To the Moon? I think not, Alice….


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The NASA insignia.

Image via Wikipedia

(ed. note: these remarks are part of my testimony to the Senate Committee on Science and Transportation hearing “Challenges and Opportunities in the NASA FY 2011 Budget Proposal” on February 24, 2010)

Washington – we have a problem – there is an uproar across the land over NASA’s course change – and it says a lot about how the public is no longer in the loop with the space agency.

The headlines read “NASA cancels its Moon mission”. Now I would submit to you most people reading those stories had no idea were were heading back to the moon in the first place. And guess what? We really weren’t! The program – packaged as the “Vision for Space Exploration” – never got the promised funding – and its “vision” was clearly focused on the rear view mirror.

Constellation was touted as “Apollo on Steroids” but really it was a ninety-pound weakling – an uninspired attempt to bring back the magic. NASA was acting like the middle aged high school football hero who spends too much time in the local saloon telling tales of the glory days when he led his team to the state championships.

But the country has grown up and moved on – and it is time for NASA to get off the bar stool and do the same.

And that is exactly what I see in this budget. This is a grown up approach to space exploration – one that synchs the goals with national needs and budgetary realities. The space agency is getting a slap in the face. “Thanks, I needed that!” is what it should be saying. But that is not what we are hearing. Change is never easy.

But wait a minute – isn’t NASA supposed to be all about change? In fact, if it can’t embrace – no actually invent – change – we should close the whole place down.

But wait there is more – because as much as anything else – what we have here is a failure to communicate.

Obama talks with ISS crew

While I give the Administration plan high marks for its steely-eyed reassessment of priorities – it did a horrible job telling this story. The headlines should have read: “Space is now open for business”. Or – “Space travel now for the rest of us”. Or “Space Station science gets a big reprieve”. Or “NASA to work on fixing air traffic delays”. Or “NASA to focus more on our favorite planet: Earth”.

You get the idea. Instead we got a bunch of blue moon stories…

Why? Well for one thing my understanding is this decision was made in the White House office of Science and Technology Policy office – and it was very closely held until the weekend before the budget rollout. They were reluctant to tell the kids I guess.

Even so, everyone in the Space Cadet Nation knew Constellation was a dead man walking. But denial is a powerful thing and so NASA was caught flatfooted – with no strategic plan on how to explain the nuance of this story.

And let’s face it: the mainstream media doesn’t have a clue either. Reporters who know some things about this beat have been unceremoniously dumped by the big papers and networks right and left – and many of them are now…well…webcasting.

So it is the perfect storm: the agency is not sold on the change…the communications plan is non existent…the reporters are not well informed…and the public is disengaged.

But the people like me who care about this have such a deep passion for it. In advance of this testimony, I sought their opinions via Twitter and Facebook – and I conducted an unscientific poll. I would like to have those comments and those results submitted as part of the record.

Like so many of the people I have heard from, many of whom who have worked long and hard on Constellation, I wish that NASA had not been painted into this corner. I wish that we could have been thinking about – and investing in the next great adventure for humans in space decades ago so that we would not face this huge gap in US human spaceflight capability – which could easily morph into an abyss if we are not careful.

But that is the hand we have been dealt. And trying to recreate the past – on yesterday’s technology – is not something the public can or should support.

Now I am a child of the Space Race and I consider myself pretty darn lucky to be able to say that. I, like most of you in this room, bore witness to a stunning moment in history – a towering accomplishment that defied the odds that made us feel good about what humanity can accomplish collectively when we combine big goals with hard work, ingenuity and bold action.

It is a lesson that my generation took to the bank. We (well not me) – but we collectively embraced the disciplines we now call STEM – science, technology engineering and mathematics. This planted the seeds of success in Silicon Valley – and insured US economic dominance for many decades.

I sure wish my teenage son and daughter had been as lucky as I. They have no first hand experience with those amazing, exciting days. And so, even in my household, where my interest and passion in the subject is well understood (perhaps tolerated is a better term)  there is little evidence NASA is connecting well with the children of the post space race generation.

And truth be told, NASA lost many members of my generation over the past thirty years. How many people even know when a space shuttle is in on the launch pad? Or that the US has had astronauts in orbit continuously on a space station for nearly a decade now?  Or that we have a space station at all? A shocking number of otherwise smart people don’t have a clue.

Many of those same people did not know the shuttle program was near its end – and that, until recently, the plan was to return to the Moon in a suite of rockets and vehicles collectively called “Constellation”.

Columbia in the Pacific July 24, 1969

The truth is the public in general long ago stopped paying much attention to what NASA is doing in the manned space realm. There have been some spikes of interest here and there – for Hubble repair missions, to see John Glenn fly or, sadly, for the returns to flight after the accidents – but in general, it’s been a long, steady decline that really began on July 24th, 1969 – when the Columbia capsule carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins splashed down in the Pacific. Let’s not forget Apollo was never built to be a sustainable program. It was all about the sprint. Is it any surprise it did not sustain public interest?

Now a natural reaction for those of us who lived through the triumph of Apollo is to harken back to the good old days. Bring back those “One small step…Failure is not an option” moments and surely our kids will get space bug and thus, we hope, they will be stirred toward STEM as well….Hey, it worked like a charm then? Why not do it again for old time’s sake…

There are a lot of good reasons the recipe for Apollo moment cannot be replicated: there’s the Cold War context, the desire to meet a seemingly unattainable goal set by a martyred president and, of course, there was the NASA budget that would equate to more than 200 billion dollars this year. Now that’s some launching around money!

