Space Exploration (yawn)

CNN reported this week that the youth of today couldn’t care less about space exploration. “Young Americans have high levels of apathy about NASA’s new vision of sending astronauts back to the moon by 2017 and eventually on to Mars, recent surveys show.” I wonder why.

Apollo 11Let’s take a couple huge leaps back in space time. On October 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviets. The Americans were rudely awakened to find that they were losing a race they didn’t know they were in. The implications were enormous. Space exploration was fast-tracked in America with the launching of several U.S. Satellites. DARPA and NASA were quickly created. A new emphasis on science and mathematics education was advanced. Major funding initiatives grew up overnight for scientific research, including a tripling of National Science Foundation money. In 1961, President Kennedy announced the goal of landing a human on the moon and returning him safely to the earth by the end of the decade. That gave us nine years. The race was on.

In backyards across America, kids were wrapping aluminum foil around cardboard boxes and blasting off into space. Support for space exploration was far from overwhelming, but with national pride and national security at stake, there was a lot of interest in seeing this program succeed and a lot of money backing it up.
So, we landed on the moon in 1969. We continued the Apollo missions until 1975. We beat the Soviets, and eventually made peace. We had accomplished the objective. It was no longer politically possible to spend these enormous amounts of money on space exploration. So the goals changed. As early as 1969, work began on a reusable spacecraft. If we didn’t have to build a new space vehicle for each launch, we could keep costs down. The idea was brilliant. Make a rocket that blasts off into space, and then returns like a glider. The spacecraft can be used again and again. The rocket boosters can be rebuilt and reused. Only the large external tank must be replaced with each launch.

By the time astronauts Young and Crippen buckled themselves into Columbia in 1981, the nation was once again excited about space exploration. This reusable spacecraft was going to make space exploration commonplace. In today’s dollars, the space shuttle was originally expected to cost about $36 million per flight. In reality, it has cost $1.3 billion per flight ($150 billion for 115 flights) — almost 40 times the projected cost. That’s hardly the kind of inexpensive space travel that the American public was led to believe was right around the corner.

So what are we doing with this program? What’s the objective? Well, we’re building a space station. That’s nice. We probably do need one. But it’s been done before (more than once). And we’ve been building it since 1998, with designs going back at least a decade before that. We’re now more than five years behind schedule on construction, and plans for the station have been significantly scaled back as resources have become more and more limited. Even if it is ever finished, it’s not the kind of spectacular “one giant leap for mankind” kind of accomplishment. Is it any wonder we’ve lost interest?

Constellation verticalStill, my wife and I are part of GenX. We still like the shuttle, and are still interested in the space program. So, last week, we tuned in to NASA TV to watch Discovery’s STS-116 landing. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched NASA TV. It’s available on some cable TV and satellite systems, and you can watch it online. But even during a shuttle landing, NASA TV is like watching paint dry. It makes CSPAN look like the Super Bowl. This is rocket science, for crying out loud. But you wouldn’t know it from watching.

How do we get kids interested in human spaceflight again? I’m not sure we can, or should. While it may be technologically possible to go to mars by 2017, the benefits of such a program may not be worth the enormous expense. The prospect of commonplace spaceflight is at least two generations away. Scientifically, we’re already collecting far more data with the current program than we can analyze. Smaller programs like the Mars Rover have shown that space exploration can be done with unmanned vehicles at a fraction of the cost of human spaceflight, and without the enormous risks.

The Constellation project, currently slated to replace the space shuttle in 2010, isn’t going to restore the interest in the space program that’s currently waning. While it will probably take advantage of the handful of advances in space technology we’ve seen in the last three decades, it’s basically a return to the Apollo program. We’re going to stuff people into capsules and blast them off into space, a la 1969. We’ll probably all watch the first mission on our ten-inch black and white TVs. No wonder the kids aren’t interested.