Saturday morning while making pancakes for the kids, (being the space geek that I am) I had the NASA YouTube channel playing on my iPad. I wanted to listen to the recent media update on the Space Shuttle program.
I recommend you take the time to watch this video. I am not going to recap the whole thing, you can listen to it when you have a chance. What I want to talk about is the mixed emotions I had while listening. I figure since this my blog I can talk about my feelings and opinions. I have both when it comes to talk of the Shuttle program.
As many of you know the Space Shuttle is being retired this year, sadly there are only two flights left on the manifest. As a child of the 80's, I've grown up with the Space Shuttle, so I have an emotional reaction when discussing, reading, or hearing about "The End."
Where am I going with all of this you ask? Back to the video of course. Many of the questions asked to the panel related to the last two flights, the current status of the workforce, the "autopsy" being done on Discovery, and life after the Shuttle program ends. This immediately brings out my frustration, sadness, and disappointment. We are the United States, we are a leader in human spaceflight, we have some of the smartest people on the planet working for NASA, but now we have no US-based human spaceflight program. Nothing! We can't even resupply the ISS, never mind send an astronaut there. No big deal we have only invested billions of dollars to build the ISS, there's no reason to get there and use it (insert sarcasm here). No worries, we have the Soyuz to be the "ISS Taxi" (insert more sarcasm here). Don't get me wrong the Russians are qualified veterans in human spaceflight, they are leaders in ISS resupply, and they are a reliable and honorable spaceflight partner. But this is NASA. WTF? NASA having no program to get our own astronauts into space! Really? This whole gap in the US program goes against what NASA has been a pioneer of...system redundancy! We have no backup system if the Soyuz program has problems, either with the vehicle, the launcher, or the overall supply chain. No backup...come on! The ISS is a multi-billion dollar investment....and don't forget we have real live human beings up there. Don't they deserve a backup plan?
Now I know that NASA has lost its way without a real vision or challenge beyond the Space Shuttle (at least this is my opinion), but it's not entirely NASA's fault. Congress, the President (both past and present), the US taxpayer, and the shuttle program suppliers are all guilty on some level. All share a part of blame with NASA leadership for lack of cost innovations, inspirational ideas, and cutting edge technology goals. Let's be honest, the Constellation program and it's the goal of returning to the Moon was maybe not the best choice to inspire a game changing vision for the future of the US Space program. In hindsight, it is easy to see some of the problems with the overall program and it's direction. But, not having any plan, to handle US-based human spaceflight during the time between the Shuttle retirement and Constellation (which would not have been available by the time the Shuttle retired even if it wasn't cancelled), other than the Soyuz, is a crime...in my opinion. The ISS is a huge investment of our tax dollars and we are a lead partner in building, maintaining, and managing it. I want US vehicles flying US astronauts to and from the ISS. We owe to the taxpayers and our international partners to pull our own weight. How do you provide leadership on a program like the ISS when you have to ask your buddy (the Russians) for a ride to work because you don't have your own spaceship (another perfect spot to insert sarcasm)? We as a nation have failed in terms continued leadership and expansion of our human spaceflight program. Before I go on, please know that I am not as negative as I sound. I know we have real astronauts that are scheduled to fly on the very reliable and capable Soyuz spacecraft. Which means we do have a human spaceflight program at NASA, it's just not our own vehicles. What I'm ranting about in this section is our reliance on another nation's program for US transport. It's pure frustration for me that we won't be the leaders in this area for the near future.
|Subject: Soyuz TMA|
Photo Credit: Unknown
|Subject: GSFC Sun Earth Day 2011 NASA Tweetup|
Photo Credit: NASA/Pat Izzo
|Subject: SpaceX Falcon 9 with Dragon Capsule|
Photo Credit: NASA
- It's new (and experienced) companies providing, highly reliable, reusable, commercially viable launch vehicles.
- Its crew and cargo capabilities to LEO, the Moon, and Mars.
- Its Space Tourism, like the Dragon crew module to a Bigelow orbiting hotel.
- It's the next generation airline like Virgin Galactic. (And let's be honest, Branson says they are a suborbital space tourism company. So, why does his craft look like, fly like, and act like an airplane? Why will it operate from airports...like today's airplanes? Simple it's really the next generation of airline travel and Virgin is going to be the only player in town. If he succeeds, and I think he will, with seats available at $20K or less, he will have a viable suborbital airline....with ZERO competition. Think about that for a minute. Pretty cool huh?)
- It's private industry (such as medical or big pharma) having affordable access to LEO and the micro-gravity environment in order to develop new products and procedures that make life better, longer, and of higher quality.
- It's universities having reliable, cost effective access to space for new scientific discovery.
- It's better launch vehicle technology that allows NASA access to the outer solar system for more economical science missions. Missions of discovery, understanding, and pure exploration. Missions for us to better understand our origins. Missions that push technologies, ideas, and boundaries beyond the known edge of the envelope.
|Subject: Virgin Galatic's SpaceShipTwo|
Image Credit: Virgin Galactic
|Subject: BA-330 Inflatable Space Station modules|
Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
I want to go back to the video and point out one comment that caught my ear. I'm paraphrasing this quote: "...we have a lot of talented people on this team (meaning the Shuttle program) and their talents will be needed as these commercial space companies ramp up. Our team has the skills, passion, and dedication to meet the growing talent demand that will be needed...." So, for me I feel good about commercial space because the future employees of this "new" industry will come from the current NASA program. These companies will be more efficient and do more with less employees, but there are more companies in operation. This is in contrast to there being just NASA and a handful of contractors (or more simply put a limited employer pool). So fewer employees but more players means more opportunities for the affected Shuttle workforce....I hope. As a disclaimer: I don't know about ability of the workforce to transition or if the skill sets are applicable, but it seems from the program management opinion, that the talents will be in demand and available to the commercial space companies in the near future. I also want to believe there is opportunity for non-NASA insiders who want to join the industry as well.
I hope this post causes you to think. To think about the proud, highly successful, pioneering history of the Space Shuttle program. To think about what the retirement of this reliable and versatile vehicle means to NASA and future of the US Space program. And to think about what Commercial space will mean to your personal future, as well as our nation's future and our planet's future. I would hope that this will cause you to be more attentive to what is going on at NASA and at the companies that will take us into this rapidly approaching tomorrow.I'm not sure how to wrap up this post. Maybe it best to leave it open ended. It's not like there is going to be closure for me right now. The Shuttle will retire and we will wait for the commercial space industry to mature. Until these things happen I'm going to continue with this battle of sadness and excitement. We'll have to wait and see.
|Subject: Space Shuttle Program Patch|
Image Credit: NASA
Thanks for reading and joining me on this journey...