None of those elements are in the cards today. And let’s not forget we have been there, done that and those footprints are forever etched in the regolith. While the mission planners and engineers will point out the proposal to build a more permanent moon base is an entirely different and new challenge, I am afraid this detail is lost on a jaded public that wants to hear about something entirely new and different.

So what do people care about when it comes to space? What are the stories that leak out from

Water Jets spewing out of Enceladus

under my little tent of space lovers? Well – speaking of leaks – a new image from the  Cassini spacecraft which rolled out yesterday is a great example. It shows huge water plumes spurting out from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Very cool stuff. Stories about extrasolar planets get a lot of pickup…so do interesting images from the spacecraft that orbit and rove Mars…anything form Hubble…and anything about the former planet Pluto.

And when it comes to human beings in space, there is insatiable interest in the effort to open space up to the rest of us. I will never forget the thrill I had covering SpaceShipOne as it captured the X-Prize in Mojave in October of 2004. The excitement in the air was palpable – for a flight that went about as high as Alan Shepard went on May of 1961.

SpaceShipOne winning the X-Prize in 2004

But this time it was one of us. The candle was lit beneath a rank civilian. No Right Stuff required. Suddenly, it all seemed within our grasp – in our lifetimes. Nearly fifty years after Gagarin and Shepard flew – only 500 humans have made it to space. I had hoped to be on the list by now myself.

People want to go there themselves – simply sending a GS-13 civil servant does not thrill them anymore.

It is high time the government helped open up the space frontier to the private sector – just as it helped the railroads span the continent…or as it built the interstates…or created our aviation infrastructure. And I applaud the White House for placing this bet on what amounts to nascent spacelines that may one day carry hundreds of people to space every month…or every week. Arthur C. Clarke would be proud. And while this exciting aspect of the plan got lost in badly bungled public rollout of the news, I think it will generate a lot of excitement as time goes on.

I applaud extra money spent on aeronautics and earth sciences. Theses efforts will go a long way in helping the agency answer those every day relevancy questions that always come up. These will be good stories to tell the public.

I applaud the money that will be spent on participatory exploration. The public that wants to go to space also demands to be looking over the shoulders of NASA scientists as they download the latest Hubbble, Cassini or Opportunity images.

I am glad NASA will make education programs aimed at K-12 students a priority. NASA can play a key role in inspiring young people to study science, technology, engineering and math courses. As a member of the board of the Challenger Center for Space Science and Education, I would like to submit for the record a statement of support from  that organization.

429577main_image_1601_428-321And I am glad the station won’t be deep-sixed before it even has a chance to prove its scientific value. It turns out the absence of gravity can make germs more virulent. By turning up the volume on This might make it easier to learn how to make vaccines. There might be some real news that comes out of this unique national laboratory in the next decade.

Which bring us to the mission. What is the next great human mission in space? Frankly it isn’t clear. And that is a big worry. It is important to have goals. We children of the Space Race love a destination and a deadline. But goals that simply lead to uninspired jobs programs are not what we need.

NASA was not getting anywhere doing business the way it had been. Over the years, the money required to keep flying the shuttle safely left little room to push the envelope – as they say. With this budget, the money will be there to pursue some new propulsion technologies that might get us to Mars in a reasonable period of time; or find some better ways to arrive in orbit and on the surface of another planet; or work on closed loop life support systems; or come up with ways for future explorers to use the resources that exist on Mars.

In one sense, we won’t going anywhere I suppose. But we will be exploring – taking the necessary first steps on the journey we have dreamed of for years. I only wish we had started sooner.

It is time for our space agency to reboot  and rethink its mission. I look forward to telling the story of NASA 2.0.


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48 Responses to “To the Moon? I think not, Alice….”

  1. Steve Fentress Says:

    President George W. Bush announced what came to be called the “President’s Vision for Space Exploration” in a speech at NASA headquarters on January 14, 2004. A week later he gave an hour-long State of the Union speech that ranged over such topics as No Child Left Behind, job training, and celebrity athletes setting a bad example by using steroids. But he did not even mention space exploration, nor did he in any of his subsequent State of the Union speeches.

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      You could make a pretty good case that the VSE was nothing more than a poison pill designed to make it easier to kill shuttle – and ultimately human spaceflight at NASA. Bush never uttered another peep about it. I am not sure why anyone is surprised about that – when he was governor of Texas, he never bothered to visit the Johnson Space Center. You want to blame someone for the mess human spaceflight is in – look to the Big W.

      • coldwarvet Says:

        But Miles, two wrongs don’t make a right (shoot they don’t even make a left :-).

        Agreed, W. did little for our Nation’s space program while he was in office (other than deciding that it was time for the Shuttle to end… thank the Lord we’ve but four of these missions to go ‘fore we can all breath that long awaited sigh of relief).

        Regardless, BHO’s wrongheaded decision doesn’t make W’s failure to provide resources any better. And like all the rest of the messes the whitehouse blames on W. they arrogantly continue digging the same holes only far faster and deeper.

        In any case, like we told ourselves during the late 70’s when we couldn’t get spare parts for our TACAMO aircraft… “This too shall pass.”

        We were right about that you know. Indeed we also got an International Space Station out of that change of administrations (oh yes in case anyone forgets, an end to hostages in IRAN, ultimately an end to the Cold War, an end to the great melaise, etc).


        Getting to the Moon took three administrations and enormous political turmoil for us to achieve that and other major National goals.

        Building the remarkable capability that is our National Space Transportation System took four administrations and continues into its eighth and sadly, though Blessedly, final.

        Now, I find it quite satisfying that in the midst of BHO’s confusion about our Nation’s role in space exploration, folks are being invited to sign the ISS USOS acceptance review board documents following delivery of the contracted elements (with completion of the 20A mission).

        So this leaves these United States with what once was Freedom, then Space Station Alpha, and now the International Space Station which took five administrations to bring to full fruition.

        Doing the math… I expect it’ll be six administrations before we see our next crewed exploration goal line being crossed.

        Only the One above BHO’s pay grade knows when we’ll select a leader that will start us on that road.

        My engineering gut tells me BHO’s vision for NASA doesn’t provide that leadership… However, if prayers are answered and things pass quickly enough I’ll be just about ’89 when we get there.

      • Miles O'Brien Says:

        I sure hope you are wrong – and we live to see space for the rest of us…

      • coldwarvet Says:

        It’ll take a good deal more than hope (& change) to make it happen.

    • charlesthespaceguy Says:

      George Busy (both of them) sure did nothing to put our space effort on a solid footing. No recent Administrations have seemed to understand that a well designed space effort could return a lot to the economy, at a very reasonable cost. We could have commercial vehicles taking tourists to space today! We have muddled along for years, starting and stopping programs. All the while, we need to have a pathfinder that demonstrates that reliable access to space is possible, and then license the commercial world to go to work. That way, I can finally get up there!!

  2. charlesthespaceguy Says:

    All the money spent on X-33, Delta Clipper, X-38, the Hab module, etc etc etc would have bought a lot of stuff! We need to make measured and careful transitions, not chaotic transitions.

    And it looks, from your response to Jeff Faust, that you are pretty thin skinned.

  3. jcalton Says:

    My biggest problem with this decision was in shifting the funds from forward-thinking lunar exploration into aging low speed (no faster than 110 mph) high-speed rail.

    All over the country we are spending billions of dollars to create trains that go only slightly faster than driving the same route in your car…and in essence they take longer because you have to drive to the station, park, wait to board, etc.

    And 90% of the cities involved do not have mass transit, so once you are there, you are still dependent upon automobiles.

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      I am not sure what high speed trains have to do with the NASA budget. But let’s not forget Obama increased the money for NASA.

      • charlesthespaceguy Says:

        Oops here comes more (politely) contradictory thoughts. Your keyboard has not yet seen the end of suffering.
        How come we can borrow billions to start high speed train constructions, pave seldom used airports, make broadband available even on the prairie, and cannot fund a reasonable space program? Obama has NOT increased the money for NASA, he promised to ask for it. Congress appropriates, and with the antagonism in our elected officials – any request will be questioned. Had Obama NOT exploded the Federal deficit it might have been easier to find a few dollars for a booster qualification effort!! Obama has told NASA to go off and find some quick, nebulous, science projects to work on. But has no long term plan, etc.
        I am not a partisan guy, but this effort to transition to a commercial booster for crew is brutally wasteful of talent, enthusiasm, money, facilities, etc. I enthusiastically worked in the Nick Lampson campaign so I am no right wing Republican! But I know a confused and inefficient change when I see one.

      • coldwarvet Says:

        Perhaps nothing… Perhaps everything… Are you not the least concerned that China might place high speed rail (as in launch rails) on the Moon, possibly, before we complete BHO’s high speed rail plans down here?

        I don’t think anyone is forgetting that BHO has requested an increase in money for NASA to pass through to ‘commercial’ vendors; however, as an engineer reluctantly, yet deeply, involved in the (how to describe it… ) “mania” for commercial orbital transportation services I’m worried the reality checks are about to begin bouncing on this approach for getting cargo to the ISS.

        Let’s not even start on NASA contracted crewed COTS as there’s no actual requirement for the capability. Such things remain, even today, in the realm of unicorns and mermaids.

        But you don’t have to believe me. I refer you to Burt Rutan’s recent comments on NASA’s new direction.

        Ah, Burt, now there’s a serious AeroSpace Engineer with a remarkable list of achievements AND co-founder of the only truly Commercial Space Program (and a crewed one at that with two flights under his belt no less…).

        Having met Burt ages ago at the Reading PA air show, and elsewhere, where Jim Bede and he were introducing the BD-5 to the general aviation community, I’ve been forever amazed at his sustained progress up and onward.

        While this idea of transformational technologies is fine there’s also something to be said for “maintaining and even strain.”

        Finally, without a Boldly Go destination how are we to know what new technologies we’ll need along BHO’s non-way way?

      • Miles O'Brien Says:

        Well we know the destination because there really is only one place to go when you look beyond the moon. Do you really believe chemical rockets are the way to get there? I am not an engineer, but I know we can do better than that.

      • gdauth Says:

        The problem is that NASA is vague about the goals, as a retired scientist, I know that vagueness means that they have not thought things through or worse they have no real idea of what they want to do, that their so-called plans are just a place holder until they can come up with something. When I wrote grants it was understood that you developed a plan first, then a budget. They talk about new technologies, and don’t even give a hint of what they are thinking about. There is no leadership by the POTUS who does not really care about space. And this guy Bolden who is an ex fighter jock thinks he is still ordering Marines to take that hill, but he has no idea of where the hill is. His refusal to be straight with congress is very telling. All in all, I fear that NASA is still on the down slope and that Obama has given it a push over the edge.

