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updated 10/28/2003 9:40:26 AM ET 2003-10-28T14:40:26

NASA has taken on the look of a lost-in-space agency. Its shuttle fleet is stuck on the ground. To some observers, a multibillion-dollar international space station project seems more a pork-barrel claptrap than a hoped-for “world class” research laboratory. Then there’s the fallout from the Columbia tragedy earlier this year. It has served as a horrific metaphor for bureaucratic, managerial and technological blundering, not only within NASA, but at the aerospace contractor level, too. To dig out the space agency that flew humanity to the moon, one now has to look at Apollo as more a part of the fossil record … of space vision past.

Space.com
ON WEDNESDAY, a Senate hearing will attempt to sort out what’s wrong with NASA, but also what amount of right stuff remains at the space agency to propel humans outward into the future.

Against this backdrop, the White House has stepped into the fray. The Bush administration, according to Washington buzz, is thinking about anointing NASA with a new, beyond-Earth-orbit vision statement.

Some suggest that this declaration could occur as soon as Dec. 17th — during the 100th anniversary festivities marking the first successful sustained powered flights in a heavier-than-air machine by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Other insiders envision a presidential decree coming as part of the State of the Union address to the nation early next year.

FEAR OF FLYING

NASA may be incapable of hurling humans beyond low Earth orbit. So says an astronaut who was once on the front end of a Saturn 5 mega-booster heading for the moon in December 1972.

“The NASA of today is probably not the agency to undertake a significant new program to return humans to deep space, particularly the moon and then to Mars,” said Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, the last man to step onto the moon’s battered surface. He also served as U.S. senator from New Mexico from 1977 to 1983.

“NASA is too old, too bureaucratic, and too risk-averse. Either a new agency would need to be created to implement such a program or NASA would need to be restructured largely along the lines of the NASA of the late 1960s,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said of particular importance is for NASA to consist of engineers and technicians in their 20s and managers to be in their 30s, and the reinstitution of design engineering activities in parallel with those of contractors.

Like many, Schmitt said that a new NASA or its replacement needs the guarantee of sustained political/financial commitment. But NASA, at present, is a shell-shocked agency after the fall of Columbia, Schmitt suggested. “NASA is so risk-averse that it won’t live up to its responsibilities in space and fly perfectly good shuttles until there is no risk in flying! That is an impossible requirement,” he said.

“We are now in the position of pretending to be a spacefaring people while only Russia and China are actually flying,” Schmitt said.

INSTITUTIONAL PARALYSIS

Veteran space journalist William Burrows — author of “This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age,” among the long list of books to his credit — also sees NASA as a sad shell of its former self.

“The space agency is effectively shut down in a kind of institutional paralysis,” Burrows said. “The old hands from the Apollo days have mostly drifted off and, with the exception of the kind of solar system exploration being done at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there’s virtually nothing going on to attract smart, energetic and ambitious replacements.”

Burrows senses that the international space station is “emblematic of the wider problem.”

“First of all, it’s not finished. The Bush administration has lopped off two modules as a blatant vote of no confidence. We need Russians to get us to and away from it. And NASA has never articulated a purpose for it other than the ubiquitous old standby: science,” Burrows said.

The science Burrows feels has merit has to do with physiology, but he adds: “There’s no point in learning about how the human body reacts in space unless we plan to send people there for a serious, historic purpose — and clearly we don’t.

“The space agency is in limbo because it has no overarching goal … no majestic purpose,” Burrows said. “It is capable of pulling off an overarching effort with the White House and Congress squarely behind it. The institutional core is still there, and so are the basic resources at headquarters and around the empire.”

KEEPING HEROES HOME

In the historical scheme of things, NASA has reached a critical juncture. That’s the judgment of Roger Launius, chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

“We have not been at a more significant time in space policy since the decision to cancel Apollo and move forward with the space shuttle,” Launius said. “There is an opportunity, right now, to decide exactly what the next 30 years is going to look like.”

America’s reach for the moon was driven by a specific geopolitical reason: a “space race” between two superpowers fueled more by ego and political pride than huge amounts of liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and kerosene.

What’s missing now is that enabling trigger to prompt going to the moon today, or trooping off to Mars, Launius said — enough of a trigger to mobilize money, spark a sustained action plan and gain the support of the president, members of Congress, and the American public.

“What scenario can one envision that would suggest that this is something we need to do? The loss of Columbia is not in that category, in my mind,” Launius said.

But shutting down the human spaceflight effort, Launius said, and letting the robots do the heavy lifting of space exploration, doesn’t seem like a viable option. “What president wants to go down in history as the guy who sent the heroes home?”

‘NOWHERE TO GO’?

Keeping heroes homebound rings true, however, for Robert Park, a University of Maryland scientist who is scheduled to testify before the Senate later this week about the international space station.

“NASA is looking a little sick. But to imagine that the cure is a larger dose of what made it sick is downright pathological,” Park noted. “Manned spaceflight is going nowhere because there’s nowhere to go.”

To say NASA hasn’t a clue of where to go and how to get there is wrong.

