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A physicist reflects on the end of space accomplishment – now that speculation has replaced exploration

Apollo 11 astronauts in their spacesuits in front of an image of the moon
Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11/NASA

The gradual shutdown of accomplishment is described here.

Our physicist author, Rob Sheldon, offers UD News a guide, speaking only for himself, in the hope it may help you interpret rapidly spun news stories.

Since you asked what it means, let me try my best analysis, though I speak only for myself and perhaps some of my less politically correct NASA engineer friends.

Exploring the cosmos hostage to local politics?

Republicans have generally put US Space Policy or Foreign policy above politics, and have funded unpopular endeavors even when begun by previous Democratic presidents, recognizing that it takes 10 years to see a NASA program from start-to-finish, which is longer than the usual presidential double-term.

Democrats, however, believe that there is nothing more important than politics. Everything is short term. The future can be mortgaged. So for example George HW Bush started the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) to follow on the very successful Fermilab “Tevatron”.

Unfortunately, he built it in Texas, which gave it a partisan air. The very first thing Clinton did, was to cancel the SSC, thereby handing the next 20 years of high-energy physics to the European lab CERN in Geneva. Last month I read where Obama had denied extending funding to Tevatron, so it too will shut down in a few months.

In the same manner, George W Bush canvassed NASA and the public looking for a future for NASA at the end of the shuttle and space station era. To refresh your memory, Space Station was a Reagan initiative that was supposed to lead to technologies for going to Mars. But under Clinton, the Space Station was scaled back as far as possible without defaulting on commitments made to the Europeans. This meant that the Russians were brought in to supply the Space Station rather than use US Space Shuttles. So when the commitments to Europe had all been fulfilled, both the Station and the Shuttle were obsolete.

Bush saw this coming, and wanted to know where NASA should go next. The scientists who came through the US PhD system happily voted for more robotic missions. But both Europe (ESA) and Japan (JASA) were getting quite good at robotic missions. There just didn’t seem to be enough work to do, if NASA became merely a provider of robots and launchers. Furthermore, the national prestige thing was eroding as Europe and Japan (and soon India, China, Taiwan, South Africa, Israel) all developed equivalent capabilities.

The manned program was a product of engineers

The ugly fact is that the manned program was a product of engineers, of Werner von Braun, of staunch national patriots, who all viewed the presence of man in space as a symbol of how America was a pioneer, a superior country which would one day settle on the Moon or Mars. And all of these views were unacceptable to Democrats who fought to get Russia on the Space Station and transfer rocket technology to China. NASA became a schizophrenic agency, with the unmanned program competing with the manned program for money, for prestige, for vision, for administrative power. It was scientists against engineers, it was Democrats vs Republicans, it was socialists versus nationalists.

George W Bush tried hard, but the socialist naysayers were solidly against Mars. So he settled on a Moon mission, under the pretense that it would be a stepping stone to Mars. (For technical reasons it couldn’t be, but that made a good rationale.) Thus the Constellation program was begun late, several years into his term, and he watched NASA dragging their feet, making PowerPoint presentations, avoiding the hard stuff like hiring staff and cutting metal. Finally he trashed the director and brought in a brash young Republican engineer to run the agency. Constellation got back on track, and was making progress, when Obama became president.

Kill Mars mission

The first casualty was the NASA director, replaced with a person of no particular engineering or scientific training. After a year, the second casualty was the Constellation program to the moon. But now the scientists were beginning to feel the heat. So there was a brief public relations noise about robot missions to an asteroid. It’s a pipe dream. As long as engineers who may not be politically loyal run the manned program, the current administration will not fund it.. So until either California or Maryland turn their robotic NASA centers into manned spaceflight centers, there just won’t be any funding, now or in the future.

It’s all a consequence of making everything into a short-term political game.


* UD News blogs where the green, dark forests are too silent to be real, somewhere north of US politics. We do indeed remember the era of “Boldly go”.

Memories: July 20, 1969 Somewhere in Canada, up some river. Someone shouts: Hey, look, there’s a man walking on the Moon. An American. Come see.

