Tuesday, April 12, 2011

50 years after the first manned spaceflight... Is human space exploration to become a footnote in history?

Today is a big day in space news.  It is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight.  NASA is announcing which museums the shuttles will be collecting dust in today.  Southey's is selling an historic Soviet space capsule today, a few hours after NASA makes its announcement (consolation prize for some museum with cash already earmarked for a shuttle).

The sad thing, to me, is that all of these stories almost make it sound like the era of manned space exploration is over, that it is consigned to history.  And it may be.  After this year there will be still be only two nations capable of manned space flight, as it has been for most of the last 50 years, but the United States will not be one of them.  Russia and China continue on.

But the Russians are using technology that has not changed much since Gargain's flight 50 years ago.  Sure, it is reliable, much more so than the shuttle proved to be, but it is not capable of doing anything new.  And while the Chinese may have big plans, their program is still in its infancy.

Even sadder is that, a couple years ago, I was actually encouraged by the direction that NASA was moving in with manned space flight. The shuttle, I agree, needs to be retired. The miracle of the shuttle will probably be that we only lost two in nearly 30 years of use. But the original plans to replace it, quite frankly, rocked. Split the heavy payload capacity and the manned flight capacity into two different vehicles so we could send payloads on their own, people on their own, or both together through tandem launches. Return to a safer model for manned flight using more reliable technology than the relatively fragile shuttles. And the new capsule would be capable of use beyond low-earth orbit. Plans were made to return to the moon, to stay on the moon with a permanent base, and finally it looked like we were going to quit talking about Mars and actually start really working towards getting there.

Now, almost all of these plans are scrapped except for the heavy cargo launch system, and the new manned capsule is being re-purposed, last I heard, to be an escape system for the space station.  The new idea is that private enterprise should take over manned flights.  And the Air Force, for military flights, has a few quiet things going on as well.

I think this is a loss for our nation.  I really cannot see any corporation being willing to invest the resources in space exploration.  Sure, I can see corporations stepping in to fill the void when it comes to work in low-earth orbit, and of course there seems to be a market emerging for space tourism, but this is far from replacing the role that NASA had for many years.  Sure, it has been decades since the nation was held enthralled before their televisions by anything a human has done in space.  Really, with the possible exception of the first shuttle flights, this has not even happened in my lifetime.  And that is sad.  But at least I do remember the days before the glow wore off, the pride in the Apollo missions.

When I was a kid, it meant something that it was Americans leading the way in space.  It meant something that it was an American that was the first man on the moon.  That it was an American space shuttle.  And that we were building, at the time, an American space station.  Sure, the Soviets had Mir, but ours was going to kick Mir's ass.

Of course, with the end of the Cold War, the US and former Soviet manned space programs essentially merged, for all real purposes, and manned space flight became an essentially international effort.  But they were largely relying on US spacecraft to get there and back.  Still, the pride was gone.

I look at it this way, when I was a kid, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, and so did most of my friends.  My children, not so much.  When I was a kid, space was exciting.  To my kids, it is boring.

And while we might not have got that excitement back with the original plans to replace the shuttle, I can almost guarantee that it will not return with the current plans.   This is a shame.  The space program used to be a huge source of national pride.  Maybe even more than the huge technological boon created by the Apollo program, the national pride it inspired was priceless.  The space program used to fire the imagination, it used to encourage kids (and the government) to take up interest in science and education, it provided role models, it fueled dreams.

Even better, for all of the benefits, it was cheap.  People bemoan the cost of NASA, but they usually do not look at the tiny slice of the federal budget pie that it actually took up.  Right now they could triple the NASA budget and take on the most ambitions of the many plans sketched up over the last 30 years and it would be but a mere drop in the federal budget bucket.  An investment in technological research and development that would return its investment many times over and an investment in hope and dreams that would pay off immeasurably.

Rich men and women flying into space for eight minutes on a commercial "space" tourism flight just isn't the same.  My heart just isn't stirred by NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program, which goes by the acronym C3PO.  Yes, the U.S. manned space program is currently being led by a program that shares its name with a fictional robot that spent way too much time hiding in closets.

The BBC looks at how things might have been different if the Soviets had landed on the moon first.  I actually think most of their postulations about how the Space Race would have held even if they landed there after the U.S first touched down.

What if the Soviet Union had beaten the US to the Moon? (By Pallab Ghosh Science correspondent, BBC News - 11 April 2011 Last updated at 19:09 ET)

From the article:

In the summer of 1969, when the Apollo 11 crew were on their way to the Moon, US vice-president, Spiro Agnew declared that America would be on Mars by 1980. At the time, this was seen as a relatively feasible goal given how fast things had progressed in the 1960s.

So how close were we to following this alternative reality?

Quite close, according to Piers Bizony: "Those who imagine Apollo had the Moon race to itself are wrong," he says.

The US seemed to have taken the lead in 1968 when it successfully boosted three astronauts into lunar orbit with its Apollo 8 mission.

But the Americans rushed ahead with that mission because they were afraid that the Soviet Union was about to beat them yet again and pull off another space coup.

The USSR was using a rocket called the Proton which is still in use today. The Soviets were sending payloads into space with a view to putting a cosmonaut into a so-called circumlunar flight which would take him around the Moon and straight home again without going into orbit.

They had flown an unmanned mission a few months before Apollo 8 that had taken just such a trajectory around Earth's natural satellite.


Had the Soviets got to the Moon first it is unlikely that they would have abandoned it as swiftly as the Americans.

Not being a democracy may have enabled the USSR to spend money and marshal the talents of their population in a way that America could not.

Space historian Dr Christopher Riley believes that not only would the Soviet Union have continued with Moon missions, but they might also have built lunar bases.

And he believes that the Americans would have been compelled to do the same and even try to continue to outdo their communist rivals.

"The history that followed in the decades afterwards would have been completely different," he says.

Other stories on this theme:

Space exploration remains priority for Russia, Medvedev (12 April 2011 Last updated at 09:39 ET)
Space exploration remains a priority for Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev has said, as the country marks the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Who wants to be a cosmonaut when they grow up? (By Steve Rosenberg BBC News, Moscow - 11 April 2011 Last updated at 19:16 ET)
"Thirty yeas ago, everybody dreamed of becoming a cosmonaut," space expert Yuri Karash recalls.

"But a few years ago the Russian space programme had to openly invite young people to apply for cosmonaut training; and there was no one who wanted to do it.

"People are no longer interested in flying in a low Earth orbit. It requires a lot of time and effort and it's not as financially rewarding as it once was."


I ask the class who wants to be a cosmonaut later in life.

Denis doesn't. "I want to be a policeman," he smiles.

"I want to be a special forces soldier," Ruslan says.

"I'd quite like to be circus artist with my pet rabbit," replies Anya.

Even Fyodor, who dreams of being a pilot, admits he doesn't want to fly into space ("Because it takes too long").

Chasing the dream of human spaceflight (Jonathan Amos | 08:28 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011)
Sierra Nevada Corporation was given the biggest award ($20m) last February in Nasa's "seed fund" programme to develop a private crewship capability.

Known as the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program, it will soon announce another, larger round of financing; and SNC expects to be at the front of the queue again.

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