Drinking at Nasa, Ted Kennedy, blogging 79-year-olds and our future in space

NASAI live near Houston, and anything to do with NASA makes the headlines here (when there are no hurricanes or Enrons to distract us). My father used to chase Apollo rocket stages down in the south Atlantic near Ascension Island while my brother, sister and I sat on our roof in Florida watching the Apollo launches from Cape Kennedy. I have Apollo memorabilia, including all of the Apollo pins. And my son, now sixteen, still clings to the age old dream of being an astronaut.

All of which makes the recent revelation about astronauts drinking just another nail in the coffin of public belief and enthusiasm in the government sponsored space program. Added to the spate of cost overruns, ex-astronaut love triangles, computer sabotage and general inefficiencies in an industry that can tolerate little, the question must be posed: is now the time for space exploration to be moved into the private sector?

My 79 year-old step-father summed it up best. When my step-father reads the paper or watches the news, he can often be heard grumbling about this or that. I’ve been trying to get him to start a blog of his own, as he often will write letters to the local newspaper in San Antonio, and he gets more than his share published.

His take on the NASA drinking scandal: put a Senate investigation committee together to dwell on the subject, led by subject matter expert Ted Kennedy. By thus merging the once worshiped NASA with the disdain-held and scandal-ridden Congress, he like many others sounds the death knell for NASA. Are the rash of scandals and delays the signs of an internal malaise that cannot be overcome? After the mad dash to the moon defined by the Apollo expeditions, the pace has certainly slowed down, with NASA content to send shuttle after shuttle and probe after probe, ignoring the moon (now targeted by NASA for return on the year 2020) and Mars (decades after the moon).

All is not lost for my son’s dreams of walking on Mars. Private companies, working alone or in conjunction with NASA are doing what entrepreneurial spirit (combined of course with smarts and cash) did for NASA’s Apollo program: pushing the time and technology envelopes:

  • Dr.Franklin Chang-Diaz, former NASA astronaut and former director of NASA’s Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, has founded a company called Ad Astra, with the goal of getting a more efficient and powerful plasma rocket engine developed and tested to be used in place of the antiquated and inefficient chemical rocket engines. Their goals are to have these new rocket engines in place by 2010, with a further goal of a Mars shot by 2025;
  • Bigelow Aerospace has launched Genesis II, their 2nd experimental space habitat in June of this year from a spaceport in Russia using a Dnepr rocket. The craft is testing a Bigelow module where “testing on the ground has shown that the expandable shells of a Bigelow module are much more resistant to space debris than the modules on the International Space Station.”
  • The private sector is not without it’s own dangers and setbacks. This past Thursday an explosion at Scaled Composites, the manufactures of the X-prize winning SpaceShipOne and the manufactures for Virgin Galactic’s forseen fleet of tourist space flight vehicles, killed three people;
  • SpaceX recently posted the post-flight data of the successful 2nd demo flight of their Falcon rocket.

There is nothing that says these private companies will not be rocked by scandals and marked by delays just as venerable old NASA has been. But as in the technology business world, smaller, sleeker companies usually do not have the time for these distractions, as they are working for their survival and goals simultaneously.

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2 Responses

  1. larry says:

    Washington post article asking whether NASA’s culture is still broken, management not listening to knowledgeable underlings. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/28/AR2007072800735.html

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