Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chiao, baby!


I’m quite certain this is the only time I’ve seen an astronaut publicly say "WTF??" and compare our complacent boredom with American prominence in space to an X-rated film.

But let me back up a minute. The Augustine Committee released their report at the end of October, but as of December, there is still no word from the White House as to the future of human spaceflight. While trolling the web for opinions about the matter, I ran across an interesting piece in Gizmodo from this past October… one I’m surprised I missed!

Of course, it’s nearly impossible not to stumble over Buzz Aldrin’s opinions (courtesy of his usual writing gigs at PopSci or The Huffington Post) and frankly, it’s no easy trick to find someone even more forthright than he is with the direction we "ought to take."

However, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao is quite candid in his Gizmodo article, An Astronaut Explains How We'll Fall In Love With Space Again:

"Remember high school history? Remember Portugal? They dominated the seas way back when, and thus, dominated the known world. Then what happened? Did they get lazy? Rest on their laurels? Sure, they still are the only ones who make port wine, but WTF, over? How about Rome? Ok, maybe they just got too decadent. I never did see the movie Caligula, but it probably wasn't too far off the mark. They got too full of themselves, and that was that."

Leroy Chiao
Leroy Chiao, veteran astronaut of STS-65, STS-72 and STS-92

Dr. Chiao has logged 230 days in space, including 36 hours of EVA time in six space walks. He was the very first Asian-American and ethnic Chinese to perform a spacewalk and to become a Space Station Commander. In addition to three shuttle flights, he was also the NASA Science Officer on ISS Expedition-10.

Because of such qualifications, I tend to put great stock in astronaut opinions, no matter how quirky. They don't pull the purse strings, granted; but, they do know what it takes to survive and work in space, and they see first hand the results of scientific experiments that have been a benefit to humanity for more than half a century. I particularly enjoyed his quip: "What do we have to do? Do we have to go chase imaginary aliens to get your attention?"

I doubt it will be that dramatic. But, what will it take for spaceflight to once more capture the collective imagination? I personally think Russia will have to pass us by again, (and the recession will have to end).

When it comes to Mars, I’m all about The Buzz. However, we do still need shorter-term goals for LEO, and I hope the President heeds Chiao’s directive:
"Let's choose one, then, do it. Be it Ares-V, Ares-V Lite, Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or Shuttle Derived. Pick one."