Category Archives: Space History

The National Space Council

A brief history.

I don’t know whether or not it will help with the current policy mess. It probably partly depends on who heads it up (that is, the real day-to-day work, not Pence).

This is strange:

According to historians, in 1992, council staff convinced Bush to fire the NASA chief because they thought he would resist their ideas. As is the case in many bureaucratic environments, the dysfunction of the council had little do with national interest or policy, but with office politics.

Truly wasn’t fired because the council staff “thought he would resist their ideas.” He was fired because he was actively sabotaging Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, and actually having his AA for legislative affairs lobby against it on the Hill.

[Update a while later]

Stephen Smith has a blog post on the (meaningless) NASA authorization ceremony last week. Trump seems remarkably uninformed, but that’s true of most subjects, I think.

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Jeff Kluger says that magical thinking won’t get you to Mars. But a) this isn’t an appropriation and b) he seems to think that we can do Apollo again.

Half A Century

Fifty years ago, three astronauts died on the launch pad in a ground test. It occurs to me that, like the Kennedy assassination, this was one more event that, had it not occurred, the moon landings may not have been successful. There were many problems with the program that weren’t seriously dealt with until after that disaster. It reinforces the reality of how unlikely the success of Apollo was, and why it’s foolish to think we can replicate it half a century later.

Meanwhile, Commercial Crew is delayed again. Because it’s more important to not lose an astronaut than to end our dependence on the Russians, even though at this point, we should have no confidence in their systems. While crew flights use Soyuz, not Proton, they both use the third stage that just failed on the Progress mission. And they seem to have systemic problems in their aerospace industry.

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Here’s a piece from the WaPo.

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Andrew Chaiken asks, did it have to happen? They were being very sloppy. They hadn’t had any problems with pure O2 in Mercury or Gemini, so they ignored the issue. I’d forgotten the name Marty Cioffoletti; he went on to work on the Shuttle, and I worked with him occasionally in Downey in the 80s.

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This is a useful bottom line, that I’ve been thinking about this week, in the context of the book:

A month after the fire, NASA’s director of manned spaceflight, George Mueller, said in a Congressional hearing that NASA’s experiences with Mercury and Gemini “had demonstrated that the possibility of a fire in the spacecraft cabin was remote.” Mueller’s words lay bare the false logic that, in the pressure to meet President Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline for a lunar landing, had skewed the thinking of nearly everyone at NASA: It hasn’t bitten us, so we must be okay. This fallacy would strike NASA again, with the O-ring leaks that brought down the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the broken-off chunk of foam insulation that doomed its sister ship Columbia in 2003.

It’s nice to think that if we only spend enough money, and take enough time, we can ensure that no one ever dies, but as I write in the book:

No frontier in history has ever been opened without risk and the loss of human life, and the space frontier will be no different, particularly considering the harshness and hazards of it. That we spend untold billions in a futile attempt to prevent such risk is both a barrier to opening it, and a testament to the lack of national importance in doing so.

Those men died because we were in a rush, because what we were doing — beating the Soviets to the moon — was at the time considered important. But now, “safety is the highest priority.”

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[Mid-morning update]

OK, I had forgotten that the Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature on the same day. It didn’t get as many headlines.

Gene Cernan

He never wanted to be the last man on the moon, and he almost certainly won’t be, but it’s a shame that he didn’t live to see the next man (or woman) kick up the regolith.

But he didn’t cover himself in glory, or make it more likely to happen, when he testified in ignorance against private spaceflight back in 2010 (the headline of the story is incorrect; they weren’t “defending spaceflight” — they were unwittingly attacking it). He was a hero of the Cold War, and should be honored for that, but his passing shouldn’t be an excuse for a new bout of misguided Apolloism from conservatives.

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“It appears we are condemned to forego the human exploration of the solar system until the full measure of the first generation of space explorers has passed.” It didn’t have to be, and some of that generation, including Cernan (and Walt Cunningham), didn’t help.

Thiel Versus Sessions

They’re battling over the future of NASA.

Thiel is pushing for a 21st-century space policy. Sessions represents the past, Apolloism, space socialism, and pork. He should stick to being AG.

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Not sure what “commercial space trade association” Tim Fernholz thinks that Alan Stern leads.

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Tim pointed out to me that he’s chairman of the board of CSF, which I hadn’t known, or had forgotten. But I pointed out to him that Eric Stallmer is really the person who “leads” it, which he agreed was fair.

More on this topic from Eric Berger.

[Update a while later]

Not exactly space related, but sort of, in the sense that indefinite lifespan will help with opening the universe, an interesting description of what else Thiel is up to.

Make NASA Great Again

My thoughts on the passing of John Glenn, over at National Review.

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Buzz Aldrin remembers his former colleague.

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Dear President Trump, here’s how to make space great:

This list of goals sounds audacious, perhaps outrageous, but it is entirely within the capability and character of the people who built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Hoover Dam, and conquered a continent. Americans are leaders in every one of these fields. It is only necessary for the new President to unleash America’s potential—once unleashed, American innovators will move these dreams toward reality faster than anyone can imagine.

Asteroid mining, moon mining, propellant depots, solar-power satellites, asteroid deflection? Crazy talk, when instead we could be building a giant rocket.

I had dinner with Coyote in Seattle last June.

[Update early afternoon]

Bill Gates’s and America’s false memory of Apollo:

So whether you agree with Bill Gates and his assessment of Trump or not, it’s important to remember that funding for the Apollo program was opposed by the majority of Americans. Why then does America have this bizarre memory of the program? You can blame the baby boomers like Gates.

The baby boomers were kids during the Apollo space program. And when you’re a kid you don’t have much to worry about in the way of paying the bills or public policy. You certainly don’t have fully formed political ideas about, say, ways that government funds can be better used than blasting people into space.

But that was precisely what happened. Baby boomers, as children of the 1960s, just remember the speeches on TV and watching the moon landing. They don’t remember that the majority of Americans (American adults, as those are the people who get polled) thought that the Apollo space program was a waste of money.

Roger Launius, chief historian at NASA, put it best in a 2005 paper: “While there may be many myths about Apollo and spaceflight, the principal one is the story of a resolute nation moving outward into the unknown beyond Earth.”

This is why, as I wrote a few months ago:

Because they view Apollo as the model for how large space programs should operate, and because they believe that Apollo represented a moment of national unity, they seem to think that we ought to recreate it.

In a sense, however, a critical reason that we cannot do what they want is because we never really did it the first time.

Stop trying to make Apollo happen again.