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Sat, 30 Apr 2005

E.T., Bring A Gun

What NASA Needs Is A Good Enemy

When I was growing up in the 1960s, one of the most exciting things on TV was the launches of the astronauts into space. I would follow the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions from beginning to end, and I prided myself on learning everything I could about the spacecraft and their operation.

Although I learned much about the technical details of the missions and the hardware, one thing of which I was only dimly aware was the "Space Race". I was too young to remember President Kennedy's address to Congress where he set the now-famous goal of getting a man on the moon and safely back by the end of the decade. I do remember a cover of Time magazine (6 December 1968) showing a spacesuited astronaut and cosmonaut running towards the moon, but I never paid too much attention to those articles. I would skip straight to the biographies of the crew and to the mission profile.

But even while all this was going on, there were unsettling things happening, which only became apparent to me as I grew in awareness of the political side of space exploration. NASA's budget, which peaked in the mid-1960s, went into a fairly steady decline in the 1970s and beyond. After the six Apollo moon landings, the American space program suddenly ran out of gas. Skylab went up and around and around and around for months at a time. We even had a joint mission with the Soviets, a magnanimous gesture by us, the "winners" of the space race. The Space Shuttle started out as a proposal to get people and cargo into orbit cheaply and often, but it suffered from numerous budget cutbacks and consequent redesigns. Originally scheduled to fly in the mid-1970s, the first shuttle, Columbia, didn't fly until 1981. People started to ask the question: once the shuttle gets up there, what will it do?

Today, NASA has lost its sense of direction. There's no longer a President Kennedy setting out a long-term, hard-to-achieve goal for NASA to accomplish. Since Kennedy, many presidents have made grand pronouncements about space exploration, but they have rarely backed up their rhetoric with the funding to accomplish it. The latest major project, the International Space Station, started out as the (US-only) space station Freedom (proposed by Ronald Reagan), went through the now-usual cutbacks and redesigns, morphed into a stripped-down platform named Alpha, and finally reached its present form mostly as a way to get the Russians, Europeans, and Japanese to help split the cost. Aside from occasional successes with Mars Rovers and pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, the US space program seems to be quite moribund.

Part of the problem is that NASA never seems to put out a set of long-term objectives and missions -- at least, not ones that would remain in place for years at a time, that would guide the specific activities undertaken each year, that would be part of a "gentlemen's agreement" with Congress and the White House about what was to be done, how long it would take, and how much would need to be spent. Such plans would be similar to those done by the Defense Department, where funding is allocated on a year-to-year basis, but budget plans are created several years in advance, so Congress at least gets a "heads up" about future projects and spending.

But as welcome as these things would be, I've come to realize that they are not enough. NASA was phenomenally successful in the 1950s and 1960s. Every effort was focused, every decision evaluated in terms of the goal and the deadline (man/moon/decade). It would be quite a stretch to describe the NASA of today in those terms. So what was it about those decades that helped make NASA so successful, and what is going on now that invests NASA with such malaise and inertia?

Back then, we had an enemy.

Not just a competitor, but a real, honest-to-goodness enemy. An enemy who was hell-bent not just on making the United States look bad in the space race, but who was planning for our annihilation, and who appeared to have the wherewithal to do it.

I refer, of course, to the Soviet Union. I submit that NASA's successes in the 1950s and 1960s were in large measure the result of political and military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. As a result of this competition, NASA, a civilian agency, owed much of its success in those days to its symbiotic relationship with the US military. Project Apollo was a success not just because President Kennedy said we should go to the moon, but because the Cold War provided the political and technological bases that made going to the moon possible. The end of the Cold War has meant that NASA has lost much of its raison d'etre.

One of the common myths about World War II is that the Allies enjoyed technological as well as industrial advantages over the Axis powers. Much of that point of view comes from looking at the situation immediately after the war, when the sole possession of the atomic bombs made the United States militarily invincible. But in those years, atomic bombs were few, complex, and enormously expensive. By contrast, a decade of research and development in Germany before and during the war led to a rain of hundreds of V2 ballistic missiles on Britain and Belgium. The ability of a V2 to put a warhead unstoppably on a target hundreds of miles away did not go unnoticed by the military establishments in the United States and the USSR. Werner Von Braun and the key members of the team that developed the V2 opted to surrender to US forces at the end of the war in Europe. But at the same time, hundreds of low-level technicians, and entire manufacturing plants for V2 components, were being carted off to the USSR.

The successful test of an atomic bomb by the Soviets in 1949 meant that the US would no longer be able to dictate terms militarily to the rest of the world. The United States developed the hydrogen bomb in 1951; the USSR followed only two years later. The arms race of the Cold War was well underway: the US and the USSR now had the means to destroy each other, and both sides sought every edge they could get.

The launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 sent shock waves through the United States. The public at large couldn't comprehend how a "backward" country like the Soviet Union could muster the technological expertise to launch a satellite into orbit. (A common joke at the time was that the Russians wouldn't be able to blow up an American city with a nuclear bomb smuggled in a suitcase because they hadn't come up with a workable suitcase.) Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate Majority Leader, took to the floor and conjured up images of the Russians raining down hydrogen bombs from orbit like rocks thrown from a highway overpass. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was at first indifferent to Sputnik and the whole notion of space exploration, but that indifference only lasted about a day. As accolades poured in from around the world, he quickly embraced space spectaculars as a way for the USSR to score political points against the West.

The military ramifications of Sputnik were evident to the US as well. Now the USSR did not need fleets of heavy bombers to deliver weapons -- a missile that could loft a satellite into orbit could certainly deliver a warhead anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. Work on US ballistic missiles -- Jupiter, Thor, and Atlas -- which had been proceeding at a modest pace, was given a higher, more urgent priority. The first American satellite, Explorer I, was launched on 31 January 1958, atop a Juno rocket (a feminine renaming of what was actually just a slightly modified Jupiter missile). Although NASA as such did not even exist yet, the launch of Explorer I by the Army of a "civilian" satellite (developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) was the beginning of the inextricable weaving together of the military and civilian space programs in the US.

President Eisenhower pressed for a civilian space agency to take charge of the nation's satellite program, and Congress obliged by passing the National Space Act. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration came fully into existence on 1 October 1959. NASA immediately realized that it had almost zero expertise in the fields of space exploration and rocketry. But it knew where to find them quickly.

Even though it could have opted to develop its own capabilities in-house and over time, the national desire to "catch up" with the Soviets drove NASA's decisions to buy the capabilities it didn't have time to build -- from the military. At the head of the shopping list was Werner Von Braun's team, ensconced at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Despite the Army's protests, Von Braun and the ABMA staff were soon working for NASA, the former Redstone Arsenal now known as NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

During the election campaign in 1960, Senator Kennedy taunted Vice President Nixon over the Eisenhower administration's "go slow" approach to space exploration. "The first satellite to orbit the earth was named Sputnik. The first living creature in space was named Laika. And if the current administration continues in its way, the first man in space will almost certainly be named Ivan," Kennedy proclaimed on the Senate floor. Khrushchev, delighted at the positive press coverage, and pleased to find something that gave the Soviets an arena where they could surpass the West, ordered up one space spectacular after another: the first pictures of the far side of the moon...the first probes to Mars and Venus...a series of Korabal Sputniks carrying dogs, mice, and other creatures into orbit and back. But for all his political acumen, Khrushchev apparently never realized that he was providing Kennedy not only with the ability to support his charges against the Republicans, but also was directly challenging the United States to try to catch up -- and Kennedy rarely backed down from a challenge. "If you run for President in your forties, you have to have a certain amount of moxie," he once told an aide.

NASA was not watching passively from the sidelines while all this was happening. Project Mercury was NASA's plan to put a man into space. Again, the political pressure to accomplish the goal in the shortest possible time led to decisions to make the best possible use of available technology. And getting the best available technology for sending men into space at the time meant again raiding the resources the military had developed to fight the Soviets. The seven Mercury astronauts were recruited from the ranks of military test pilots. Instead of trying to develop a new booster, Von Braun's team developed the Redstone for NASA as another modified version of the Jupiter, and NASA decided to adopt the Air Force's Atlas missile for orbital Mercury flights. Even NASA's launch site ended up being an extension of Patrick Air Force Base and the Atlantic Test Range at Cape Canaveral, Florida. All these decisions were driven by the national sense of urgency, the need to succeed as quickly as possible, the fear of what the Russians might come up with next. There were no blank checks at NASA, nor were there many blank sheets of paper to dream up idealized spacecraft.

The launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit in Vostok I on 14 April 1961, and the subsequent flight of Alan Shepard on 5 May in Freedom 7 helped push now-President Kennedy to decide that a manned lunar landing was the best chance the US had of catching up with and eventually surpassing the accomplishments of the Soviet Union in space. Project Apollo, formerly just a set of paper studies within NASA, now was an urgent national goal (with Congressional funding to match).

Getting to the moon and back in less than ten years, when the nation's total manned time in space had been just one fifteen minute flight, meant that Apollo's planners and designers deliberately kept to techniques that did not reach far beyond the state-of-the-art in the 1960s. And that decision meant that NASA culled even more resources from the military: more test pilots as astronauts, Titan ICBMs as boosters for the Gemini missions, Agena rockets (used to send reconnaissance satellites into orbit) pressed into service as Gemini rendezvous targets, recovery of spacecraft and astronauts by the Navy, and a steady influx of military personnel into high management positions at NASA. Even the Saturn rockets to be used in the Apollo missions were originally developed at the behest of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a means of boosting large military payloads into space.

