Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Exploring Middle Age: NASA at 50

The U.S. space agency celebrated its first half century on July 29 -- the same day I marked my 25th anniversary as a journalist. In fact the oldest, yellowing article in my "clip file" was a story for Congressional Quarterly's Editorial Research Reports (now the CQ Researcher) on NASA's first 25 years. I was 15 at the time, but my mother was the managing editor, so I had an in. And I was thrilled when the article was reprinted in the Kansas City Star -- the newspaper where Ernest Hemingway began his writing career at age 18.

I've had some success in journalism since then, although hardly the Hemmingway-like career I once daydreamed about. Then again, the future rarely lives up to its advance billing. Just ask NASA.

In the late 1960s, the space agency's heyday, rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun was pushing bold plans for manned missions to Mars. And a 1969 task force led by Vice President Sprio Agnew concluded that NASA had "the demonstrated organizational competence and technology base, by virtue of the Apollo success and other achievements, to carry out a successful program to land man on Mars within 15 years." In other words, by 1984.

But by then, when Van Braun and others had imagined astronauts planting flags in the red dust of another planet, NASA's vision had turned far more myopic. Or was it just down to Earth?

When NASA celebrated its 25th in 1983, the agency had recently launched a space shuttle for the seventh time -- a Challenger mission on which Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space. (Two Soviet women preceded her.)

Astronomers eagerly awaited the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, a wait NASA had to extend seven more years after the 1986 Challenger accident grounded the shuttle fleet. Manufacturing defects in Hubble's main mirror were not detected until after its much-delayed deployment by shuttle Discovery in 1990, so its productive life did not begin until after a repair mission a few years later.

NASA's most far-reaching missions at the time involved long-range robotic space probes. Pioneer 10 had just become the first man-made object to pass the orbit of Pluto -- then still considered the solar system's most distant planet.

What did America's future in space look like 25 years ago? NASA's next logical step was a space station on which astronauts could learn what it would take to live and work in zero gravity for many months -- a necessary stepping stone for the long round trip to a place like Mars. But without committing to such a long-term vision, the purpose of building such a facility was less than clear, as I noted in my 1983 article:
"How space dollars should be spent is [an] area of disagreement. A survey conducted by the National Space Institute, a private, Washington-based group that promotes space activities, found that its members wanted to see a continuously manned space station in orbit by 1990, a goal shared by many NASA officials. Presidential science adviser George Keyworth at first labeled the space station idea an 'unfortunate step backwards.' But support for it is stronger in Congress than the in the White House , and the [Reagan] administration has indicated that it might be willing to back the idea."
As it turned out, the first component of what became the International Space Station did not make it into orbit until December 1998. By then, the Soviet-Russian space station Mir was nearing the end of a decade of continuous crew operations, including extended visits by seven U.S. astronauts. Continuous operations on the NASA-run space station began in 2000.

Considering the prospects for NASA's current plans for returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and, from there, setting out to explore Mars, one can't help but feel the same gravitational forces that have held back many of the agency's boldest plans in the past -- lukewarm public support, political realities and federal budget limitations.

And yet no shortage of people were interested in applying for the astronaut jobs I wrote about here last month. The H.R. people were still counting when I called the Johnson Space Center in Houston two weeks ago to see how many people had sent in their resumes. At least 3,000 was their best estimate. [Update: Final tally was 3,535. -- M.S., 8/13/08]

My July 21 CQ Weekly column looked at the kind of work NASA's next group of astronauts can expect to be doing, especially after the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. That's when construction of the International Space Station is scheduled to be completed. At that point U.S. astronauts become "infrequent flyers" -- making fewer, but longer-term space station visits. Those astronauts will be dependent on rides aboard Russia's three-person Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft to reach the station, at least until NASA's next-generation Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares I launcher begin flying, possibly by 2015.

NASA also has considered using modified versions of commercial spacecraft being developed to deliver cargo to the space station as an alternate way to transport crews too.

(Today's online edition of The Space Review takes a look at the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program. An older two-part series on the history on NASA's post-Apollo vision thing also is worth a look.)

Perhaps by the time NASA turns 75, some of the agency's newest astronauts will already have been among the first to take "small steps" onto the surface of Mars, claiming their places in the history books -- or whatever it is we'll be reading or watching in 2033. But history suggests that NASA's plans for exploring the solar system will involve many unexpected course corrections. In that sense, the space agency's journey is much like our own.

(Birthday cake image above taken from Creative Confections by Kim)

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stev4n said...
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