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Cosmic letters on NASA’s past and future

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With the National Aeronautics and Space Administration marking its 45th anniversary on Oct. 1, Cosmic Log readers reflected on the space agency’s past, present and future with no small measure of frustration and melancholy. Here is a selection of the e-mail feedback:

Name: Kevin
NASA is just a reflection of the government that oversees it. NASA is not in control of its budget, or its direction — these things are set by Congress and the president. The last president we had who had any kind of real vision for NASA was John F. Kennedy. All of his successors have just been interested in whatever reflective glory from NASA that they could bask in.

NASA needs clear goals set, goals which would be difficult but not impossible. A safe, low-cost alternative to the shuttle would be one goal. A safe, low-cost, manned mission to Mars undertaken with international partners would be another.

Name: Bob Consorti
Hometown: Wakefield, Mass.
As a child in the ’60s I grew excited with science as a result of Gemini, Apollo and the manned moon landings. But NASA lost its way with the shuttle in the late ’70s. From the brilliance of the engineers of the ’60s and ’70s, by now I expected thousands of people living on the moon and mankind already having set foot on Mars. I expected to be one of them.

But the space program has become a gold-plated boondoggle that rivals anything the Defense Department has ever done. Far from being a low-cost way to access space, the shuttle and current manned space program have cost so much more in money and especially lives that it deserves to be put to rest.

The only reason the shuttle exists to date is to service the international space station (ISS). But that is just another boondoggle of monumental proportions. We had more living space, more work space and far greater operational capabilities in Skylab in 1973 than we have with the multibillion-dollar ISS today. For what we spend on a single shuttle launch to low Earth orbit, we could have another manned moon landing. I would much rather have seen another 100-plus manned moon missions than that many useless space flights with the shuttle showing once again how seeds or frogs react when exposed to microgravity.

To reverse a pun, the current U.S. space program no longer inspires awe — but shock — about how little we have achieved in the last 25 years in space and how much it has cost us.

NASA need to be forcefully led into the new century, but I don’t see any bold vision for the future of manned or unmanned spaceflight. I would happily accept the job, but I probably wouldn’t last long since I would cut the money spigots to the shuttle and ISS contractors.

Perhaps a new perceived “threat” from Chinese astronauts might light the collective fire in this country for a more productive return to manned spaceflight. Alas, I don’t think even that will do it.

Name: Chris McCoy
You asked, so I’ll tell you what NASA shoulddo.

The current direction seems to be to split the assignments of cargo and humans into two launch systems. I heartily approve of this. What I don’t agree with is using the shuttle for regular cargo runs. The maximum cargo a shuttle can lift will still never exceed 15-30 tons, because you are lifting the shuttle and a whole lot of extra man-rated safety weight.

Many NASA engineers have been in favor of a concept called BDB (Big Dumb Booster) for a number of years and a separate man-rated craft. The idea is to use a design for lifting that allows you to lift close to 100 tons at one time. We already had this system with the Saturn 5 booster. A rebuilt Saturn using the old overengineered J-1 rocket engines on a Saturn 5 with updated electronics would cost only about $200 million to $300 million per launch. This is about half the cost of a shuttle launch, but you get an additional 70 tons of payload! To put this into perspective, the entire international space station as it currently is configured could have been launched by only two BDBs and would be larger in volume because it wouldn’t have to fit into the narrow bay of the shuttle. All that for about the cost of one shuttle launch.

As for a man-rated ship, there are two options I think are far better than our current systems. The first is to follow through on the Venture Star X-33 program. If NASA has $14 billion to complete this SSTO (single stage to orbit) instead of the Orbital Space Plane, they could easily finish a ship that was already near completion when it was canceled. The two problems that forced X-33 over budget were research on its aerospike engines and the composite-wound fuel tank required to make it light enough for SSTO. Both are brand-new technologies. Turning this ship into a “man-only” craft would also allow NASA to put in an ejection system, because the cargo-capability weight in the design could be used to for safety systems instead. The other reason SSTO would be better for a man-rated vehicle is because it allows for quick turnaround between launches. This provides us with an economical method of getting humans into space and constant availability of a launch-ready rescue ship sitting on the ground. Also, the capacity of the Venture Star would be closer to nine to 12 astronauts, allowing continued expansion of the ISS and its capabilities. Three ships would be enough to provide a ship as a lifeboat at ISS, one preparing for launch, and one ready for rescue.

If NASA chooses to go with the OSP instead, they may as well go with a capsule system like a large Apollo. Of course this ship must be capable of carrying seven astronauts, not four as has been proposed. Any system that cannot carry seven astronauts means the ISS will never be able to be manned with its full complement, and means the ISS and the billions used to produce it will be wasted. You need seven astronauts to do real science at the ISS. You need three just to maintain the station. If you want to do experiments, and possibly build a moon-transfer or Mars-transfer vehicle in orbit by the ISS, you need a minimum of seven people.

