There are times when blogging is a way of spreading news or sharing experiences, and there are times when it feels more like extended therapy. In the latter category lie my attempts to come to terms with manned spaceflight. I’ve always wrestled with this; I believe in the inspirational power of rising above our atmosphere and I’d go like a shot if you asked me – even if all you were offering was a one way ticket to Mars with my name on it. As a scientist, though, it’s difficult for me to justify the return. (There’s a case to be made for non-astronomical science, I admit, although I’m still not convinced by that).
On top of that existential dilemma is added the problem of assessing NASA’s current plans, which call for a rapid retirement for the shuttle and the development of a new set of launchers (as anyone who watched March’s Sky at Night will know (link opens in Realplayer).
I embarked on the round of interviews that became that program as a sceptic as to whether any of these ambitious plans, including a return to the Moon, would ever come off, but returned believing that NASA were playing a clever game. The political issue is the ‘gap’ – the time between the retirement of the shuttle and the launch of the first of the new generation. Whatever the attitudes of the new president, it doesn’t seem politically viable to me that the US would abandon all hope of a manned space program at a time when the Chinese in particular are increasing their presence in space.
This is a gamble, though, and the decision to demolish the shuttle program as quickly as possible, designed partly to make sure the commitment to press on is absolute (I think we may already have passed the point where it’s more expensive to build new shuttles or renovate the existing ones than to build Orion, at least on paper). The point of bringing this up now is that three posts from three different blogs yesterday illustrate the nature of the gamble we – or rather NASA – are taking.
First, Universe Today reported on John Glenn’s criticism of the current plans. Glenn – Apollo astronaut, the oldest man to fly on the shuttle and once a US senator – argues for a longer term investment and criticises the decision to rely on Russian vehicles to travel to and from the station.
That concern is underlined by the recent Soyuz landing, carrying three crew members down from the ISS. As James Oberg explains, something went badly wrong, sending the crew onto a ballistic trajectory (which is as scary as it sounds) and landing 400 km or so off course. The cause is still unknown, but Oberg’s conclusion is worrying :
After decades of service, it’s hard to imagine that the Soyuz has a design flaw of any significance, so the issue here may instead be fabrication quality. This is a frightening possibility, since the Soyuz manufacturer, the Energia Korolev Rocket and Space Corp., in Moscow, has had to double its Soyuz production rate in preparation for the increase of the space station crew from three to six people next year. .
Is it me, or would that make you think twice about relying on Soyuz for roughly five years worth of trips to and from the ISS?
Where does this leave us? With a sense of frustration, perhaps, because it’s the 21st century now and it’s supposed to be the future. Whatever you think of the ISS – and it’s an impressive piece of kit whatever it does – it’s hard not to echo Phil’s response to comparisons between real 2008 and fictional 2001.
For those of us who want to believe in making fiction reality (and ‘wanting’ is about as sophisticated an analysis as I’ve ever come up with), there’s an overwhelming desire to just shout ‘GET ON WITH IT’. That wouldn’t help, and if blogging about this really is therapy then I have, as usual, talked myself into a corner.
P.S. ESA are looking for astronauts, although it’s not clear what they’d be doing for the next ten years or so – or if the worst happens and funding gets cut across the board what unemployed astronauts do.