  4. ramjet Says:

    Mr. O’Brien:

    Bravo! I hope that the clarity of your testimony disperses the fog in which the
    national leadership find themselves.

    I hope that you can confirm that the central issue at hand is whether the
    US federal government should continue to use the soft power of human space flight
    as an instrument of national power? Do they get that? The guests on your program
    do not seem to make this clear – with the exception of Mike Griffin who nearly
    said the same thing but not quite.

    But what of the Russians? As reported in AW&ST some years ago, Putin was
    ready to scrap their human space flight program unless they could start making
    money with it and hence the start of the space tourism biz! One could argue that
    the end of the US program began when Putin let go of their program as an
    instrument of national power.

    If I recall correctly, President Bush put forth VSE because the Chinese government
    was moving forward with their human space flight program with the stated goal
    of reaching their most spiritual cosmic body – the Moon. A new race was on and
    the US Senate was quoted to say “we must be on the Moon to greet the Chinese when
    they arrive.” (see AW&ST op-ed of that same month?) The soft power of winning
    such a “holy” race is obvious to the Chinese. But clearly both contestants cannot
    seem to afford the pace…

    It is also interesting to note that last summer (2009) during the semi-secret
    Sino-US summit in Washington, DC that the ONLY topic commented upon by the Chinese
    publically was that they did NOT discuss human space flight – which in
    diplomatic-speak meant that was the only subject upon which they agreed. At
    that moment the Obama administration seemed to go completely cold on NASA. I would
    love to know if your sources can confirm that the US told the Chinese at that time
    that we were pulling out of the race… and thus following the lead of the Russians.

    Could you ask your guests what will be the US domestic political impact when
    the Chinese, Indians, and Iran (???) continue to seek soft power through human
    space flight while the US government does not?

    Further, it seems to me that Google/Virgin/BigBiz are seeking the soft power of
    space flight to include planting their corporate flags on the Moon without any
    reference to the US Government. What will be the domestic political impact of
    those events?

    Eagerly awaiting the next TWiS!

    Fabio Grossi
    Grapevine, TX

  5. Gaetano Marano Says:

    the China’s astronauts lunar landing could happen within 8 years and seen on standard and 3-D TV by over 6,000,000,000 people worldwide [ ] however, the Constellation program is wrong, flawed and TOO expensive [ ] and the new “commercial space” is up to FIVE TIMES more expensive than the Space Shuttle [ ] as a consequence, NASA and USA will face a deep DECLINE and, soon, will be no longer a space leader

  6. datadriver Says:

    The Constellation cancellation CLOSES the final frontier for Americans
    in space. There is no private rocket even close to capable to carry humans into orbit. There is no destination for such a vehicle once the station is retired in 2020, and it would take that long for such a vehicle to be reliable. So once it is ready, it has nowhere to go.

    As for seed-money for “future technology development” instead
    of completing Constellation, this is like canceling the Louis and Clark expedition in exchange for research on better wagon wheels.

    • charlesthespaceguy Says:

      Data – we should all realize that the plans for the Station just go out to a specific date, but that does NOT mean that it would be deorbited in that year. For one thing – we would have to get concensus from our partners and NONE of them would agree. Now, we do have to wonder how we can keep it operating that long… What condition will it be in, come 2020? At least we know that it will be in far better shape than the Mir was, and Russia strongly opposed deorbiting it.
      When we do decide to retire the ISS, it is not as easy as just deorbiting it. The task of slowing that huge collection down enough to steer it into the south Pacific is NOT simple.
      You are correct that Dragon has a LONG way to go before it could be qualified to dock with ISS. Orbital is even well behind SpaceX.
      It appears that a lot of the swishing Behind The Curtain is to find ways to re-name parts of the Constellation program so that we can keep it. That is gonna cause many of us a fit.

  7. datadriver Says:

    If there is not bipartisan agreement to go to the moon with Constellation
    I would hope that a compromise would be to at least keep Ares to get US astronauts to the station.

    I stand by my comments that if the administration gets its way, it is the
    end. Everyone seems to be drinking the kool-aid that private manned orbital vehicles are right around the corner.

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      Too late for Ares 1 – by the time it would be done – station will be gone.

      • coldwarvet Says:


        Ares 1-X flew last year.

        Falcon 9 won’t have a pad engine test until next week.

        What hard data do you have to support such a claim?

        BTW, SpaceX once advertised that their Falcon 9 was the only US launch vehicle since the Saturn V that had an engine out capability…

        Later it was pointed out to them that the Shuttle could lose a space shuttle main engine at lift-off and return to the cape with everything intact save the external tank which is nominally disposable.

        Second stage… well depending where the vehicle is when one or even two engines (late in the game) go down there are various intact abort options.

        I suspect these abort calls are familiar to even the infrequent Shuttle launch observer.

        Falcon 9 second stage… well it has but one engine so it is hard to understand from the get go where their engine out capability is there.

        Those of us that worked Shuttle will have to forgive them… they’re new to the industry.

      • Miles O'Brien Says:

        There is no question Musk’s track record in space is by no means proven. I wish him well. We all should. There is a lot riding on him but remember he is not the only COTS player. Orbital Sciences predicts they will beat Musk to the station with their COTS entry. And this is a company with a lot more history. And a little competition can be a good thing. Worked for us pretty well in the 60s. As for an RTLS: I have never met an astronaut who believes flying supersonic backwards into your own rocket plume was a realistic abort scenario.

      • coldwarvet Says:

        I’d have to check some charts; however, I believe the RTLS Powered Pitch Around occurs at about 250 nautical miles downrange and 430,000 feet up.

        This maneuver marks the end of the Fuel Dissipation phase and begins the start of the Flyback phase.

        By 400 nautical miles downrange the mated vehicle has ceased its “backward” motion and is still about 280,000 feet up.

        So, the “flying supersonic backwards into your own rocket plume” part begins outside of the sensible atmosphere (recall that Entry Interface is at 400,000 feet) and is over before the static pressure exceeds 0.000147 lb/ft2.

        If RTLS is not a viable abort mode then folks have certainly spent a lot of precious resources building, testing, maintaining, training to, developing mission unique I-Loads, Cue-cards, etc … for the capability.

  8. Merlin Silk Says:

    Miles, so glad to see you support the advantages of the cancellation of Constellation – initially you seemed to be a bit down about it.
    I think I mentioned in an earlier comment that I actually believe that Bush’s Back to the Moon thingy was just a publicity stunt, intended to hopefully get him in par with Kennedy and his famous speech. Sorry, George, that insincerity back-fired. I know, I had been very disappointed in the Constellation program after witnessing the first civilian astronaut, standing on top of SpaceShip One, pulled down the runway in Mohave, California. And I woulds very much appreciate if money is spent in new engine technology that might power my next single engine plane, a little turbine maybe, burning 5 gallons per hour and not costing any more than my old Lycoming 320.
    And to dream a bit, maybe I can get that extra cabin seal and oxygen tanks, combined with an after burner and a little warp drive to get me up to Bigelow’s space hotel.
    When I watched the moon landing as a teen I was sure that we would be there by now for sure!

  9. datadriver Says:

    Merlin – Virgin Galactic is nothing but a thrill ride for rich people.
    Hooray. Call me when they have an orbital vehicle.

    The new NASA will use its increased funding on the hoax of man-made global warming. If you think they will improve upon Lycoming designs – forget it. It’s time to pick our navels and create bogus climate data.

    Meanwhile, Asia will look to China and in our lifetimes we will wake up one day under a communist moon.

  10. Eric Staton Says:

    Dear Mr. O’Brien,

    Great job on the hill. You hit the nail on the head. I like the Obama space plan overall but would like to see accelerated development of a heavy-lift launcher (Direct?) and a destination(s). All the best!

    -Eric Staton

  11. rpickar Says:


    I have enjoyed “This Week In Space” and, of course, your Congressional testimony.

    Personally, I wouldn’t have done the helium balloon trick, at the end of a broadcast where you are asking for financial support.

    My eyes bugged out when I saw that, “Miles O’Brien, say it ain’t so!”


  12. cmiles1701 Says:

    Miles, your work is excellent. Miss you on TV.

    Thanks for your testimony. It seems that the blogosphere mis-information and NASA’s poor rollout of this new path are each to blame for the excess of vitriol on this.

    I was thinking today about all the other NASA expenditures and visions that seemed to go nowhere- X-33, Prometheus, Vandenberg converted for Shuttles ops, etc… Not near the hew and cry as this CxP cancellation.

    I think there is a “critical mass” of simultaneous cancellations here that seems to be the problem. Once cancellations pass a billion dollars, and more than one NASA site has losses- then there will be guaranteed pushback. I am considering Michaud, specifically. What will those folks be making in 2011? Obama’s team. perhaps, should have thought ahead about that sort of thing.

    Perhaps as a follow up, you can begin to explore whats next- Vasimir, etc- To Mars with International partners, or alone, etc

    Continue the good work.

    C Miles
    Phila, Pa

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      I feel for the workers. But space should not be a jobs program. That said, I hope we don’t lose too much of our expertise.

      • gdauth Says:

        “That said, I hope we don’t lose too much of our expertise.” Well, there in lies the rub. NASA seems more than willing to throw that expertise away. The same thing happened when Apollo was canceled. Why should anyone want to go into science/engineering today. These people are not valued and they are viewed as disposable. You are better off with an MBA, a bean counter degree, or a (ugh) law degree. Teachers are not valued either. Our business leaders and politicians usually think of the short term, occasionally the mid-term and never the long term. Depending on business to advance us into space is a pipe dream. Who has been building our rockets all along? They won’t do anything really important unless we pour money down their rat holes. You were inspired by NASA and Apollo as were a generation of scientist and engineers. Where has that inspiration been over the last 20 years. Where is it in the current (snicker) plan? If Constellation had been funded we might have been close. Now we throw it all away ($9 billion + $2.5 to cancel the contracts) plus the time invested. Now we start over with some company that is just a hobby. How much money are we going to throw down that rat hole to find out that it is over budget and behind schedule? Manned flight is a lot more complex than sending a bunch of MREs to the ISS. NASA will lose its institutional memory again, just like auto companies do on a regular basis. That is why we have cars that go into sudden acceleration. Worse, we will have decisions made on the basis of expense and profit. However, the worse thing about all of this is the complete lack of vision. How do you expect to inspire future scientists and engineers without a vision.

  13. coldwarvet Says:

    Bumper sticker seen in ClearLake TX area(inspired by 01Feb10 blogger comment re nasa’s new vision)…

    JFK ’62 – “We shall go to the Moon”

    BHO ’10 – “We shall go NOWHERE!”

  14. lobosolo Says:

    Like all political decisions, Obama’s decisions have both good and bad points.