Finally, to fix NASA you need more money, not less. The primary problem at NASA is that its budget has not changed in 12 years. There is no large sum of money to build new launch systems. All the failed systems you mentioned were more the results of lack of funds rather than lack of will or wasted budgets. NASA could research new launch systems, but building them on a discretionary budget of $1 billion here and $800 million there is not how you put together a complex, man-rated launch system.

Realistically, Congress needs to either commit to NASA and spend the 2 percent of [total federal] budget it needs to be a viable program, or cut it completely. All they are funding with $15 billion a year is a giant jobs program for engineers. It gets them re-elected, but does nothing to further space exploration. $30 billion to $32 billion a year is a reasonable budget for NASA, and would allow them to do what they are supposed to with just a little congressional oversight. $15 billion is the “Band-Aid and struggle” budget that gets people killed every eight to 12 years.

Name: D.A.
I grew up in Apollo, Pa., so as a child (born 1963) in the ’70s, was a huge fan of the Apollo program and NASA. We would even get the day off from school to watch the moon landing launches and recoveries.

That very sad day in ’86 with the Challenger brought tears of understanding and frustration to my eyes, because at that time I was working for a Department of Defense prime contractor, and saw everyday the types of things which led to our successes with Apollo, and our unfortunate (and avoidable) failure with Challenger (and Atlas).

Having these feelings dredged up again with Columbia, reading cover-to-cover the public report, and amassing 10 years more wisdom regarding proper business practices, I’ve given the topic of NASA’s future quite a bit of thought. Change is healthy, and important. Flexibility is a key component of change. I see no evidence of either in the organization any longer, and regrettably feel that it has outlived its usefulness in its current guise.

Manned exploration must continue, for a variety of reasons. The conduit for these adventures, however, should not be a once-honored draft horse with blinders still in place, but rather an all-new generation of minds, processes and ideas to take best advantage of the available funding.

Name: Tom
The biggest problem NASA faces is money. This has been a historic problem since NASA’s funding was first cut after Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The organization had, and still has, some very talented and enthusiastic people. They have not been given the freedom to plan for the future because they know that whatever they come up with will be canceled by budget cuts. How can anyone expect to keep people like this interested if all they ever hear is “we can’t afford it”?

Money was the bottom line with the tragedy of Challenger and Columbia, and it is just the tip of the iceberg that plagues all of NASA. If we don’t come up with a national goal like the colonization of Mars, and commit the funds to stick with it, NASA will die an early death. This would be a national tragedy because it has been NASA and the promise of manned spaceflight that has inspired three generations of young people.

No, politicians don’t understand the true benefits of technology. All they can ever see is money and votes. Somehow we have to once again convince them that it is worth the time and money to explore and expand out into the solar system. They must be made to understand that man’s future is in space. In fact, our very survival as a species might well depend on it.

Name: Gerald
Ever since the Apollo 1 fire (What were they thinking…3.2 pounds pressure differential. If they couldn’t understand that our atmosphere is 14.7 to begin with) through the complete disregard and pressure tactics of the Challenger incident up to the present debacle with the Columbia and the complete disregard for common sense, there has never been anyone made accountable.

Someone at NASA should be put on trial for murder. In no other situation could the loss of life be that unaccountable and will continue to be unsafe until individuals are made accountable.

The mentality of the launch team ... to disregard the lives of the crew for the sake of keeping face and schedule will never change. The history of doing better than the person before did, on schedule, on budget, etc., will perpetuate this system to continue to have these type of problems.

The desire to become a member of the launch team and be so special comes with the history of go for launch no matter what. The number of waivers permitted to enable the team to launch should not be allowed to continue, and if reviewed by someone outside the agency would absolutely not be permitted.

Even the military teaches us that it is not always correct to obey every order. Good common sense of right and wrong should prevail. If there is never any accountability, this will never change.

Name: Kevin Pallardy
Hometown: St. Louis, Mo.
While NASA has had a tremendous record of achievement, it is marked by highly visible failures. In the broad scope of exploration, such failures are to be expected. This does not mean that they should be ignored or minimized. Every effort should be made to learn from the failures and to take the actions necessary to ensure future success.

Manned spaceflight is the still the centerpiece of NASA’s endeavors. The problem is that the manned spaceflight program is one-dimensional. The focus is on the international space station, a significant and worthy project, but not one that stirs the pride and passion of mankind. The big mistake was not NASA’s … it was our lack of national leadership to follow Apollo with the type of missions that would motivate public interest.