As NASA headed towards the successful completion of the Apollo missions, it started looking ahead to the future of manned space flight. NASA's sense of "mission accomplished" was certainly well deserved, but in a sense, Project Apollo was NASA's honeymoon with space exploration; now that the honeymoon was over, NASA had to look to what was needed for a long-term relationship.

The Soviets were vanquished in the space race, choosing to maintain that they had never been in a race at all, and emphasizing their space station projects in orbit as their true long-term plan. Militarily, the zenith of the arms race had pretty much been reached, with thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles on both sides promising mutually assured destruction to both sides if either tried attacking the other. There would continue to be technological advances in military capabilities during the 1980s and beyond, but the basic force infrastructure was stably in place.

This meant bad news for NASA. It clearly needed to be able to point to the Soviets as one way of justifying its manned space projects. The sense of urgency, the desire to "beat the Russians" was now gone. So without political pressure from Russia, NASA decided it needed to continue to grow its capabilities in manned space flight, and thus the shuttle was born. Here was something even the military didn't have (since the death of the Project Dyna-Soar, a shuttle-like military space plane proposed in the early 1960s). Left to its own devices, NASA opted not just for state-of-the-art, but in many places for far-beyond-the-state-of-the-art technology in the shuttle. There were no similar existing military capabilities for NASA to fall back upon when the shuttle project got into trouble (exploding engines, thermal tiles falling off, etc.). What emerged from NASA's first attempt to go it alone was a shuttle that was crippled in terms of capabilities, five years late to launch, which cost billions of dollars over initial estimates, and whose development in the first place could only be cost-justified by strong-arming the military into using it to launch military payloads in place of expendable rockets.

Once flying, the shuttle program acquired that lost sense of urgency, but instead of being oriented towards a goal (man/moon/decade), the urgency was focused inwards (cut costs/make schedules/downplay risks). The culmination of that mindset was, of course, the Challenger disaster.

While this was happening within NASA, on the political front, the Reagan administration successfully implemented a policy of spending the Soviet Union to death. The United States' huge build-up in defense spending eventually caused Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to look at the USSR's political hand, calculate the slim odds of winning, and to fold and end the game. The Cold War was over. And with it went NASA's only conceivable external competitor.

As the chorus of voices grew louder to have NASA do something with the shuttles, it again went back to the blank paper and came up with the space station. Here was the real justification for the shuttle -- to bring people and equipment back and forth to the space station. And what exactly would these people be doing on the station? "Medical experiments performed on the space station could lead to the development of breakthrough drugs for the treatment of many diseases, like cancer," one NASA press release said. Such developments are possible. But they are also highly unlikely.

So now, the space shuttles are getting ready to return to flight, after the hiatus following the loss of Columbia. The International Space Station still circles us, being resupplied and restaffed by decidedly low-tech Soyuz capsules launched from Russia. And now President Bush has announced a new direction for NASA: stop flying the shuttles, abandon the space station, and go back to the moon -- and then, on to Mars! Alas, the long-term funding needed to make these plans reality is nowhere to be found in the President's budgets for NASA in the foreseeable future. But NASA dutifully salutes the plan, takes out another blank sheet of paper, and starts drawing.

Where should we look to the real future of space exploration? In the present circumstances, NASA looks about as relevant as the Pony Express. By fact of it being "the only game in town" for space exploration so many decades, many would think it will always be thus.

But the successful launches of Space Ship One to claim the X Prize last year are the real harbingers of things to come in space. The fact that Richard Branson has started taking down-payments for flights into space by ordinary citizens on a spacecraft derived from Space Ship One means that NASA's heyday in the space flight game is at an end. It should step back by-and-large from the manned spaceflight business and focus on satellites, space probes, and basic research -- things it has always done particularly well (although they were always a minor part of its overall mission).

At this point in time, the private sector has a reasonable opportunity to take over manned space flight operations. The situation is analogous to that of the airline industry in the early part of the twentieth century: after initial development by and with ongoing R&D support from the government (mostly the military), commercial aviation was allowed to grow with the government providing regulation and oversight. From that came the air transportation system we know today.

Of course, should the Chinese succeed in mounting large scale military operations in orbit, we had better start thinking about those highway overpasses again. Who knows if NASA might not enjoy a renaissance under those circumstances?

Posted Apr 30, 2005 at 04:13 UTC, 3133 words,  [/richPermalink