“How to evangelize the space alien” was a campfire topic under the stars, decades ago.
Are you really that old, news? ;) And if there's life on other planets, then I'm sure that He must know, And He's been there once already, And has died to save their souls. http://www.delusionresistance.org/christian/larry/larry11.html Anyone else here have any Larry Norman albums? Mung
re; news at 2; “How to evangelize the space alien” was a campfire topic under the stars, decades ago.' How bout this: Third day - Creed - music video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oybROi7Ehg bornagain77
Here's the way I see it. We got into a race with the russkies. We paid for it, though not as heavily. Their people paid for it, heavily. But it's just as well, for we did it for the good of all. (Except those who suffered.) Mung
Ilion: We have to see beyond political follies and think soundly. We cannot allow the evil to steal a major sci-tech march or it will have to be paid for in blood. That BTW was Douglas MacArthur's counsel to the US Govt in the 1930's. Sadly, it came true. The US space program of the 1960s is the foundation of the West's technical and economic dominance in the generation since. That is what broke the USSR's geo-strategy and economy. GEM of TKI kairosfocus
... also, I meant to say in post #1 that 'nationalists' and 'socialists' are not necessarily opposites. Ilion
KF: "And Ilion, investment in exploration and other cutting edge areas, by nations that — though flawed — are basically decent is inter alia, national security insurance. ..." Sure; but that isn't how the space program is sold. It's sold (and bought) as: 1) a demonstration of "national greatness"; 2) something we can all "get behind" and support; 3) 'Science!; 4) and so on. "Reasons" 1) and 2) are basically socialistic, 3) is atheism-pandering. Ilion
I don't recall ever authorizing the government to "invest" my money for me. Mung
of related note, in what I believe was the most watch program up to that time: Genesis - Apollo 8 "In the beginning..." - video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-Ipb8-CLDM ,,, of interest, militant atheist Madelyn Murray O'Hair sued the government for letting the Genesis Reading happen on Apollo, The case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction :) bornagain77
And Ilion, investment in exploration and other cutting edge areas, by nations that -- though flawed -- are basically decent is inter alia, national security insurance. Civilisation was saved in 1940 because cancer-ridden Reginald Mitchell spent himself to ensure there was a Spitfire that could take on the Bf 109 on its own terms, and because of Watson-Watts' work on radar, with the investments of a Poland since the 1920's that paved the way to cracking Enigma. kairosfocus
The space exploration era sparked the modern high tech era. Let us learn from Cheng Ho's China on the price of killing exploration. We must not make that blunder again. kairosfocus
Good point, Ilion. The original question, in the post immediately preceding, was about the growth of wild cosmological speculation at a time when cutbacks to basic research may ensure that it all remains just that, speculation. Dr. Sheldon offers a historical context in which to understand the cutbacks. You are quite right that nationalists may not be patriots. In fact, some of the worst political movements have been nationalist (the very worst are usually ethnic). But when the space program got started, it is fair to say, the vast majority of the voting public in the United States supported it. Canada enthusiastically contributed the Canadarm to the Shuttle, ensuring that someone somewhere, other than a Convention refugee, would recognize our flag. Many people really expected to see space aliens in our lifetime*, and that's a cultural memory that lingers. We are seeing historic shifts, and many sources come forward to help us understand them. * "How to evangelize the space alien" was a campfire topic under the stars, decades ago. Oddly, some think that contacting aliens would be a blow to traditional religion. Historically, among the evangelism-minded, "blow" has always been spelled like this: O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y. ;) News
"... It was scientists against engineers, it was Democrats vs Republicans, it was socialists versus nationalists." 'Nationalists' are not necessarily 'patriots;' and 'national greatness conservatives' are rarely actually conservative. The first question an American patriot must ask about NASA, or space programs in general, is not "does this program demonstrate the US to be a great/major nation/power," but rather, "by what Constitutional authority do you propose to spend these tax monies." Ilion

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