The following is the first in a two-part distillation of a cover story about NASA, politics, and the new power generation that I just finished for the LA Alternative.
Few Americans think of Cape Canaveral in their day-to-day. They are consumed, not wrongly, by the machineries of life: raising gas prices, magazine subscriptions, college tuition, first dates, dinner plans. Outer space is already an abstract enough concept for humanity to grasp; couple that with a populace that has trouble finding Iraq on a map, and you find yourself with an inevitable general disinterest in space exploration. However, this is all going to change — if a Bush administration imperative axing the Shuttle program and renewing our efforts to send manned missions to the moon takes off, so to speak, as planned. The future of NASA, now dominated by this program, looks to be driven by the climate of American politics with vigor unseen since the 1960s.
Last Monday, the Space Shuttle Discovery, only the second Shuttle launched into orbit since the ill-fated Columbia tragically disintegrated during re-entry in February of 2003, traveled 250 miles from this stretch of Florida known as the “Space Coast” to dock at the International Space Station. After three years of safety revisions and administrative changes, including the appointment of a new NASA chief administrator, Michael Griffin — (who seems like a pretty reasonable guy) — the Shuttle is back on the world stage, returning its seven-person crew to the mundane tasks of extraterrestrial life.
After all this time, it has a lot of catching up to do. The International Space Station — a joint effort between NASA and the Russian space program Roskosmos — has been lingering in low-Earth orbit for three years now, manned by a two-person caretaker crew unable to build very much on the Station without the aid of the Shuttle’s roomy payload bay, which is largely responsible for the ferrying of manpower and materials to the project. Esoteric Russian Soyuz craft have taken over this duty in the interim, but they are too small to bring up significant new additions. Regardless, the ISS remains a successful collaboration, as far as space projects go, and it shows no sign of flagging.
This is exceptional, considering the gradual decomposition of the Russian space station Mir and the outright failure of the Space Station Freedom, a Reagan project which never, so to speak, got off the ground. As a result of neglect, Mir finished as shrapnel: the gnarled pieces of metal that held it together weren’t even salvageable after they crumbled back to Earth. ISS, however, has held together. The difference is inextricably tied to a black and white behemoth born in the belly of the Nixon administration and at the tail end of the Vietnam war as a safer and ostensibly more efficient form of space travel than the bravado of NASA’s earlier and much-accomplished Apollo program.
If the rockets and lunar landers of the Apollo era defined NASA’s rollicking adolescence and the sheer temerity of the United States during the Cold War — its desire to break the ice of the unknown, not to mention out-do the Soviets — then the Shuttle program was perceived as a rational next step towards the normalization of the human presence in a now-somewhat-more-approachable outer space, not to mention one no longer dominated by international competition. The Shuttle has been the symbol of an era marked by at least nominal international cooperation, the gentle giant of a no longer aggressive Space Race.
Its emphasis on efficiency and reusability was brought upon, perhaps, by the new understanding of Earth’s fragility garnered by the Apollo program. It was Apollo 8, after all, which brought home the first image of the Earth from space, a highly consequential symbol which arguably stoked the flames of the nascent environmentalism movements of the 1960s.
Although photographing this eagle’s eye perspective was an important accomplishment for NASA (and a huge paradigm shift for everyone else on Earth), much of the motivation behind the Shuttle program was budgetary: a reusable ship is cheaper to run than a relatively unstable and ephemeral rocket.
And reusable it was designed to be. On the drawing board, the Shuttle promised to operate like an airliner (a task many independent astro-tourism companies have now taken up) ferrying astronauts and materials up and down through the stratosphere as many as 12 times a year. Although it has operated — no small feat — as the world’s first reusable crew-carrying spacecraft, its anticipated budget-friendliness never quite panned out. The turnaround process for each Shuttle takes months, and since the loss of crew is a real threat, particularly since the Challenger and Columbia disasters, NASA’s primary focus is to return each crew safely to Earth, a priority which conflicts with the project’s other goals, namely to launch payloads cheaply.
Furthermore, there aren’t very many plan B’s if anything on the Shuttle goes awry. Whenever a piece of machinery on, say, the Atlantis, or the Endeavor, is not functioning perfectly, it has to be grounded and inspected meticulously until it works. The result is high labor costs: around 25,000 workers toil in ground-based Shuttle operations a year, garnering the project a $1 billion allowance and the unfortunate nickname of “Penguin” — a flightless black and white bird.
Despite its setbacks, however, the Shuttle program represents and defines contemporary American attitudes towards space in much the same way that the Apollo program did in the 1960s. The changeover from one program to another — from the sheer thrust of the rockets to the moderate ferrying of the Shuttles — was as important a symbolic shift for NASA as it was for our relationship to the unknown. In the 1960’s, the cosmos was ours to be penetrated and conquered. Up until very recently, it was ours to ward, to domesticate. The Shuttle, that same fleet of eight nearly identical wardens, has been a mainstay of the US Space program for so long now that we’ve seemingly forgotten the kind of paradigm shift possible in our attitudes towards space.
Guess what: NASA, on the impetus of a Bush administration program called the new Vision for Space Exploration, is phasing out the old bird.
During a seminally weird press conference in January of 2004, just a year after the Columbia disaster radically reminded the American public of NASA’s existence, President Bush dropped the New Vision’s rhetorically vague tag line — “Human beings are headed into the cosmos” — to an audience of retired Apollo astronauts in tuxedoes and beaming, uniformed, Shuttle crew. Notably, he also mentioned space travel’s potential for harnessing “new power generation” (a reference not lost on Prince fans) and continuously called other planets “worlds,” betraying what can only be imagined as a thoroughly idiosyncratic understanding of astronomy.
Since this speech, which among other red flags included the appointment of a former Department of Defense secretary to the head of a commission purportedly aimed towards exploration and scientific research, NASA has been working to comply with the series of dramatic goals outlined by the President.
How dramatic? Well, for one, they’re retiring the Shuttles after over thirty years of shleppy service and replacing them with a new craft called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, a kind of Apollo rocket redux capable of shooting astronauts back to the moon and, eventually, Mars. The CEV, which NASA just dubbed “Ares,” will allegedly hit the tarmac at Cape Canaveral “no later than” 2014. In the New Vision’s most controversial move, the CEV is slated to begin running humans back to the dusty surface of the moon by 2020. Mars, which seems as impossible to conquer now as the moon did in 1962, is next.