I am 51 today. Thirty years ago I would not have guessed that, in 2003, we have not returned to the moon and that we have not sent humans to Mars.

Americans like home runs. Apollo was a home run … probably a grand slam. The ISS, while a necessary and valuable piece of space exploration, has the feel of a looping single to center. NASA needs to have the vision to “hit the home run,” and it has to come from a forward-looking national leader. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I see that type of person out there right now.

Name: Frederick
NASA should junk the international space station and the shuttle. They should concentrate on developing technologies that are too far-out for investors to support but which are needed for further development of space opportunities.

NASA should focus on a full-scale exploration of Mars and the moon using robot explorers. They could probably sell time to universities and others to use the robots for their own investigations.

Name: Kristen Winslet
I believe it is NASA’s primary mission to explore (“To Boldly Go ...”). That’s what the people want to see.

I believe more focus needs to go to planetary exploration — planets and their moons, both unmanned and manned.

I also believe that the NASA budget needs to fall under the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Department of Energy budget in order to receive proper funding for this exploration work. It now falls under the USHUD budget — funny, Housing and Urban Development.

Although the space station is “nice to have,” it is not economical to maintain at current NASA budget levels with the premise that NASA is for exploration. The space station is a science lab, not space exploration — and as such, lacks the public’s interest. We can gain the needed experience at the space station, but we need a goal at the end of that research and a project timeline to be defined to show where we are going with this and when do we go to the next step. We also need the funding, which currently is not there. No bucks, no Buck Rogers ...

Name: Fred Mushel
I would like to say that NASA has done a fairly good job, given the low funding it has had over the last 30 years (as compared to the Apollo era).

While many critics are saying the space shuttle is an inherently unsafe vehicle that is suffering from old age, I say the space shuttle is a miraculous vehicle based on the underfunding of its design and continued underfunding over the life of the space shuttle program.

Considering its highly complex design, stretching design limits of the 1970s, the failures that caused the loss of Challenger and Columbia were of the most simplistic kind. These failures weren’t of the highly complex, reusable space shuttle main engine or any of its components, nor any other complex piece. It was a failure of a piece of rubber (Challenger) and a piece of foam damaging a reinforced carbon-carbon panel. And both accidents would have been prevented if management had listened to the engineers and fixed the problems before continuing to fly.

Critics like to look at the negatives only. Consider what the shuttle has accomplished in the last 22 years. Routinely carry seven people to and from orbit. Russian space capsules can carry only three people. It has stayed on orbit for 16 days or more. It has launched satellites to geostationary orbit and space probes to other planets. It has served as a space-based platform for repairing satellites in orbit and for capturing and returning satellites to earth. With Spacelab and Spacehab it has acted as a space station for carrying out scientific and medical experiments. And at the conclusion of each flight, the shuttle glides unpowered to a runway landing in California or Florida.

The space shuttle is an impressive vehicle indeed. If the shuttle program had been funded correctly from the beginning there might not have been any losses.

I think the failings of NASA today is the people it employs to manage the space shuttle. The management staff during the Challenger days up till Columbia don’t seem to have the attitude of those pioneers of the space program who saved Apollo 13. Today’s NASA employees don’t seem to have any common sense at all.

In closing, I think the technology in NASA is not that bad. It is the people in NASA who have let down the country and are responsible for the loss of two space shuttles and the deaths of 14 astronauts.

Name: Dan
Not much to say really, interested in the discussion — but a comment on the USA Today op-ed piece you cite: Go check to see where that money went. The money that went to bloated NASA bureaucracy. Funny, the guy arguing for less money to NASA, more money to private enterprise — that money went to private enterprise. Prime contractor on X-33? On the National Aerospace Plane? The X-34? In developmental programs, NASA is largely a contract award manager. Can NASA award contracts better? Sure. But is private enterprise the silver bullet? Please, spare me, and us, from that all over again ...

Name: Andrew
Research and development is an important aspect of our economy — and the government, until recently, pumped millions of dollars into research and development programs through our public university system, giving America a competitive advantage over other countries. NASA is all part of this. The research it provides is valuable for industry.

Human exploration and all the other “Star Trek” missions should continue, but NASA needs to be rational, as well as Congress, which is asking for a lot! When Congress approved the shuttle program 20-plus years ago, they were told that using reusable shuttles would save NASA money in the long term, but Congress never independently checked the numbers. It turns out the shuttle program cost the agency 10 times more than they were told. Congress needs to independently verify any appropriation for NASA lest they make the same mistake.

They should continue with manned spaceflight but there is nothing wrong with sending up astronauts on Apollo-type capsules or to automate construction with computerized missions as Russia does for its contributions to the ISS. But the shuttle has to go in lieu of something less complicated unless absolutely needed.