Over the last several years, NASA has been busy at work plotting its own destiny. Such confabs as NASA’s internal Decadal Planning Group and the NASA Exploration Team have blueprinted futuristic flights of fancy. NASA Headquarters has in residence its own space architect. But details as to what’s on his drafting board is not clear.

Not too long ago, NASA had begun to unveil an incremental mastermind of a plan — somewhat an a la carte reach into deep space. It consisted of an L-point “waystation” where telerobots and humans would first attend telescopes and other hardware planted there far from Earth. Once a human presence is firmly established at this hub, astronaut crews could then jump from there, outward to the moon and to Mars as well as to asteroids — and even beyond.

That strategy is likely to be alive and well and being shared with White House space thinkers. Promoting such a vision, however, means creating “sustainable architecture,” coupled to years and years of installment payments. All that translates into a “getting serious” scenario, said one NASA insider. Needless to say, that is much different from the Apollo way of doing business, the all-up, self-contained and all-expendable model.

EXPAND THE AGENDA?

A supporter of such an expansive agenda is former NASA space science chief Wesley Huntress Jr., now director of the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Earlier this month, he testified before the House Committee on Science about the future of human space exploits.

Huntress testified that the international space station and space shuttle do not merit the risks that they entail. “If space explorers are to risk their lives it should be for extraordinarily challenging reasons — such as exploration of the moon, Mars and asteroids, and for construction and servicing space telescopes — not for making 90-minute trips around the earth,” he said. “The whole point of leaving home is to go somewhere, not to endlessly circle the block.”

NASA must back away from its intense focus on the station/shuttle infrastructure as make-or-break for the agency, Huntress told Space.com, and the embedded notion that the space station is a destination. Furthermore, the space agency has to abandon the notion that the station/shuttle infrastructure is on the critical path to deep-space destinations, except for research on human space physiology.

“NASA will have to accept some pain, similar to the human spaceflight hiatus of 1975-1981 while shuttle was developed. Station development will have to be severely limited, the shuttle flown off and retired, and new simpler, less costly and less risky Earth-to-orbit transportation systems developed. This means that astronauts will not be flying as often while NASA switches to a new path,” Huntress suggested.

FLAGS, FOOTPRINTS AND FOUL-UPS

InsertArt(2054845)Although the moon is a “been there, done that” type of world, there is interest in using it as training ground for space explorers. It’s a way to regain strength in NASA’s exploratory muscle, some experts suggest, even by planting a permanent moon base on the lunar landscape.

Then there is the “Mars card” to play. That is, go direct to the Red Planet. Yet there is fear this approach could add up to an expensive replay of Project Apollo. Plant and salute the flag, pick up some rocks, escape with your life, head back home, and then add Mars to the “been there, done that” list of wonder worlds conquered.

Longtime Mars backer Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, is slated to testify this week before the U.S. Senate on NASA’s future. Of late, he has viewed both the moon and Mars as targets of opportunity, but with a caveat.

“The goal of the American space program should be humans to Mars, and a plan drawn up, and hardware built to implement that plan, Zubrin said. “With a properly designed plan, a subset of that hardware, with modest modifications, should also be able to transport astronauts to and from the moon. So the idea of exercising part of the hardware to do a lunar excursion preparatory to going to Mars is reasonable,” he noted.

But we don’t need to go to the moon to go to Mars, Zubrin added. “The moon is not a steppingstone to Mars, and we should not build lunar hardware on faith that it might come in handy when we get around to exploring Mars. Design for Mars, build for Mars, and exercise the flight hardware in progressive milestones that lie along the path to Mars.”

MILESTONES OR MILLSTONES?

The U.S. Congress has taken notice of the chorus of experts now calling for a new trajectory for NASA.

“We need to be thoughtful and deliberate and coldly analytical in putting together a vision for the future of human spaceflight,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee.

To move forward, any consensus must be arrived at jointly by the White House, the Congress and NASA, Boehlert recently said. That consensus, he added, has to include an agreement to pay for whatever vision is outlined.

A busted shuttle program is one thing. Money is forthcoming to address those concerns. But recent revelations about sending a crew to the space station over objections of those charged with the health and well-being of the space travelers does not bode well for the agency. Then there is both NASA and industry confusion over the next big-ticket space project, the Orbital Space Plane.

Image: OSP concepts
Four of the concepts for NASA's Orbital Space Plane range from winged, airplane-style craft to a stubby-nosed mini-shuttle to an updated version of the Apollo spacecraft.
“NASA needs to do its part by coming up with credible cost estimates and schedules for projects — something that has been sorely lacking in recent decades and something that has not been done yet for the next major human spaceflight project, the Orbital Space Plane,” Boehlert said a few weeks ago.

On Monday, Boehlert and his Democratic colleague on the Science Committee, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, served notice to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe that he should defer the current OSP program “until the inter-agency space review is completed, approved by the president, and thoroughly vetted with the Congress.”

Boehlert and Hall warned O’Keefe: “Without such consensus on a shared vision ... public support for the nation’s civilian space program will inevitably founder.”

All this and more is stacking up at the White House front door for space tacticians to ponder. Whether they see new milestones for America’s space venture or little more than a jumble of millstones is soon to be sorted out.

© 2003 Space.com. All rights reserved.

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