Several people have asked me recently what I think of the cancellation of the Constellation programme. I’ll leave the debate around the public versus private sector involvement in manned spaceflight, and the technical and scientific details, up to those whose job it is to argue those cases. I’m not going to give any analysis on how to deliver what has been asked of the space community, nor how to fund it. My take is somewhat different.
I’ve been following the coverage of President Obama’s announcement and I’ve heard plenty of references to LEO, to Mars exploration, the asteroid belt, that the ambitions are lacking compared to the goals NASA was set at the height of the Cold War, how the public just never got on board with President George W. Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration” in the way they engaged with President Kennedy’s lofty language declaring that the United States would choose to go to the moon. Politics, and international competition, is just not currently driving the space industry in the manner that it was 50 years ago. Say what you like about the ideological battles of the Cold War, the results were often soaring achievements in science. The world has changed, with it the space programmes of the US and Russia, and we are left only speculating on what impact the Chinese space programme may have in the future.
However, amongst all the commentary I’ve seen, what I most worry about is this: what legacy is being created for the future? As a child I grew up watching the first launch of Columbia, I saw the Enterprise fly over my house (yes, in London), I sat not understanding why Challenger exploded and badgered my parents to explain why the amazing teacher I’d seen on television was now gone. Through successes and tragedy there was a programme that everyone involved – those directly and those of us who chose to become engaged with it on some level – could learn from. No matter how many times I read that Shuttle wasn’t what NASA had wanted, that it was a compromise, it was still what my generation had. I got to see Hubble images that extended past science – nobody can deny that those images are also incredible art – and I got to see the United States begin to cooperate with their former Cold War enemy in a very meaningful way through Shuttle-Mir. I saw Sally Ride launch as the first US woman in space and Eileen Collins command STS-93. And Barbara Morgan got to fly. This captured my imagination, it continues to capture my imagination. The cynical view is that some of this was merely good PR. Sure, I’m a realist and know that this bi-product can be a real benefit – but isn’t that the point? As well as good science, surely the goal is to engage and excite the public? The current thinking is that Shuttle probably failed in this to a great extent, but I have to wonder whether this assessment may change once the fleet retires and the public suddenly wonder why there isn’t a replacement.
What then does the next generation get? What images will they remember? Role models to aspire to live up to? Is robotic exploration honestly going to be enough of a draw in the longer term?
We all dream of what it would be like to fly, and manned space flight is the ultimate vicarious thrill. I’m not unaware of the realities of the current economic situation and I do note with optimism that the US science budget received, against the odds, a boost. However, unless the political masters choose to find the drive to push forward, to set aggressive – but crucially tangible and funded- goals for the future, then I struggle to see how any space programme will capture the imaginations of the very people who will always be funding the bulk of the cost.
One thing does leave me feeling a tinge of regret. I have never seen a launch. Despite spending a great deal of time in the US – and visiting both NASA HQ and JSC -I’ve never had the opportunity to even travel to the Cape. That I hope to rectify this year, but I’m resigning myself to the fact that the opportunity to see a launch is rapidly diminishing. I’m sure everyone reading will understand how difficult it can be to view one, purely in terms of time, cost, and unpredictability, but I confess I feel sad that I will probably never be able to describe to my students in the future what it was like to see – and I can imagine to feel – a Shuttle launch. There will be a long gap in the United States’ capability to launch men and women into space. Those of us who have been lucky enough to have lived with the Shuttle programme will have to tell the next generation what it was like, what we learned. And we will have to make the case as hard as we can to ensure this gap is as short as is possible and that our students get to experience the next set of hopefully ambitious goals of exploration.
Despite my natural desire to focus on NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s words that “NASA will accelerate and enhance its support for the commercial spaceflight industry to make travel to low-Earth orbit and beyond more accessible and more affordable … enabling hundreds, even thousands of people to visit or live in low-Earth orbit, while NASA firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth,” I fear that I’ll merely be grateful if I see another manned US launcher sometime in the next decade.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely not opposed to international cooperation and there is no doubt that it is integral to the success of further projects. I believe there are many benefits – scientific, technological, cultural, and political. However, for the United States to have what many see as an indefinite gap in manned spaceflight capability is something that I find, quite frankly, depressing. I hope that in my lifetime I will hear a speech that will be replayed as many times as President Kennedy’s at Rice University, for it is not merely lofty rhetoric that captures people’s imaginations – it is vast ambition coupled with a real political drive. Again, I’m not naive or unaware that this represents very real challenges to politicians who are having to operate with a very short-term political and often expedient outlook. I know full well that President Kennedy’s dream of a moon landing was less idealistic and more about demonstrating a superior ideology. And I also understand that this is a much broader debate about what limited taxpayer resources should be spent and precisely where, but ultimately very few people not connected with the industry care about minutiae or are moved by the unfortunate battle for funding between the various programmes that, in an ideal world, should never happen.
People connect with concepts that are new and that are bold. What they are inspired by is the sound of language that would not be out of place in an episode of “The West Wing”.
And I suspect that everyone will ultimately realise how much they miss that stubby-nosed, delta-winged, flying brick of a compromise. But then let us focus our gaze firmly on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth.