A Commentary on the Future of the American Space Program: I Get Who, What, Where & When but Why?

by Ian Murphy

I wasn’t around for Mercury or Gemini.  I wasn’t around to see the end of the Apollo.  I wasn’t around to see the first Shuttle flight.  I’ve never witnessed the “profound” emotional effect the American space program had on the people of this country.

I was born in 1978 and that makes me Generations X or Y, I’m not sure.  I’m still waiting for some egghead sociologist/intellectual to definitively pigeon hole me so a marketing company can properly apply me to a demographic group.  Like so many born in the 70’s or early 80’s, my first recollection space travel was when I was 7 years old and my 2nd grade class was ushered into a crowded elementary school gymnasium and placed in front of the schools only television, which lived a top one of those tall A/V carts so classes could share, to watch the first teacher launch towards space.  We all know what happened: She never got there and space travel became an unnerving childhood memory for what is now the most prolific generation to ever to walk the earth.

It’s been 40 years since the end of the Apollo and 23 years since that tragic event and once again we are all wondering where do we go from here.  The Bush administration mandated the Vision for Space Exploration in 2005, which stated that by 2020 we would go back to the Moon, then on to Mars and beyond.

Imagine you need to describe our progression in human spaceflight to a 2nd grader today:

“Well Junior, first we built a rocket and launched it into space.  Then we put an animal in the rocket and launched it into space.  Then we launched a rocket with a person in it into space and they went around the Earth once before coming home.  Then we put a few people in a rocket, launched them into space and they traveled around the world several times before coming home.  Then we launched a few people into space, they flew to the Moon, went around it a few times and then came home.  Then we launched a few people into space, they flew to the Moon, landed on the moon and then came home.  Then we built a new spaceship with wings so it could carry more people and do more things.  We used this new spaceship to build a house in space.  Then we made the house bigger and bigger until more people could live in it.  Now that the house is built, we are going to build a rocket just like the one we used to have that will launch a few people into space so they can fly to the Moon, land on the Moon and then come home.”

Notice the confused look on the face of the child when they say, “you already said that last part.”

I’m not a child but I get just as confused when I hear this same story told to me using bigger words and then justified with convoluted reasoning.  Maybe it’s because I come from the X PRIZE school of thought so eloquently framed by Dr. Peter H. Diamandis when he states “It is the purpose of NASA to push the limits of what humans can do in space and it is the duty of the private sector to industrialize in their wake.”

Is the current strategy pushing any limits?

I’m not a rocket scientist, NASA program manager or ‘big 3′ corporate executive.  I am not an accomplished professor of aerospace studies nor did I receive a degree in the field.  But I’m also no dummy and when I speak to Apollo astronauts I wonder why none of them has told me that going back to Earth’s Moon makes sense.  In the words of an Apollo astronaut I spoke to last week, “why are we bankrupting ourselves by building an extraneous lunar colony on the Moon for indulgent astronauts when we can instead go to Mars’ Moon, Phobos, with similar technology?”

I have high hopes for the Augustine Commission.  The Book of Laws is an amazing read and it would be difficult to find a more qualified person to head such a panel than Norm Augustine but after the members of the commission were announced, I have to wonder out loud why a “blue ribbon” panel put together to decide whether going back to the Moon is a good idea does not include one person that has either been to the Moon or worked on any previous lunar mission.

There is nothing wrong with changing our collective national mission in space.  The American people will not give up and neither Lockheed, Boeing, Aerojet nor ATK will go the way of GM.  I sincerely hope the members of the Augustine Commission put aside their preconceived notions and business relationships and try and think less like a know-it-all rocket scientist or politician and more like an insightful 2nd grader.

Ian Murphy was the head of communications for the X PRIZE Foundation from 2001-06 and is responsible for publicizing the winning Ansari X PRIZE flights of SpaceShipOne, as well as, the X PRIZE Cup and the Archon X PRIZE of Genomics.  He has consulted for SpaceX, Zero-G Corp, Personal Spaceflight Federation, Army Times Publishing Company, Lockheed Martin, Rocket Racing and Anousheh Ansari’s flight to the ISS.  He is a contributor to SpaceTaskForce, Chairman of the National Space Society’s public affairs committee and a public relations and marketing consultant based out of Cape Canaveral, FL.

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4 Responses to A Commentary on the Future of the American Space Program: I Get Who, What, Where & When but Why?

  1. Joel Raupe says:

    I would be happier if Jack Schmitt or Charlie Duke, even Frank Borman had been on Augustine II, but this is a good group, all in all. Amazingly, only one of the members is strongly partisan. A review of all their federal campaign contribution shows no undue influence from that angle.

    There are two political problems I do see, one inherent to Blue Ribbon panels in general, that of providing political cover for a pre-ordained and largely unpopular conclusion. That’s a genuine fear, as a supporter of the 2004 Vision pretty much as is.

    The other problem I have has plagued the NASA since the triumph of the Apollo Era, and seems endemic to a Constitutional Republic running on two-year accountability scheme, the Power of the Purse originating with the U.S. House. That’s setting long-term policy, NASA being the best example.

    The last solution to that problem was the Space Shuttle, an essentially experimental vehicle that failed, at least as far as the original purpose for the program was sold. It worked so well the program will have lasted Thirty Years, when all is said and done.

    The Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon (2007) sets the situation out clearly, as far as I am concerned, and the hazards. The Moon is Earth’s Pier.

  2. spacecowboy says:

    We go back to the Moon and this time we plan to stay.

    That is what makes the difference. If we return to ‘build a house’ on the Moon then it makes perfect sense as a progression of our space program. If we are just going to go back and walk around a few times – then you’re right forget it and in that case forget a government space program all together. Going around in circles in mundane and not exciting. Going back to the Moon gives us something to explore, and in my opinion, it is more valuable a symbol because unlike ISS or Mars or a NEO everyone on the planet can see and recognize the Moon. Its a constant symbol and is easily understood.

  3. Pat Jackson says:

    As spacecowboy said, it’s not just a visit to the Moon and back to Earth. This time, it’s to stay. NASA thinks only of a scientific outpost, but space enthusiasts envision settlements. On this conveniently positioned “platform,” we can learn what works in space, how to use in situ resources, what the long-term effects are on human bodies, etc. This will all prove to be essential in our exploration and settlement of the rest of the Solar System. Moreover, we can use the Moon’s resources for manufacturing solar-power satellites and items needed for colonies at L5 and other volumes in the Earth-Moon system.

  4. çeşme otel says:

    A Commentary on the Future of the American Space Program: I Get Who, What, Where & When but Why? « National Space Society Blog great article thank you.

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