Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Manned Space Flight: Obama Boldly Goes Where No One Has Gone Before

With an impeccable sense of bad timing and a tin ear for national priorities, there was Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, whining to a Senate committee that President Obama had been "poorly advised" in deciding to scrap a Bush administration-backed NASA plan to return astronauts to the Moon in the next few years in favor of a long-range focus on Mars.

Worse still, according to Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, is the administration's plan to scrap the space shuttle program and extend the life of the International Space Station by outsourcing shuttle responsibilities to the Russians.

As a child of the Sixties, there may have been no more thrilling moment for me than when Armstrong declared on July 20, 1969: "That's one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind" after climbing down onto the surface of the Moon from Apollo 11's Lunar Lander, thereby realizing President Kennedy's goal of putting Americans on the Moon and returning them home safely by the end of the decade.

With the hindsight of four decades, that moment was the apogee of American manned space flight.

I applaud the bravery of the Apollo 11 and other astronauts, as well as the ultimate sacrifice made by the crews of Apollo 1 and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, but it long ago become obvious that manned space flight -- currently exemplified by the long-in-tooth shuttle fleet and the $100 billion, under-performing International Space Station -- are wildly expensive and sometimes deadly publicity stunts. As President Obama and a not entirely compliant NASA have determined, the future lies in robotic space exploration -- small, relatively inexpensive unmanned missions that are doing important if under-publicized science.

Beyond the substantially lower costs and economies of scale, non-human missions like the Voyager probes, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Infrared Spitzer Space Telescope and Hubble Space Telescope are superior because they can reach further, address more complex questions and have a substantially greater impact.

Yet Hubble, which has yielded an incredibly vast body of work, is an exception to this rule.

That is because of the 1993 Hubble repair mission in which astronauts corrected early problems with the telescope, including a serious flaw in its primary mirror. There have been five subsequent repair and upgrade missions and the telescope, carried into orbit by a space shuttle in 1990, is expected to remain functional until at least 2014.

Dr. Story Musgrave is one of the most experienced and longest-serving astronauts. This veteran of six space missions over the course of a 30-year career has a unique perspective:

"I think [Hubble] is as good a reason for being in space as there is. It's not a very powerful machine, but people are massively excited about it because it's a mirror for who they are. Hubble gets after two existential questions. It doesn't answer them, and those questions will never be answered, but they are: What is the meaning, and what is the hope, of life here on Earth? Hubble is symbolic for a knowledge machine that is potentially able to link cosmology, theology, philosophy and astronomy. It is able to hold a mirror to humanity -- the kind of mirror that says 'What kind of universe is it, and what is our place in it? Who are we, and who should we be?' "

Musgrave, however, is sharply critical of the International Space Station:

"It does nothing for nobody and it never has. The cost of space station is 300
Voyager-class satellites. We could have had multiple Voyagers landed or floating in the atmosphere on every planet and on every moon of every planet. That is what we gave up when we went with a jobs program, which is what the space station is. And that's an ungodly sin. And yes, I'm a human space flight person, but listen to me. That's what we could have offered the public."

Neither Obama nor NASA are forswearing manned space fight. In a major space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center last month, the president predicted that a manner Marsh mission will be orbiting Marsh by the mid-2030s, followed by a landing. We shall see.

Top photograph by John Raoux/The Associated Press

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