Whence NASA?

Contributed by
May 8, 2008
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Speaking of NASA, while looking to see if there was any news about Weiler being the new science chief on the NASA site (no, there isn't as I write this), I saw this at the top of their page:

Not to put too fine a point on this, but are you kidding me? They're comparing where NASA is now to the where we were projected to be in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

NASA folks, let's be honest here: this does not cast NASA in a good light. Even the image itself is damning: in the movie, that space station was a rotating dock carrying dozens if not hundreds of personnel, and was used as a way station to the Moon, where there was a thriving and expanding lunar base. And that was all supposed to take place seven years ago.

NASA has a space station which is doing precious little if no science at all. It takes three people working full time to keep it operating. Yes, in many ways it's a magnificent achievement, don't get me wrong. But don't show me a Volvo and tell me it's a Lamborghini*, especially when you charge me $150 billion for it.

In my opinion, the article linked from the picture does the exact opposite of what it aims to do. If you're going to compare the predictions of a 40 year old movie -- which showed an incredibly ambitious yet believable future -- to today's achievements in space, you need to do better than talk about glass cockpits and flat-screen monitors on the space station. They even say that exercise is routine on the station, and compare that to movie astronaut Frank Poole seen jogging around the rotating wheel of the interplanetary space ship Discovery. C'mon.

To me, this drives home the reality of where we are in the manned exploration of space. We have an aging Shuttle fleet which has 11 flights left before retirement, and no working rocket to replace it. We'll have to rely on Russian spacecraft for years to ferry astronauts and equipment to space and back. The space station has taught us quite a bit about working and living in space, but we would have learned just as much -- if not more -- if we had built a space station that actually did something. And it's unclear to me that we'll be sending humans back to the Moon because of the political reality of funding long-term goals when we get new politicians elected on shorter cycles.

Which brings up a point I want to make clear. I'm a supporter of manned space flight, and you won't find a bigger advocate for what NASA's robots and space probes have done. And I also understand that NASA is beholden to a variety of forces, putting it at the mercy of whims and breezes from all directions. This is a very complex and delicate situation, with 535 Congresscritters all trying to get their say (with many, perhaps most, having no clue on the importance of space exploration), the White House's desires on top of that, and a public very unclear on why NASA exists at all (and laboring under gross misunderstandings even then). The Administration at NASA has done an amazing job in most cases getting anything done at all under those circumstances.

But trying to compare where we are now to where visionary movies like "2001" were hoping we would be simply hammers home the cold hard fact that we've spent the past 45 years since Apollo circling the Earth. There are no Moon bases, no regular Shuttle flights to orbit, no rotating space habitats.

It's politics, I know that. But politics is about choices, and we've chosen poorly. We need politicians who will choose wisely, who can see past their own term, past their own partisan desires, past the limits of gravity and atmosphere and current technology, and willing to do what we need to do, what we must do: go into space, do it the right way, the sustainable way, and explore it.

Our future is out there, just as our past predicted. We've stepped away from the right path, but that path is still there. We simply have to choose to step back on it.

Note added May 10, 2008: My friend and fellow astronomer and astronomy writer Chris Lintott has weighed in on this issue as well.

*For the record, I drive a Volvo and I love it.