Fifty Years Later
Since yesterday was the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic spaceflight that made him the first American to orbit the Earth it got me thinking. We’ve come a long way from 1962. A long way. We’ve sent men to the moon, send robots to other planets, gazed at the oldest known parts of the universe, and have sent spacecraft to all of the planets in our solar system. You might have seen the meme that’s gone around the internet that has a picture of Neil Armstrong standing next to the Eagle lunar excursion module that says “Your phone has more computing power than Apollo 11”. While that’s true, your smart phone is more advanced than the Apollo era spacecraft, it has a bitter aftertaste to it…Despite all the advances in space technology and human technology in general, the United States is currently unable to send humans into space…at all.
I believe NASA and our government have really dropped the ball in letting the Space Shuttle retire. I wrote about this in an earlier post but I think it is embarrassing that the United States, the once proud leader in manned space exploration, is currently unable to send a single man to space. President Kennedy would be appalled at our lack of interest in manned space exploration! I know that people much smarter than me state that Shuttle was a superb craft that did everything we hoped it would do, and more, but that it did have its limitations. Shuttle was not designed for trips out of low Earth orbit. The Apollo crafts were. Shuttle represented a shift in focus from NASA from manned exploration to scientific observation. We had achieved the goal of the late President Kennedy and it was time to move on to the next step. While some of the most amazing discoveries in space were made during Shuttle’s reign, we were limited by its flight capabilities. It did not pack a multi-stage rocket system to propel it all the way to the moon without having to refuel. NASA was, however, working on developing a new manned deep space vehicle before the announcement of Shuttle’s retirement was made. The Constellation program was supposed to be the successor to the Apollo program with expanded capabilities. Constellation was supposed to be our return to the moon, the ISS, and beyond. The program was cut in 2010 by President Obama. Instead, now we have the Space Launch System (SLS) on the books. It is similar to Constellation but it integrates all the components into one vehicle much like an Apollo craft. The problem is that valuable time and resources have been wasted in the development of Constellation and SLS when there should have been clear leadership and vision from the government from the beginning. The estimated first SLS mission isn’t until 2017 and a manned mission wouldn’t be possible until 2025. By that time the ISS will likely have been decommissioned and sleeping in the Pacific, and with no definite plans to construct a new orbital station there could be no human presence in space for up to five years!
There seems to be a major lack of unified vision and planning going on at NASA and our federal government. The fact alone that we retired the Space Shuttle with no ready to go replacement is just woeful. So yes we’ve come very far in our understanding of space flight in the 50 years since John Glenn orbited the Earth. But we’ve also shown that we haven’t applied that knowledge to translate it into achievement…something that alarmingly lacking when compared with the Apollo days.