Space: The Final Frontier
With the recent passing of Neil Armstrong, I find myself lamenting about where we are in the history of manned space exploration.
I am a disciple of all things related to outer-space. I actually found myself in love with flying as a result of wanting to be an astronaut. Growing up I was heavily inspired by space sci-fi and our US Manned Space Program at NASA.
Personally, I’m disappointed that we haven’t gone farther. The work that was done during the ‘golden years’ of manned space exploration was certainly accelerated by the space race with the USSR, but we have not even begun to keep pace. In less than a decade between 1961 and 1969 we did the impossible. We went from no human space flight to landing a man on the moon in 8 short years! And many of the technologies that got us to the moon did not even exist when we started.
Although we have had the ability to go to Mars since Apollo, man has not even left Earth orbit in 40 years since we left the moon – disgraceful…
What Happened to our Manned Space Program?
There are tons of factors that have culminated into the demise of the US Manned Space Program.
Some of the larger issues as I see them are:
- Lack of a real foe – Russia provided a clear and present danger to our way of lives and the space program provided a faux battle field to keep the balance of power. “Peace through deterrence” as Regan would say. Winning the moon was the ultimate technological victory. Since this was a common goal it eliminated the problem of competing priorities that we have today among Americans.
- Risk Aversion. As a society, we have become risk adverse. We just don’t have the moxie that existed in the Greatest Generation. Most of the people that worked on Apollo were born in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. They had gone though the Great Depression and a World War – nothing was going to phase them – true grit! I think we have lost that, especially in our industry and government leadership. Couple that with advanced technology that let’s us ‘virtually’ explore, it becomes hard to justify human exploration.
- Money? No, we don’t seem to have a problem within the gov’t spending money that we don’t have, so that isn’t a valid excuse. Not to mention how we ship money all over the world as good samaritans. I’m not buying it!
Private Space Flight
Since the government has gutted NASA, the private sector has stepped up to privatize space. As of this writing, two major players have immerged.
- Virgin Galactic’s efforts in space actually started with Scaled Composites and the Paul Allen Project to win the Ansari X Prize. They were successful and generated a great deal of excitement around their innovations and results. Virgin bought the rights to the technology and subcontracted a division of Scaled to build a fleet of spaceships and launch vehicles spawning a new company called Virgin Galactic. Testing is on-going, but first suborbital passenger flights are imminent.
- SpaceX, powered by PayPal founder Elon Musk, is taking a more conventional approach, at least regarding the technology. They are using the tried-and-true methods that got Neal to the moon, but they are using cargo missions to fund and test their man-rated rockets. The other novelty is Elon isn’t willing to pay aerospace rocket contractor rates like NASA, forcing the industry to conform or he’ll make the stuff in-house, both have occurred and this has allowed him to put stuff into orbit and get government and private contracts for pennies on the dollar compared to the Air Force or NASA. The good news is, Musk has his sights set on Mars and if he can use his business acumen like he did with the internet, he’ll make it.
The Future of Manned Space Flight
Who knows what will happen in 20 years. NASA is very excited about it’s unmanned programs, which are cool. They are still quietly testing already-payed-for Orion components with their non-existant budget in hopes of reviving their dead Earth-to-Moon-to-Mars program.
Maybe China will get into the game and we’ll race them to Mars – that would be awesome!
My money is on the private guys, but it won’t be anytime soon. It will take an event to accelerate manned space exploration and there is nothing on the current horizon. We find ourselves standing on the shoulders of giants and we can’t even see our way forward.
I guess I should just buy a telescope…
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