around without fear of triggering a vote-losing backlash. Now, when there’s a President as unpopular as Bush proposing a massive boost for NASA’s funding and profile to support and pay for his “Vision for Space Exploration”, it was as inevitable as night following day that his enemies would use it as a weapon against him. Politicians on both sides see this as an opportunity to trip Bush up and give him a good kicking while he’s lying there on the pavement, knowing no passer-by will come to his aid.

Surprise, surprise.

Politicians have an appalling track record when it comes to supporting space travel. In fact, the words “snake”, “hypocrite” and “liar” spring to mind more easily than “visionary”, “loyal” and “knowledgeable” whenever I write about them in the context of space exploration. We owe Kennedy a lot—he gave us the Moon, and the glory of Apollo after all—but many commentators now agree that Apollo was a political gesture, a high-tech, high-profile raspberry blown at the Russians to prove America’s technological supremacy over the Soviet behemoth. The worst offender of all though was surely Richard Nixon. In 1972, even as Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan were preparing to leave the Moon at the end of the staggeringly-successful Apollo 17 mission, looking forward to further lunar exploration after maybe a decade or so, President Nixon—whose name was proudly and prominently etched on the plaques on all the lunar landers legs—was pulling the rug out from under their feet with his closing address.

“As Challenger leaves the surface of the Moon, we are conscious not of what we leave behind, but of what lies before us. The dreams that draw humanity forward seem always to be redeemed, if we believe in them strongly enough and pursue them with diligence and courage. Once we stood mystified by the stars; today we reach up to them. We do this not only because it is man's destiny to dream the impossible, to dare the impossible, and to do the impossible, but also because, in space, as on Earth, there are new answers and new opportunities for the improvement of and the enlargement of human existence…”

So far so good. All very inspiring and upbeat in a melodramatic, West Wing kind of way. But then he continued:

“This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon, but space exploration will continue, the benefits of space exploration will continue, and there will be new dreams to pursue, based on what we learned. So let us not mistake the significance or miss the majesty of what we have witnessed. Few events have ever marked so clearly the passage of history from one epoch to another. If we understand this about the last flight of Apollo, then truly we have touched a ‘many splendored thing’. To Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, and Ron Evans, we say God speed you safely back to this good Earth.”

Yes, with millions of children and students watching all around the world, dreaming of how they might one day follow in Cernan and Schmitt’s footsteps, Nixon wrapped his hands around the throat of the future of manned spaceflight and, grinning that Osmond grin, throttled it to death. “The last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon,” he predicted, murdering in a moment the hopes and dreams of a whole generation of space-mad schoolkids who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Game over. End of story. Thank you, Apollo, and good night.

What worries me more is the nagging feeling I have that when it comes to the vision, perhaps Bush’s opponents have a point.

Now, just when we thought we were going to turn the slowboat around, when we thought there was a chance that maybe, just maybe, someone would go up there and find Harrison Schmitt’s famously-thrown geological hammer, they do it again. This time, who knows how deep their cuts will be. This could be just the start. Bush’s initiative is a great fat dollar-filled pie, so big that everyone will figure that cutting off a small slice here and a small slice there won’t really make much difference. Well, one day they’ll turn around and there’ll be no pie left, just crumbs, then there’ll be no turning back.

But what worries me more than the predictable pushback by Bush’s opponents is the nagging feeling I have that when it comes to the vision, perhaps they have a point.

Like everyone here I watched George Bush and Sean O’Keefe launching the new program, saw Mike Foale grinning away behind them, and I allowed myself to think maybe, just maybe, after so many false starts, this time would be different. But even then I was uneasy. It all seemed too good to be true, an epic, like the script of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie—an amazing adventure, full of heroes and heroines, with money no object. Unfortunately, out here in the real world we all know that money is an object.

