In an official statement on Friday, acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that NASA does not intend to fly a crew in the inaugural launch of their next generation rocket slated to take Americans to the moon and Mars, the Space Launch System (SLS).
While the plan had always called for an unmanned mission to be the first outing for the SLS and accompanying Orion spacecraft, President Trump’s NASA transition team encouraged them to reconsider. As a result, NASA teamed up with the primary manufacturer of the Orion, Lockheed Martin, to conduct a feasibility study regarding adding a crew to the SLS’s first mission.
According to Lightfoot, the results of the study indicated that it was “technologically feasible” to add humans to the mission, but ultimately the decision was made not to do so. By omitting the crew, Lightfoot explained, NASA can push the Orion’s propulsion systems harder and longer than they’d be willing to with astronaut’s lives at stake. The first mission of the SLS will place it in orbit around the moon before returning to earth after an estimated 21 to 25 days.
This can be seen as the second bit of disappointing news regarding the SLS and Orion spacecraft to come out of NASA in recent months. At the end of April, NASA officials announced that the first SLS launch would have to be pushed back from 2018 to 2019 “at the earliest.” That announcement marked yet another delay, as the first launch was originally slated for 2016. The reason for the latest set of delays was explained to be “structural weaknesses” in the rocket’s core stage.
Ultimately, NASA cannot and should not launch a rocket platform that isn’t ready for use, nor should they place astronauts lives at unnecessary risk – but these setbacks, delays, and decisions speak to what is beginning to feel like a space fairing organization that doesn’t appreciate the importance of the public’s interest. At just barely one percent of the federal budget and always amidst a fight to keep their funding (or hopefully to increase it when possible) NASA is at the mercy of a public that needs to care about what they’re doing in order to convince law makers to keep signing their checks… but Lightfoot’s administrative style seems oblivious to the potential risk of making space boring again.
When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the entire world watched with bated breath, but by the Apollo 13 mission, astronauts famously filmed a television segment they weren’t aware was not being broadcast due to a lack of public interest. That’s how fickle the American public can be: by the third time we were trying to put men on the moon, America had already moved on to watching “I Love Lucy” reruns instead of watching our best and brightest float about in their capsules. Despite two horrific tragedies, the space shuttle also proved too boring for the American public, with some accusing NASA of making trips to space seem about as exciting as running an errand to your local grocery store.
Space travel received a much-needed boost in public perception in recent years as more and more private organizations take the reins in terms of manned space travel, with companies like Space-X planning manned trips around the moon as soon as next year and landing used rockets vertically on drone-barges like a science fiction movie from the 1950s… but despite this boost to space travel’s public profile, NASA remains resolute in their “quiet librarian” posture toward space sciences.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the American public saw NASA as a hero’s organization, filled with the sorts of men and women that made America the most powerful nation on the planet, and brimming with the kinds of technology that made the U.S. the envy of the world. Today, when most folks think NASA, they think pocket protectors… and yet another delay that shows our latest technology somehow still isn’t capable of matching a feat we first accomplished the same year North Viet Nam launched the Tet Offensive.
As you watch NASA’s press conferences, a few things are clear: the first is that the scientists and researchers working within the organization have a real passion for what they do, but the second is that their public affairs infrastructure is comparable to the used furniture stores you always see advertised on Cable Access. They may be brilliant, but they also lack the panache needed to get folks other than the supremely nerdy (like myself) to tune in.
When President Trump’s team recommended that NASA man the SLS’ first mission, it wasn’t because the president likes to put American lives at risk – it was probably because his team was aware of NASA’s desperate need for a bit of good press. The public has demonstrated an interest, and NASA has admittedly made attempts to cash in on that interest, but NASA seems to be relying more on America’s good will, rather than results, when it comes to their budget – and as a lover of NASA and all things space, that’s not a position I want them to be in.
Now, I understand that some of you will disagree with me and point to a number of incredible accomplishments NASA has participated in recently – and you aren’t wrong. I’m not claiming NASA isn’t doing important work, but I am suggesting that what they’re doing all falls into one of two categories: not sexy enough, or poorly publicized. Every time a car manufacturer claims he can put human beings in lunar orbit within a year, he’s not advertising SpaceX’s superior technical skills, know how, or experience: he’s demonstrating a great sense of branding and PR. You have to remind Americans to give a hoot about your work, otherwise they’ll forget you’re doing it.
Ultimately, I’m not asking NASA to strap guys to missiles just to see if they’d survive (like we did in the Gemini missions) nor am I asking President Trump to give a Kennedy-esque speech about the next great space challenge (because other presidents have and never seem to follow through on them) – all I’m asking is for NASA to stop treating our endeavors in the great, black void above us like a calculus test and start marketing it to us in a way people will actually care about.
Pop-science websites like “I F*cking Love Science” may regularly share poorly researched studies about garbage that purports to be factual, but they have successfully proven that there’s a huge audience for witty, intelligent, scientific fodder. In a time when prime time TV features the nerds of “The Big Bang Theory,” Neil deGrasse Tyson was able to revive Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” and science fiction brought back both Stars Trek and Wars – you would think we could get people to care about the future of real space travel.
We just need NASA to work on their image, as well as the science. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need them to make science sexy to keep the money rolling in, but then, if this were a perfect world, our future may not need to be among the stars.
Unfortunately, this isn’t that perfect world, and our future may well rely on space science, either to expand the reach of mankind or simply through the technology developed through space missions. We need a return to an age when school kids knew astronaut’s names, and when Americans didn’t have to bum rides from the Russians to get into orbit.
We need to make NASA great again in the eyes of the American people – and you can’t get there by releasing risk analysis statistics and paying for our trips to the ISS in rubles.
Image courtesy of NASA