Monday, April 16, 2012

More NASA blues . . .

I am having a bit of the NASA blues.

On Tuesday morning, space shuttle Discovery will become the first of NASA's three shuttles — plus a shuttle prototype — to travel to its new retirement home.

I read the above and it has made me go into another of my semi-regular NASA rants.

Off to the old folks home
You see, I was born in November, 1971.  I was alive for only the last two moon landings of Apollo 16 and Apollo 17.  I have no recollection of Skylab other than all the hoopla that surrounded its reentry into the atmosphere in 1979.  I think I have a really, really vague recollection of the Apollo Soyuz test project.  Yet, when I was around aged 10, I still enjoyed the echoes of space fever that gripped the country the decade before I was born.  I thought for sure by the time I was old and 40, the good old U.S.A. would be on Mars.  We had a space shuttle to easily and reliably transport us to space about to come on line.  We were going to build a space station crewed with a dozen or more astronauts.  It was obvious that when I was a mature 25 year old we’d have built all sorts of vehicles to sling us into exploring the solar system.

Unfortunately, I have actually lived through a mostly depressing era of space exploration.  The inaugural  launch of the Columbia was delayed and delayed again.  Once it was launched, it sure was not being launched bi-weekly as advertised during the NASA tour I took as a kid circa 1980.  Then on a black day in 1986, the Challenger blew up.  The Freedom Space Station was more talk than action and never seemed to get closer to being built.  By the time I reached college and took Astronomy 101-2, we had beautiful Hubble images to behold.  Unfortunately, it took a rescue mission to make the machine work correctly to get the best results.  The repair was impressive, but should not have been necessary.

By the time of Mir and the ISS, the thrill was gone.  What were we doing with these outposts other than keeping them running and dodging space debris?  Then on another black day, the Columbia burned up.  My despair over our space program reached a new low.

Now the space shuttles which fired my imagination as a 10 year old are being flown to their final resting places throughout the country.  NASA is plotting to get men on Mars by the 2030s.  Instead of being fired up over this bit of news, my thought is “sure, I’ll believe it when I see it.”  I do not have any kids, but I doubt many of them play Astronaut these days.  It might be more thrilling to play Greyhound bus driver.*

I can speculate and opine where things went wrong, and like most space geeks I have heard a few theories.  I do think it is hard to argue that things did not go terribly off course regardless of the cause.  If one would have told me when I was 40 we would have no ability to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit and no solid plan for what to do next or even what the next  launch vehicle will be, I would have thought the Soviets must have won the cold war.

*Nothing against bus drivers, I could just as easily say government civil servant attorney.  Believe me, no kids ever play at being one of those.