Thursday, October 06, 2005

Deja Vu

There’s an old saying that those who do not pay attention to the lessons of history are bound to repeat them. There’s not a better place to observe that in action than in the environment that’s starting to form around the new NASA lunar program.

When America was focused on beating the Russians, the public rallied around the manned space program and didn’t give the expenditure of public funds a second thought. But once we had landed on the moon and the Russian threat of beating us there had disappeared, the voices of disenchantment with our manned space program began to resonate throughout our political landscape. Eventually, those voices won out. The Apollo program was ended even though three Saturn Five launch vehicles were almost completely built. NASA tried to lick its wounds by putting up Skylab and moving on to shuttle, the next new thing.

With NASA’s new manned exploration program barely on the drawing boards, those same voices are starting again. The Washington Post published an editorial stating—as its has been said a hundred times before—that robotics can do it better and cheaper and there is no need for a manned program.

Indeed, the success of many of NASA’s robotics programs do show that they are effective scientific tools. But robotics inevitably runs up against the barrier of design. Robots still can only do what they are designed to do and do not possess the ability to adapt to new and unusual situations humans do.

With the winding down of the shuttle and space station programs, there is an opportunity for those people opposed to space exploration in general or human space exploration in particular to gain enough political momentum to shut down NASA’s efforts to maintain a manned presence in space. NASA and those who support it must begin now to ensure that the public sees the value in our continued presence in space, and not just from an apologetic viewpoint as was often taken in the post-Apollo era. Otherwise, with our economy being dragged down by the war in Iraq and the damages from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the shutdown of the shuttle program could mean a U.S. absense from space just when many other countries, like China and member countries in the European Space Agency, are gearing up for man expanded presence.

Likewise, NASA needs to be cautious both about shutting down the shuttle program too early and not utilizing shuttle and ISS assets to take us forward into the next generation programs. NASA Administrator Griffin has the right idea in trying to ensure that NASA does not see a lot of “down time” between the end of its current programs and the first flight of its new one. If he either shuts shuttle down too early in the vain hope of accelerating the new programs or steps off into new development programs that require too much money and time to bring forward, he might wind up wishing that the shuttle was still flying, risks and all.