Susana Speier of the Huffington Post asked me a question in the comments of my earlier post on the 40th Anniversary of the Lunar Landing. She mentioned she was “[C]urious as to how [Buzz] Aldrin’s insistence we forget Moon and go straight to Mars struck you.” I thought this merited more than just an email to her because these are thoughts that I’ve had on the topic for a while. If the topic bores you, feel free to move on. I know it’s not my usual cute pictures or home decorating stuff. I’ll be back to that soon enough. I just need to geek out a bit. I haven’t been around intellectuals enough lately, my brain is overflowing.
I met Buzz Aldrin a couple of times (one of my grad classes was taught by his son, Dr. Andy Aldrin) and he’s definitely an opinionated, tough old guy (I love that he punched a guy for telling him he never landed on the moon). I am of the opinion that, while inspirational and awe-inspiring, landing on the moon 40 years ago was a technological dead end. I think we mostly did it as a stunt, to show the Soviets that we can beat them and to honor a dead president’s memory. But, by the time that we beat them, the Soviets had given up on even trying and had moved on to long-term stays in space by starting their space station programs, a far more useful program. So we landed on the moon a few times and then said, uh, ok, now what?
To go beyond the moon, to Mars, for example, we’d have to develop space station technology because it’s easier and more cost-effective to launch a vehicle from space to go to Mars than it is to launch directly from Earth. As large as the Saturn V was, a rocket that would put a vehicle on a trajectory to Mars would have to be even larger, which just isn’t cost-effective or feasible to do from Earth. So, the original idea was to design a station to launch from, a shuttle to build it with and then a Mars program to go along with it. Nixon cut everything but the shuttle. Well, what’s the point of the shuttle if we’re not building anything? It was designed to carry things. It’s basically a big space truck. So, we made a deal with the DoD and private satellite companies and told them that if they wanted their satellites put on orbit, we were their only option. And then Challenger happened and a TDRSS satellite (which was very important for tracking and data relay) was destroyed and the DoD and private companies told NASA, thanks but no thanks, we’ll find our own carriers, you’re not the only game in town.
So, suddenly NASA was back to not really having much of a mission aside from Hubble. A little while later the space station came along but we realized that we couldn’t get it built without international cooperation so now we have the ISS but no Mars program. We just send people up to the station to hang out and do science experiments on European equipment.
I believe that NASA was created to be a research organization. I think NASA 40+ years ago as well as today should be in the business of testing and research and oversight but not the day-to-day operation of a space program. I believe that we should have a highly competitve, highly regulated private space industry. Something akin to the competition between Dell and IBM and Apple. I think we would see innovation, competition and the industry would move in leaps and bounds. The general public would benefit because the companies would have a stake in the spin-offs and we could get excited about space again.
Whew! I’ve been needing to get that out for a while.
(Do y’all need links? If this were an academic site I’d take the time to find links and be good. If you have any questions, I’ll hunt down the links for y’all but for now, take my word for it, this stuff is right on.)