Rod Pyle: The End of NASA?

THE END OF NASA? By Rod Pyle, author of Missions to the Moon (Sterling, July 2009)

On this very week that we look back with misty fondness to the first manned moon landings, NASA is again at a crossroads. A new presidential administration, the Democrats at the controls, a new NASA administrator and deputy, and, as so often is the case, confusion in the ranks about what to do next.

Since the late 1960’s NASA’s mission has been cloudy. With the demise of Apollo and the spectacular Skylab flights, the promise of the shuttle turned to storm clouds, darkening the spaceflight horizon. While a stunning technological achievement, the shuttle went grossly over-budget and never came even close to achieving the cost-effectiveness and flight frequency that were projected when selling the program to congress. The International Space Station, while quietly and competently accomplishing its limited goals, leaves the public largely unimpressed. All arguably unfair, but true.

And now we have the Constellation project, hopefully bound for the moon and beyond. Using a modified solid rocket from the shuttle to boost crews into orbit, and other shuttle-and-Apollo derived architecture to loft the heavy machinery- the Altair lunar module and others- this system is due for accelerated development in 2010 (when the demise of the shuttle frees up more funding) and launch to Earth orbit in 2015. The projected date for a lunar attempt is no earlier than 2020.  And all this only if NASA experiences no budget crises, technological roadblocks or major design/performance failures. And those are big “if’s”, especially considering that an increasing chorus of dissent, both outside and inside NASA, is forming around the basic design of the Constellation program already.

So what will NASA’s new mission be? Will Constellation fly as planned, or will the calls for a major design review be heeded, resetting the basic design yet again? Will, as many pundits predict, private industry beat NASA to the punch? Has the time for a federally funded organ like NASA indeed passed?

To listen to Charles Bolden and Lori Garver, the new and recently confirmed NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator, no, uh-uh, absolutely not. They are on-course, and the plans are firmly in place (though it appears that Constellation will face at least one more major ground-up review).  And these are folks worth listening to: Bolden is a veteran shuttle astronaut, and Garver is an old Washington hand, long the guiding force behind the National Space Society and a seasoned NASA administrator. Between the two of them they know the challenges ahead, and seem to be open to looking at alternatives to existing plans if called for. They know the stakes, and they are high.

So what is the answer to our original query, one heard with increasing frequency around the space business? Is NASA in its death throes? By all rights, it would not be a surprise if it was. The agency continues to struggle to find a new mission, some new guiding principal as simple and elegant as Kennedy’s challenge. It must move beyond the mixed successes of the shuttle, and quickly define near-term manned technologies, either Constellation or a variant with the same general goals. And it must do so with the traditionally stingy budgets from a politically fickle democracy, and the vague support of the public. No mean feat.

But it must survive, and move forward to new explorations beyond Earth orbit. Because without NASA and all that it represents to us and to the world, even the private sector of space exploration and exploitation may be doomed. Without NASA, stubborn as it can be, the chances of private industry organizing and coordinating all that it takes to reach the heavens in a meaningful way are, in this writer’s opinion, slim. But there’s a bigger reason too.

Take the pulse of the citizenry of foreign countries: Europe, much of Asia, and others; and you will find an interest in the work of NASA and its history far beyond what America’s own citizens possess. For like America itself, NASA is and has been a beacon of democratic accomplishment and all the promise therein. And we, as Americans, would be much the poorer without it.