Name: Bill Heber
Hometown: Torrance, Calif.
Sadly, I feel that it is time to end manned space travel. The reason is sad and simple: America does not have the money or the will to do right by the brave and talented astronauts we have. To make them go on risky, expensive missions in an obsolete bucket of bolts is just plain wrong. To do manned spaceflight correctly you just have to look back on that wonderful and exciting moon program of the 1960s. Each launch was in a new and better vehicle than the previous launch. This was no accident. The space program was full of energetic, brilliant and, most importantly, visionary people. There vision and optimism was contagious. It inspired children like me to become engineers and scientists.

It isn’t that way anymore.

Now the manned space program is about as energetic as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I think that unless America is willing to put up the treasure and time to do the manned missions properly, they should just end. Better to put the money in what it is still doing well. Which is just about all its other missions.

Name: Chris Eldridge
Hometown: Harrisburg, Pa.
I know NASA isn’t the greatest, but wouldn’t their job be a lot easier if it wasn’t for such “hither-and-thither” congressional decision-making that changes with each new election, if not sooner? Shortsighted committee chairman have caused NASA cancel or rescale virtually every project it has put forth! The NLS heavy-lift booster that was to be so instrumental in helping to build and supply the space station (in a cost-effective manner), was just such a project canceled after millions had already been spent. Thus, I feel that only by giving the nation’s space agency a “fund” and the authority to spend or save it as it sees fit (with only periodic reviews) will we ever get a true and consistent space policy that gets us anywhere! We need committed projects worth proposing! After 40 years of gung-ho attempts, I think the public is well prepared for the step-by-step methodical development of a space infrastructure: not once and done missions that get us nowhere! If it takes 40 years to get to Mars in force, then that’s what it takes!

Alan, I’m not sure its possible, but I’ll bet a list of what all was cut back, canceled or scaled down would make quite a revealing list...

Name: Randy Roach
Hometown: Mesquite, Texas
With absolutely no leadership or vision from Congress or the White House, NASA personnel have been following, perhaps unconsciously and within severe constraints, a roadmap to space first laid down half a century ago.

Starting in 1952, in a series of groundbreaking articles in Collier’s magazine, and later in a series of Walt Disney television films, Wernher von Braun presented his grand vision for the conquest of space to the American public. His concepts drove NASA’s vision for the post-Apollo exploration of space — a space “ferry,” space station and lunar base all leading up to an ambitious mission to Mars. These ideas were (and still are) the logical progression to space, and are very likely what we would have done had our nation not raced to meet Kennedy’s challenge of reaching the moon “before this decade is out.”

After Apollo, NASA proposed Von Braun’s vision as the next step in exploration, but Nixon’s White House killed everything save what was to become the space shuttle. Still, the vision remained and, through many years and many redesigns, NASA was finally able to get approval for the international space station. Slowly, those involved in the space program continue to advance the Von Braun vision. Even now, when discussing NASA’s future direction following the Columbia tragedy, there have been renewed calls for lunar bases and a commitment to go to Mars. Von Braun’s dream is alive.

Name: Rick Raborn
Hometown: Lansing, Mich.
Space exploration needs to be a part of everyday human life. We call ourselves the human race. A race ... for what? A race to sit still and stagnate? Of course not. It is a race to excel, to strive to a higher ideal for all mankind. To strive to find better ways of doing things. Better ways to help one another. To learn more about our surroundings, not just upon the planet we inhabit but out there, too.

I think we cannot afford to spend too much time worrying about whether or not we should do things and spend months and years making things 100 percent safe. We’ll never get anywhere doing things that way. Safety is of course very important, but we must press on!

Peter Diamandis of X Prize Foundation says it well, and I quote: “People may die,” he said. “This is dangerous stuff. They should have the right to risk their own lives for something they believe in,” he told government executives whose jobs include aviation safety.

“America was settled by pioneers who chose to risk all for new land or to explore the unknown,” he said, “and without such a spirit humans will always be earthbound.”

We need to make space exploration part of what we do. We need to live it and breathe it and keep doing it regardless of expense. It is only through doing it repeatedly that we will learn what works and what doesn’t. Experience is the best instructor. We need to press on to completion the ISS project so that we can bring minds from the world over together with the common goal of achieving things worth doing.

NASA is helping to get us there and we need to support them. They are not perfect, and nobody should expect them to be. Our astronauts — heck, space scientists and explorers the world over — know the risks. They know them and accept them for what they are. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have those jobs at all. NASA certainly needs to be cautious of what they are doing, but for all our sakes, keep doing! Press on! Once we establish a presence in space it will only grow from there. It will get easier. Manufacturing will change. We’ll push further and further and begin to open doors we didn’t even know existed. But only if we decide to go.