Friday, July 23, 2010

Front Page Space News


Most space program employees can name particular events or missions they saw during childhood that excited their interest for rocket science, inspired a desire to be space-travelers, or at the very least, captivated them enough to be pilots. With so many parts of the space industry coming to a seemingly "crumbling" slowdown, people are asking: "What will inspire the next generation?"

I'm one of these people... and I am not alone in also being worried. I don't know if "commercial" space flight by private companies is the answer. Many have had decades to fill gaps or develop their own profit strategy -- and yet there has been precious little headway in this arena. I fear a lot of people miss that crucial point.

CNN Story About Future Space Flight
And in today's breaking news...

CNN posted an article on their front page, featuring astronaut Christopher Ferguson: his (unsurprising) Apollo 11 inspiration, his journey through aeronautical education plus Navy piloting, and his multiple attempts to join the astronaut corps (fourth time is a charm). Equally unsurprising is the Astronaut Selection Office saying that "most applicants who make it have been grooming themselves their entire lives for the job."

I've mentioned recent legislative efforts by the Senate to reboot heavy-launch vehicles, but the "compromise" under which it was passed by the House of Representatives may simply be, as the Orlando Sentinel put it yesterday: Setting up NASA for Another Failure. No minced words, there.

Many people focus on the cost of space exploration (even though it's only a fraction of what NASA actually does!) –- but few comprehend the true cost of letting this portion of American industry lapse.

During the space race of the 60s, the number of people declaring science as their major field of study doubled at every level (high school, college, post-grad and PhD). Wouldn't a repeat of that alone carry valuable rewards?

Now, as evidenced in the article, when kids express wishes to be astronauts, NASA workers give them bland answers, so as "not to encourage false hopes."

CNN's current spotlight also includes a call-to-cameras from iReport for parents and children, asking: What did you want to be when you grew up?

When Ferguson was a child, being an astronaut was a common dream. Is it still? I feel I cannot answer that question objectively, because of course I get many emails from parents and children who are already interested in space... they want to ask questions, they want NASA goodies, and they want information about how things work. Obviously, I don't get emails from kids saying, "I read your blog because I have no interest in space whatsoever."

So, I'm a lousy gauge. But I wonder. When being an astronaut is something purchased instead of something cool, will inspiration be the same?

"Ferguson and most other astronauts paid for their shuttle tickets with graduate degrees and years in the military. But, if commercial organizations take over NASA's shuttle missions, the next generation's astronauts might purchase their ticket as they would a bus or plane ticket."

Great. We're about to lose the concept of an astronaut being an astronaut because he/she was intelligent, educated, physically fit, hard-working and special. Now we'll just have astronauts... who can afford to be astronauts?


JLeonid said...

It's an odd trap. When human space flight was just a dream, even in the 70s, the dream was one of making space travel commonplace. But as the shuttle program demonstrated, when space travel becomes commonplace, much of the public loses interest.
There's still plenty to take heart in. Seen that new Mars map JPL released? And for those of us who are tired of waiting for the government to get in gear, there are many space advocacy groups to support.

brian said...

The Outer Space Treaty defines government astronauts as "envoys of mankind." Thus, as long as this treaty remains effective, astronauts will enjoy special legal status representing humanity.

What it means to be an astronaut will change. At first, only the wealthy could buy cars or fly in airplanes, but over time these forms of transport became commonplace. Space will go the same way as the airlines. Eventually, anyone who wants to can buy a ticket or train to be a professional working in the industry.

Does this mean traveling in space will be any less inspiring? I don't know. It's hard to imagine the majesty of space ever becoming commonplace. However, I look forward to the day when space is fully commercialized because that means anyone, not just the elite, can go there.

Astronauts4Hire is trying to bridge the gap between today and tomorrow by advancing what it means to be a private scientist-astronaut to help crew the next generation of space flights.

Amnon I. Govrin said...

Space is bound to lose some of its luster. It's a game of numbers - in 50 years there were about 500 who flew past the 100km line. When suborbital vehicles start flying (2 years away seems to be the estimate for the last 5 years) we may see 500 within 5-10 years.

However, the way I see it the line will just go further. Right now it's getting to space. In the future it will be going to the moon, Mars, etc.

I can imagine scuba diving was very special when it was invented. Nowadays it's pretty common, though there are places and depths that are still special and inspiring.

PillowNaut said...

@Amnon & @Jake - good points, both.

@Brian - Let me first just say that I hope you are right, but I must play devil's advocate for a moment: Ask any Native American how valuable treaties are when there are dollars to be made.

There are people who believe the 1967 treaty should not only be scrapped, but that it's outright to BLAME for the space age gasping its dying breaths. I've pondered many times doing a blog post on this set of opinions. Here's one example:
(I think the problem is, I disagree with so much of it, I never know where to START... maybe you could have a crack at it, LOL!)

We may also simply differ in our definition of ELITE. I'm not worried about companies who train astronauts properly (one doesn't need special training about adaptation to ride in a car or plane). AND I'm not worried about chaps like you and Amnon organizing because of a shared passion for exploration by becoming pilots and scientists and explorers who seek out fellow intellectuals, projects, simulations, etc.

You have never been "in it for the money" and you are QUALIFIED TO BE AN ASTRONAUT! What I fear is the day when all you need is to be a rich person's offspring.

Suzanne said...

Ah yes, trust fund babies in space!

I think that NASA needs to find some ways to actively engage the public. People are still interested but somehow it's all gotten a little everyday and boring. Where are the science superstars, those passionate and articulate people who can get the general public fired up and on board? I'm thinking of those like Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall and my favorite, Carl Sagan. Say what you will, Sagan was able to educate and inspire.

I occasionally watch NASA TV, but to be honest it's a tremendous bore. We're allowed to peek over your shoulders as you work but as in any job, it's kind of routine with a few bursts of exciting. I realize the cost of producing a "Cosmos"-type series is formidable but it could be great.

Also, as the museums and zoos started aging they had to think of creative ways to engage the public. Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago instituted a program wherein the public could adopt an animal, thereby giving them a vested interest in the zoo and it's mission. I'm not suggesting "Adopt an Astronaut" but something that helps people feel personally involved in the space program.

Very long comment, sorry.

PillowNaut said...

Comments of any length are absolutely welcome... and I am going to take some of these for a future post... !