    1. Good point. Getting NASA out of the space launching business. SpaceX has the Falcon 9 vertical at the Cape with a tentative launch date of the 22 Mar 10. SpaceX also has the Dragon capsule which will carry seven people as opposed to the Orion’s six.

    2. Bad point. NASA has no firm goals. At least Bush’s VSE set a goal. Now it’s all fuzzy. Technology needs a goal to be focused on.

    Are we truly going to Mars? Then let’s resurrect the NERVA (nuclear propulsion). Obama supports nuclear power so maybe this has a shot.

    Do we need an HLV (heavy lift vehicle) to get to the Moon or Mars? No really, we could go with what we have … but oh yea, Obama doesn’t seem to be interested in human space exploration beyond LEO.

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      I agree about nuclear propulsion. I hope we can get beyond that debate…

    • coldwarvet Says:

      On point 1.

      SpaceX has a paper Dragon.

      This is meant in the same vein as Elon Musk’s comment that Ares was a paper rocket (shortly after the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel cautioned NASA about going too far down the COTS road early this year).

      Of course Ares 1-X had actually flown months earlier.

      In the case of SpaceX’s paper Dragon it and the Falcon 9 are a very long way from a crewed capability.

      Nevertheless, the best of good fortune to SpaceX on their first full up pad engine test next week.

      On point 2.

      Good point.

      On nuclear power.

      BHO says a lot of things.

  15. dougl Says:

    I share a lot of these perspectives, Mr O’Brien. Like you, I’m of that generation who’ve watched our technology in space development make really amazing strides and achieve incredible accomplishments, but we’ve also seen some less than stellar examples of things gone wrong, or fumbled, sometimes lurching. I don’t blame NASA or even feel it’s important to find blame, because there are numerous reasons, much of it traceable to the universal bureaucratic culture that pervades every large scale modern operation that humans attempt anywhere in anything we do, and which starts as something essential and evolves into something else and eventually, inevitably does little but add to the always increasing inertia and to a complicated regulatory landscape. Yes, it gets things done but a lot of opportunity seems stalled by the high cost and herculean/time-consuming effort in negotiating the regulatory landscape of getting to orbit where a profit might be made. Surely there needs to be a structure and some over-arching vision, but it should be broad highway and not a high wall.
    NASA would do well to identify those aspects of space development that the competitive drive, innovation and market forces of industry do best. Loan guarantees, X prizes, research grants, and tax consideration for private industry with specific goals cost relatively little especially since outlay is minimal until there is success.
    Developing a new launch system so that more massive payloads can leave the earth’s gravity economically will open the door for profitable operation of satellite delivery and service/re-fueling operations. Some of the recent sea-launch based proposals that have been interesting and are generating some discussion amid some groups of enthusiasts. Concepts which are both out-of-the-box and herald back to the early concepts of Robert Truax in the early 60’s, before we committed to the lunar landing by the ‘end of the decade’ as JFK said, we might have taken the time to develop the really durable and large scale launch systems that would have been cheaper too. Truax realized that to design a rocket that’s ten times the size of the one you have it didn’t take ten times the money. The concept of ‘economy of scale’ is nowhere more applicable than to the environment of space if we can get the mass, machinery and support requirements ‘up there’. The radically huge size of it, I think, made the idea initially a lot less appealing to those who were already involved in rockets; the defense industry in alignment with our cold-war military requirements. You can’t hide a 75’wide by 400 foot long missile that launches from the ocean, as easily as you could hide a missile that also had to be able to be carried on flat bed trucks on our interstate highway system.
    At any rate there’s no question that the moon landing was a tremendous accomplishment, but 30 years later, it’s time to have a heavy lift capacity so that massiv,e genuinely permanent stations serving as platforms for operations and as research stations for science, while also serving as fuel depots, which would make it possible to be servicing research in space- based-solar-energy systems; sturdy, massive stations that could be rotated for gravity, be able to survive accidents, and be heavily shielded for protection from cosmic rays and radiation.
    Expensive? It won’t be cheap but better question is “will it be worth it”. We won’t know until we really give it a try, and now is clearly the time when amazing with new technologies in materials, nuclear engineering, computational power and cybernetics/robotics/remote operation are ready to go big, and are converging and so new synergies will be emerging. Space is the place. It’s raining soup.

    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      The Obama decision really goes back to the beginning. If Apollo had been more sustainable, we would never have left the moon (but of course we would not have gotten there as quickly as we did). If the Nixon OMB had supported NASA’s notions of how to build a truly reusable space vehicle (with crew escape and a fly-back booster), we would probably be still flying the shuttle (with much cheaper operating costs). If the Bush OMB had properly funded Constellation, we would not be facing this yawning gap. If there was the political will now, we could keep the shuttles flying and also invest in the technologies that will get us to Mars. But I don’t see Americans carrying torches storming the Capitol to demand this happens. We began the space race spending money like a drunken sailor – and then on the cool gray dawn of the morning after, we felt good about our conquest, but a little bit guilty about the tab. I hope we can move on to a more mature approach. Obama’s budget seems to recognize this. But I wish we hadn’t flown our way into this coffin corner.

  16. janissarius Says:

    I sent this suggestion to NASA and received only a bureaucratic reply so I am providing it to you in the hope you might have better luck. I may be completely off the mark here, but I just can’t sit by and let space travel become ‘something we did once’. It is a bit long, so please bear with me.

    It is my understanding that the three remaining shuttles will be retired and relegated to museums this year. After nearly 30 years of service, no one can say that they haven’t put in their time. With “Constellation” now under presidential review and it’s continuation in question, I would like to make a suggestion regarding an alternate use for the retiring space shuttles.

