Tall, Dark, and Fictional

A long shadow is cast by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Formally established in October 1958, NASA bestowed greatness on the United States through the promises it kept. The competitive nature of the Cold War (1947-1991) meant that the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite would not go unanswered. The question was, could we meet the challenge and go them one better? At the end of WWII the U.S. and its allies split the Nazi rocket scientist talent pool between them and, in many ways, the space race became a competition between former colleagues; their Nazi scientists and our Nazi scientists. It was not easy but, within 10 years, the men and women at NASA answered that question and left no doubt as to the U.S. prowess in space.

By the time I arrived at the test site in the 1980s, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) association with NASA was at a phase somewhere between memories of past collaboration and hope of future collaboration. The only NASA activities about which I was aware were some alloy testing and space effects tests. My DOE, Lab, and contractor colleagues expressed opinions of NASA personnel that ranged from disdain to downright bitterness over the arrogance of NASA scientists.  It occurred to me that perhaps it was the kettle calling the pot black. NASA, after all, had three major laboratories of their own at the time of its formation: the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory; the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory; and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. Shortly after going into business, NASA acquired several other research facilities and several test sites to augment the two original small testing locations for high-speed flight in California and for launching research rockets in Virginia.

NASA was inaugurated with eight strategic objectives summarized below[1]:

  1. Expand human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
  2. Improve the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
  3. Develop and operate vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
  4. Establish long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
  5. Preserve the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
  6. Make available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
  7. Cooperate with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
  8. Effective use of scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities and equipment.

The overview of NASA’s 2014 budget illustrates how far the Objectives bar has slipped.

“To make America once again a magnet for jobs, the Budget invests in high-tech manufacturing and innovation, clean energy, and infrastructure, while cutting red tape to help businesses grow.  To give workers the skills they need to compete in the global economy, it invests in education from pre-school to job training.  To ensure hard work is rewarded, it raises the minimum wage to $9 an hour so a hard day’s work pays more.”

By 1969, just a bit over 10 years after its birth, those wild and crazy scientists, engineers, technicians and pilots of NASA put men on the moon. The United States, once again, was firmly in the lead. Heady with their successes, NASA gave the world the Hubble Space telescope, the Voyagers, the Pioneer 10 flight to Jupiter, the Mars Pathfinder, and more recently the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  The U.S. never went further with space exploration.  What happened?

After the toasts were over and the Cold War (1947-1991) victory was declared, the political will evaporated. The missions turned circular and the wild and crazy creative geniuses gave way to bureaucrats who took few risks, drove costs through the roof, and put most of the knowledge behind a veil of secrecy. The cycle is complete and we couldn’t go to the moon today even if we wanted to do so. We have even had to hire the Russians to supply the last outpost, the International Space Station.  One presidential administration after another has cut missions and budgets. The Washington, D. C. crowd also places significant missions so far into the future as to be meaningless. Realistically, do you really think that NASA will send a manned mission to Mars in 2030? Do you think future congressional members and presidents will go along with today’s ideas? There is no history to suggest that the U.S. federal structure can stay focused on one project for that length of time. Effectively NASA is dressed up for a party and it has no place to go.

On our way to conduct some Cold War (1947-1991) research in the old Panama Canal Zone, we visited the new Infinity Center at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Stennis is but one of sixteen NASA facilities and is a poster child for NASA’s current state of operational readiness. The Stennis facility is a rocket test area and, in 1961, was named NASA Mississippi Test Operations.  At the visitor center we learned that the core test facility along the Pearl River is 13,500 acres surrounded by a 125,000 acre acoustical buffer zone. A small community and about 700 families were dislocated for this impressive piece of Cold War (1947-1991) infrastructure. During NASA’s heyday test stands held and fired the first and second stages of the Saturn V rockets. Additionally, the Space Shuttle’s main engines were certified at the center. After the Apollo program ended, NASA’s use of the center dramatically declined. The center was renamed for Mississippi senator John C. Stennis in 1988.

At the moment, the Stennis is being used by several local, state, national, international, private, and public companies and agencies for rocket testing. The Navy uses Stennis as does Lockheed Martin and NOAA. The employees of these organizations considerably outnumber NASA employees. In 2012, the federal government even offered a $75,000 grant for a cooperative agreement for dual use technology. NASA may be pleading with people to use the center today, but it was a wonderful boost to the local economies along the Pearl River during the golden years. Many of the small businesses in the area had only one customer, NASA. Once NASA left, those companies either retooled or died. It is a cautionary tale advocating the continual evolution and implementation of Plans B, C and D. The surrounding communities we visited have been eviscerated by NASA’s slow bureaucratic death. The hand that fed them is now begging for food.

The scientists, engineers and technicians in DOE’s nuclear programs and NASA’s space programs met the same inglorious fate. The DOE and NASA infrastructure is now very old and there is no operational readiness. There are the old memories of great times and nuclear rockets, of great adventures behind the black veil but in the end both the kettle and the pot have been replaced by 3-D printers and nanotechnology.

The U.S.’s space future is in the hands of the private sector. Somehow I feel better about that. They are not tall, dark, and fictional. They are those wild and crazy, driven, young people who made a fortune developing our current technological infrastructure and grew up with Star Trek and Star Wars and dreams that could be. They are the ones who will invest their fortunes to build the machines to open portal to space faring adventurers. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, Burt Rutan, engineer and their ilk will look to profit and adventure. The hidebound bureaucracy will come again somewhere down the line and stop forward movement but not now. They will succeed as individuals and teams of like-minded individuals. They will make the leap forward we all have longed for since 1969.

 

 

[Author’s Note: The Title for this piece is a poster from the Bloomsbury review: http://www.bloomsburyreview.com/index.html ]



[1] The Birth of NASA; Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian; http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/whyweexplore/Why_We_29.html

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