Well, here it is April, 2010, and the dust still hasn't quite settled on the Obama's Administration's 2011 budget proposal which cancelled NASA's plan to return Americans to the moon, recommended increased reliance on commercial firms to carry Americans into low earth orbit, and a smorgasbord of baffling, nonspecific ideas for going into deep space.
As many folks know, I wrote a series of blogs posted on www.homerhickam.com that reflected my opinion of this new plan—commercial companies, si, everything else no—plus some particularly harsh and unhappy commentary directed at NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden who I consider at best inept, over his head, and the poster child for the Peter Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle). Otherwise, he's a nice guy.
In a few days, President Obama, Charlie Bolden, John Holdren (head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) and other minions, sycophants, and gadflies will descend on Kennedy Space Center to make a number of announcements and pronouncements concerning the future of the American space program.
Quite honestly, at this point, I don't much care what they announce and pronounce. I do not think any of them are capable of organizing a DAR scrap drive. This includes Senator Bill Nelson who is about a mile wide and a millimeter deep when it comes to almost any intellectual pursuit. Am I being unkind to all concerned? I don't care. They've made me lose sleep, worrying about their erratic drive toward spaceflight mediocrity.
With this crowd, all I can do is hope they won't screw things up so much it can't be fixed later. My guess is after they're done talking, we still won't know what's actually going to happen, mainly because they don't know, either. These are folks who, in more serious times, might be considered, well, loons. President Obama operates at about 110,000 feet (e.g., he still can't tell anyone what's in his health care plan after all these months of angst), Charlie Bolden would rather be home with his grandkids (great idea), John Holdren is a radical "global warmer" (which requires a suspension of intellectual curiosity), and Bill Nelson is a space who needs to be filled (with someone else). The rest make Lady Gaga look smart.
Recognizing the futility of worrying any more about all of this, I have other things I need to do. For one thing, I'm behind on my next novel which is due this summer. Writing is what I do for a living and my passion so I need to meet my deadlines. I also have two other books (My Dream of Stars out now, and The Dinosaur Hunter out this November) that I need to market. I also have a beautiful wife—and a family (OK, they're cats but I love them) I need to pay more attention to. For the last few days, I've been wall to wall on radio and television in support of my beloved coal miners in their hour of need after a horrendous accident. So, therefore and consequently, I'm going to stop fretting about our space program and wait until there's someone in charge who (a) has a scintilla of sense, and (b) might actually listen. In effect, when it comes to space policy, this Atlas is going to shrug.
With that said, I make these last (for now) comments, suggestions, and facts concerning the future of the United States in space:
• The most important events of this spring or early summer isn't anything President Obama is going to say or propose. It is:
— The launch of the X-37, a prototype space plane by the United States Air Force.
— The launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9.
• The X-37, if successful, could be the basis for a crew and cargo reusable launch/reentry vehicle. NASA should embrace this technology. Buzz Aldrin is correct that the American people don't want our astronauts to be spam in the can and land in the ocean. They want to see them glide to a landing. Fair enough.
• The Falcon 9 and its Dragon payload (just a mockup on the first flight) could hold the key to a relatively inexpensive option for Americans and especially our cargo to fly into low earth orbit. I've been following SpaceX from its very beginning and am very impressed with this little company. I hope it gets to fly humans into low earth orbit, too. But since Dragon uses parachutes to land, I still want us to have the winged option (i.e. a scaled-up X-37).
• To continue to fly the space shuttle would be a great mistake. I have described this vehicle as the USA's space equivalent of Vietnam. It is a grand effort that is too expensive and relies on a design that is inherently flawed (see here for more: http://www.homerhickam.com/books/other.shtml. Read especially my editorial "Not a Culture But Perhaps A Cult"). Bottom line, we need to get the shuttle behind us, grand though the program may have been. God knows, I loved working with those old girls even if they were too expensive and often dangerous (sort of like Penelope in my novel The Ambassador's Son. Lovely to look at and to hold but she might cut off your head).
• A heavy lifter based on the space shuttle stack design is a pretty good idea. This is the old Shuttle-C concept. I recall seeing a full scale mockup with wiring harness in a Marshall Space Flight Center hangar back in the 1980's. I would recommend that one or two be launched every year. Doing what? Space telescopes are great ideas. So are tether systems. I'd also like to see a Buzz Aldrin Cycler launched (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_cycler). Why not build a spacecraft that will allow us (or anyone who pays for it) to hitch a ride to the moon? They could be built with the ISS crews playing blue collar construction workers. What a concept! I think the American people (and the world) would be thrilled by one or more of these spacecraft out there, ready for occupation.
• Let's not forget the Delta IV and Atlas V. These are very capable heavy lifters. And they work! And we own them! Let's use them everywhere it makes sense.
• It's just silly to think we can send humans to Mars right now based on our presently available technology. To go now, we'd have to use chemical rockets. Chemical rockets are quite energetic but they have to operate quickly as they burn their propellant in prodigious gulps. This means a Mars-bound crewed spacecraft is going to be boosted to escape velocity and then, in effect, leisurely drift to Mars. One thing we know about space and micro-gravity. It is dangerous to the health of human beings. It is simply too dangerous to drift out to that far-away planet. Crews would arrive radioactive and with atrophied muscles and wasted bones. To send humans to Mars would also require a huge national and international effort building a vastly complex spacecraft with (probably) nuclear engines (go here for more on that: http://www.homerhickam.com/about/interviews.shtml and click on the nuclear rocketry interview). Since I think this bunch in the White House and NASA Headquarters couldn't organize a boy scout jamboree, it is laughable to imagine them leading such an effort. If the Obama Administration announces it's going to Mars, you can bet what it really means is it's going to study going to Mars, only to abandon the idea later (probably announcing it on a Friday evening). Sad, sad, but true. Trust me.
• The moon is the obvious destination for spacefarers with our present technology. So much can be done there. I've said my piece on this, both in my blogs (http://www.homerhickam.com/cgi-bin/blog.cgi) and in my novel Back to the Moon (http://www.homerhickam.com/books/moon.shtml). I'm not trying to convince anybody at this point. Read them if you wish. Or opt for Mars. Good luck on that. Let me know how you made out.
So, OK, that's it for now. My hat's off to all those who continue to toil along the pathways to space even with all the unnecessary obstacles put in your way. You are a special people and I'm proud of you. The rest of you—Bolden, Holdren, Obama, Nelson, et al, fie on you and everyone who think like you. Go away as soon as possible, please.