Now don’t get me wrong. No one wants to see human bootprints pressed into the Martian dust more than I do. I mention it in the kids books I write. I talk about it in the lectures I give in schools and to adult community groups. I dream about it when I’m showing people the planet itself through my telescope, during my astronomical society’s star parties. However, I’ll admit, I’ve been uneasy about Bush’s plan from the start because, as noble and visionary as it is—and it undoubtedly is—it has seemed to me to be fatally flawed, unrealistic, and ultimately doomed. Fatally flawed because it is simply too expensive a plan to be proposing and promoting at this time of worldwide unrest and potential peril, when people’s minds are understandably focused on more terrestrial concerns. Unrealistic, because its success requires literally generations of genuine political agreement and cooperation the likes of which haven’t been seen outside of wartime. Unrealistic also because, as keen and sincere as Bush is, everyone knows that he won’t be the one in power at the most testing and dangerous stages of the project, meaning he won’t have to face any public backlash if—when—lives are lost. Unrealistic too because Bush won’t be the one paying the huge bills when the invoices start dropping thru the White House’s letterbox: talk is cheap, politicians’ talk dirt cheap, but space exploration isn’t.

And doomed? Perhaps, because the brutal truth is that there’s neither the public support nor the scientific justification for it right now. Thirty-five years after Armstrong walked on the Moon, there’s no buzz—if you’ll pardon the pun—about going to Mars. Without that, Bush, and NASA, have nothing.

NASA is its own worst enemy here. O’Keefe is a brilliant and sincere man, I am sure, dedicated and committed to the future, but so casually and publicly signing the death warrant of the Hubble Space Telescope, dismissing it with a wave of the hand, was a breathtaking act of folly and foolishness. We’re all used to NASA’s media and PR gaffes, but I was stunned that they would just think they could sacrifice Hubble without someone at the back raising a hand and saying “Er, excuse me, but you’ve been telling us for a generation now how wonderful an instrument it is, boasting to us at every opportunity how it’s revolutionised astronomy and how it’s a supreme triumph of engineering and NASA know-how. You can’t just turn it off!”

So casually and publicly signing the death warrant of the Hubble Space Telescope, dismissing it with a wave of the hand, was a breathtaking act of folly and foolishness.

Unbelievable, just unbelievable. That was treating the public with something close to contempt. It seems a re-think is going on in the aftermath of the public outrage. Let’s hope so. When astronomers have said they want to keep using it, astronauts have said they want to fly up to repair it and the public have said they’ll keep paying for it, abandoning Hubble—at least before its successor is ready—would be quite unbelievably wrong.

I can’t help wondering if, at a time when NASA is declaring proudly what good value for money unmanned spacecraft are, shouting from the hilltops, justifiably, about the success of Cassini and the MERs, the idea of the public and politicians obediently handing over billions of dollars to send people to Mars at some vague point in the future, after scrapping existing spacecraft, abandoning the ISS, and cutting back on other high profile programs, is a bigger fairytale than anything Shrek’s producers could come up with.

To talk so casually about abandoning the ISS baffles me. Ever since Zarya was launched—and I remember standing in my garden and watching it flying over my house at dusk soon after, a bright star slicing through the purple twilight—NASA has heralded the ISS as Mankind’s “gateway to the stars”, our beachhead on the shore of the Universe. From the ISS, one day in the future Mankind would expand outwards, but not before we had learned how to make new medicines and materials, studied the Earth and its climate, developed startling new medical technologies and a million other wonders. Abandon it? It must be some use, surely? An astronaut training facility, at the very least. An orbiting, quarantined lab to use when the first Mars samples are returned? There must be something we can do with it after spending all that money on it? Or are we so stupid now that we not only look gift horses in the mouth, but we kick them and break all their teeth too?

If the cost of the Vision for Space Exploration’s success is the loss of Hubble, ISS, and other scientifically useful missions, then maybe we need to look at the figures again. It may just not be worth it. I sound pessimistic, I know, maybe even anti-Bush or anti-NASA. I support the aims of the new Vision, I really do. I want it to succeed. I just can’t shake this feeling that we’re going about this the wrong way. I’m not sure what the right way is, I’m no expert, nor do I claim to be one.

page 2: a reason to go to Mars >>