There’s kind of a weird editorial by Joshua Green over at the Boston Globe today. I don’t understand the title (Takeoff?), and he doesn’t seem to know the name of either the senior senator from Florida or the NASA administrator. And this kind of statement is always sort of annoying:
The real shock came in January, when President Obama killed its successor, Project Constellation, which aimed to return Americans to the moon by 2020.
What does it mean, to call Constellation the Shuttle’s “successor”? I guess it is, in the sense that it was the next human spaceflight program that would absorb all of the NASA personnel that were working Shuttle, but it’s not like it actually replaces the Shuttle in any functional sense, other than the ability to get crew to and from LEO. And then we have the usual dumb comments from people like Tom Delay:
Critics reply that killing Constellation and reorienting NASA is foolish and costly. “The innovations that have come out of the space program are phenomenal,’’ DeLay said. “With our failing manufacturing base, it is extremely important for our economy to maintain them.’’ Private space flight has shown promise, but it will be years before a commercial company can safely launch astronauts into space. Lacking the capacity to send US astronauts to the International Space Station, we’ll soon pay Russia to ferry them there, which won’t be cheap.
What “innovations” were going to come out of Constellation? The whole point of the project was to avoid innovation, with its associated technical risk. And I suppose that it’s technically true that it will be “years” before a commercial company can safely launch astronauts into space. But it won’t be as many “years” as it would have been with Ares/Orion. There’s no reason that the number of years need be more than two or three, except for resistance from Congress to fund it for dumb reasons like this:
…the loudest complaint regards “American greatness’’ — the idea that the willing forfeiture of our leadership in space amounts to a kind of moral trespass that will cede to nations like China and India the next great strides in science and technology.
This is mindless. We aren’t “forfeiting our leadership in space” by sensibly having private companies perform the mundane task of getting astronauts to and from there, half a century after the dawn of the manned space age. And China and India are both a long way from doing anything that will vault them ahead of us (and even longer, if we follow the new course instead of the moribund Constellation).
Where his critics have a point is in arguing that NASA lacks a clear mission. Without a directive and funding, talk of visiting Mars or an asteroid is grandiose but empty.
While the funding is lacking, due to squabbling on the Hill, there is a directive — to develop the technologies needed to make going beyond earth orbit affordable. But for people who look at the world through Apollo-colored glasses, unless it has a destination and date and unaffordably huge rocket (i.e., a five-year plan for the celestial crops), it’s not a real space program.