Friday, August 17, 2007

Houston, You Have a Problem.

When I first became aware of the space program, NASA had already made the fateful decision to abandon the Formula One path of exploration and innovation in favor of the NASCAR path of Earth orbit missions. Gone were the days of excitement and glory in which we conquered new worlds, and raced the Russians to the Moon. I think we are finally seeing the bitter fruits of that decision.

Understand, I've always been a fan of space exploration. The summer after I got married I spent much of my free time reading all I could about the history of NASA and the space program, going back to the days of NACA at Langley, VA. I've always viewed astronauts as courageous heroes, doing what normal people wouldn't dare to do out of a desire to better our understanding of the universe.

I remember coming home from school in 1986 to news from my grandmother that the Challenger had exploded. It was a reminder of the risks that these brave individuals face on a daily basis. I never liked the jokes that it spawned.

That was the only incident for many years, and in my research that summer after the honeymoon, I realized just how fortunate the space program had been. I remember reading about the Apollo missions and their risk; many of the books I read pointed out that in a spacecraft with 1,000,000 components, a 99% reliability rate means that 10,000 things will go wrong.

The Space Shuttle is even more complex that the Apollo capsules, and in recent years, our luck seems to have been catching up with us. Each launch of the shuttle since the Columbia disaster has involved possible launch damage and questions about what to do. The risks are increasing dramatically, and to very little gain. What have we accomplished in the 30 years the shuttle has been flying? The technology is at least that old, and I can't think of any major advances that have come from the space program. No longer innovators, NASA has become assimilators, taking other's developments and fitting them into its aging framework.

On the human side we hear of sordid love triangles, diaper-clad cross country drives, and astronauts drunk during flight. Not exactly role model material anymore, are they?

The President has called on NASA to once again set its sights on the stars. This is the agency's last chance I think; while exploration may not bring any more gains than orbital experimenting, at the least it captures the imagination and makes us contemplate our place in God's wonderful universe. The risks of exploration are more bearable. One who dies while breaking new ground and pushing the boundaries of knowledge is a great explorer; one who dies while walking around the block is simply unlucky.

Take the challenge, NASA. Reach for the stars and capture our imaginations again. If the challenge is too great, then it's time to hang up the helmet for good.

Update: Today must be hate on NASA day.