    The shuttles are phenomenal aerospace craft. As is, they have ample room for payload and can sustain a crew of five for something like two weeks. It strikes me that the stresses of launch and re-entry experienced by the airframe are the major factors in the shuttles proposed retirement. However, after receiving some modification, if these vessels were launched into Earth orbit at about the same altitude as the ISS to be used as an Earth-orbit to Lunar-orbit shuttle then their mission life could be extended dramatically. The ceramic tiles that are vital for re-entry could be replaced with hard-radiation shielding over all and solar cells along the bottom of the craft. I understand that water can provide protection from gamma radiation and solar cells over such a large surface area would provide abundant power. I expect that this could be done for a small percentage of the cost of producing a new spacecraft from scratch.

    Once in orbit, supplies, fuel, crew and payload can be sent to the orbiting shuttles using available and future national and commercial launch vehicles, such as NASA’s Ares I. The shuttles existing main engines would be more than sufficient to provide thrust to break orbit and return. Half the cargo bay could be used for habitat/supplies and the remainder for internal fuel capacity. External fuel/payload modules can be designed to use present external fuel tank mounting points and to link together into a structure so that they can be either left in lunar orbit as an orbital station or soft-landed on the lunar surface. Alternately Ares IV or Ares V launch vehicles can be used to send 41 tonne or 188 tonne payloads directly to lunar orbit. Alternately Ares IV or Ares V launch vehicles can be used to send 41 tonne or 188 tonne payloads directly to lunar orbit. These payloads could then be accessed by a shuttle mission in orbit or transferred to the lunar surface as mentioned.

    To do this one of the shuttles first payloads might be a cross between a LEM and a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter. Surprisingly it would look and function much like the fictional ‘Eagle’ from the si-fi program ‘Space: 1999’. Once the shuttle returns to Earth orbit, the crew transfers to the same crew module that brought them up and return to Earth. Nothing need be wasted but the final stage to get to orbit and the ISS would remain an important staging point for lunar, and then planetary, exploration. For safety purposes, one shuttle would be in preparation, one ready for launch and one actively engaged in a mission. This would mean that there is a shuttle ready to provide assistance to the active shuttle should an emergency occur.

    I will go one step farther with this suggestion. As shown by the ‘Deep Space’ project, ion propulsion has reached the point were it is becoming a do-able alternative to chemical rockets off-Earth. An Ion engine can be designed and built to replace the Shuttles present engines using existing mounting points. This could be as complicated as a large single newly designed engine or as simple as a series of engines of the type used on DS-1 designed for use in parallel. This would then extend the shuttles range to include exploration flights to Mars and Venus. Payload, including a Lander, could then be attached to the shuttle using the underside mounting points presently used for the external fuel tank. This payload module could include a chemical rocket and fuel if such is needed to break orbit but from then on ion propulsion takes over. Like the modules mentioned for lunar exploration, these payload modules could be left in orbit around Mars or Venus and linked together to provide an orbital station. This would also serve to decrease the mass of the return vehicle. Ares V sized payloads could be sent to Mars or Venus ahead of a manned mission using chemical rockets and a ballistic path. Time to destination would not be as great a concern for these.

    Finally, I would like to say that I am not a scientist or an engineer; I am just an ordinary person and aviation and space exploration enthusiast. Scientists and engineers would have to work to make my suggestions viable, operational and sustainable. However, it has been shown only too clearly since the end of the ‘Apollo’ program that science and engineering are not enough to keep the space program going. You must capture the imagination of the people. If you can get the people on your side, the politicians will follow because they like their paycheque. ‘Apollo’ did that in spades, the Apollo-redux ‘Orion’ has not. Furthermore, talk of tossing aside the multi-billion dollar shuttles and ISS has not helped. The idea of a deorbit of the ISS after all of the effort made, dollars spent and lives expended to build it has shown a huge disconnect between the ‘scientists’ and administrators of NASA and the people who support space exploration while giving ammunition to the people who do not. Given the experience of Skylab and Mir, that facility should be able to operate safely for 30 years or more if maintained. The money to maintain and operate it will be provided if NASA can show people what’s in it for them and make them a part of the project. My suggestions might help do that.

    John G. Shea, CD

  17. Adrian Wyard Says:

    Hi Miles, thanks for doing a great job trying to get the word out to the wider public. I really hope your ‘This Week in Space’ video podcast can continue. (I’ve sent in a token donation, but I imagine the costs could be high.)

    I am also thankful you were able to testify before congress; you hit so many nails on the head in your brief comments you could have built a house! I’m not sure which is the greater challenge to the future of human spaceflight – the actual rocket science, or obtaining the support it deserves from the public.

    I’ve been scratching my head on how to drum up interest and have had some success with the following document. This started out life as a pretty technical article, which was vetted by some aerospace friends of mine (including a wonderful elderly chap who worked on testing the mighty Saturn F-1 engine back in the sixties). No-one was interested. However, once I reworked the article into a short story, lo-and-behold most people I share it with begin to see the light. Even my mother considered it ‘interesting’ – and that’s no small accomplishment!

    So, I’ll include a few paragraphs here, and a link to the full text. I welcome any comments you, or your followers here might care to offer.


    “It’s awesome, Dad!”, Sasha gushed, a little overwhelmed and momentarily frozen in place.

    “I knew you’d like it,” he replied, “don’t forget to look around you.”

    She slowly panned left to right, hardly noticing the bulk of the oversized space helmet. As she looked down, her spacesuit and gloved hand shimmered reddish pink, reflecting back the otherworldly objects that dominated the scene. To her left, an astronaut was securing a flag on the alien surface. As he tapped the pole, streaks of pink-grey soil flew out in graceful arcs for many meters, some striking Sasha’s spacesuit and bouncing off. The ground around her was awash with footprints. She squinted, and could see a tiny tear of pride in the corner of the astronaut’s eye as he stood next to the flag. Carefully, she turned around in place scanning the sky, and there it was. Barely larger than a star, and the only blue object anywhere in sight. The Earth.

    She couldn’t contain herself; “It’s exactly like the IMAX movie we just saw!”

    “That’s right, Sash. But remember, what you’re seeing is not a movie, it’s a recording. This actually happened six months ago on Phobos, one of Mars’ moons.”

    “I know that Dad! We’ve been following the mission in school for a couple of years now. And Mars has another moon called Deimos… I can’t believe how close Mars looks from here. It’s just huge! I guess it should look big since it’s the same size as all the land on Earth, huh?” While only fifteen years old, she was confident she knew much more about astronomy than most of the people in line behind her.

    “And you made all this happen, right Dad!”

    “Not by myself!” he chuckled. “I just worked on the software for the virtual reality helmets, like the one you have on. The astronauts you’re looking at now used the same technology to remotely control the robots down on Mars – that’s how they found the fossils.”

    Sasha’s father was a little envious of his daughter and the thousands of others gathered at the Science Center’s Mars Exhibit. They were enjoying for the first time – with clarity very close to that experienced by the astronauts – the scene that now defined this generation. He had been in mission control during the actual landing, but was far too busy monitoring engineering data to really appreciate the history-making moment. But Sasha was right; the landing on Phobos made for an awesome picture, immediately surpassing the iconic space images from the previous century. For his daughter’s generation, the ‘Earthrise’ image taken from Apollo 8 in 1968 was now merely an ancient weekend holiday snap, and the pictures of the first astronauts on the surface of the moon were by comparison grey, dull, and uninspiring.

    A voice in Sasha’s earpiece announced she had just 30 seconds left before she’d have to relinquish the virtual reality helmet to the next person in line, so she took one last look around. Above the undulating and cratered surface of Phobos hung the rusty visage of Mars, with its spectacular canyons, record-breaking mountains, and snowy frozen ice caps. From here it took up a full third of her view – 6000 times larger than the Moon when seen from Earth. At the horizon, barely perceptible, was the shimmer of the tenuous Martian atmosphere.

    For the rest see:

  18. Ernesto Acosta Says:

    The kids and I love your weekly.

    As an Aerospace Engineer, I really don’t think we should have Mars as a goal or destination for humans. Occupying NASA with the big mission just occupies a good organization which should be working the developments that make the Space industry viable in the economic sense (nano structure research paid for, bio research paid upfront, etc). Elon knows he can make $$ with his endeavors – maybe Solar Power for his cars? But the point is, I really like the Augustine Panel input and I can see that it is in the proposed plan. The point I want to make is that the goal appears to be much smarter than can be answered easily – let me take a try at it – our (NASAs) next destination is “to develop and sustain the technologies to move NASA and Space industry forward – goals will be performanced based,for example, the VASMR project”… and for private industry “Space is now open for business” (oops, that’s your input)….

    I’m not inspired with going to the moon or mars (big yawn) if we can’t maintain it for the kids. On another note, The X-37B is cute as hell, I can’t wait to see it ….land.. (you can’t see it launch). That OTV looks like it has big tanks! When this things lands, be prepared to be inspired! Be prepared for all NASA supporters to say “hey there Mr. USAF, we want one of those!”

  19. rpickar Says:

    I spoke with my wife and said that I saw the new edition of ‘This Week in Space’ and said to her, “it seems that Miles O’Brien has made a strategic decision to be goofy on his broadcast.”

    Then I asked, “Honey, are space people goofy?” She replied, “Is the Pope Catholic?”.


  20. The BeulahNet Blog » NASA and the Future Says:

    […] This article from Miles O’Brien makes interesting reading: To The Moon? I Think Not Alice. […]

  21. pauldale Says:

    Miles..I love your show! A lot. We have met before at UCLA on the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999. You interviewed me. As a P.R. guy on that mission I have seen first hand on how poorly the people of NASA TALK TO THE PUBLIC. Charles Bolden has got to be the worst choice in communicating this new direction, which I DESPISE! Bolden should be fired! You can say what you want about Constellation, BUT the idea of NASA moving out of the business of Manned Space flight is the worst idea in the history of BAD IDEAS. The DRAMA on the HILL is showing me, the Congress and the Press that OBAMA is a clueless President on the issue of Space science. Not even Buzz Aldrin agrees in total on this idea without a Vehicle for NASA. This plan is uninspiring and will give other nations a lead in space for the next 10 years. I have followed private space development for 25 years and have NO FAITH in their efforts.
    We might not get to the Moon with an underfunded Orion/Ares system but the Obama plan will keep America on the ground for 10 years. I know this is a bad PLAN because there is no way the administration of NASA can communicate their goals with any real clarity to the public. Bolden is the BEST reason to keep Orion/Ares as he is so poor in public speaking and making his point. He has not made his case as the back and forth with that one congress man has shown me.
    NASA needs an HLV.
    NASA needs a Safe Space craft.

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