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Remembering past tragedies… and shaping the future…


If there is a Black Week in NASA’s history, it has to be this one. Every year, over the course of just a handful of days, NASA marks no less than three ghastly anniversaries, remembers three lost spacecraft and three lost crews. On January 27th this year it was the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 1 launchpad fire which claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee. Yesterday, January 28th, was the 23rd anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven, including the first “Teacher in Space”, Christa McAuliffe. Good god… twenty three years since I sat on the floor in front of my TV, crying as I watched those burned-into-our-brains pictures of the shuttle blossoming into a rose-tinted fireball just over a minute after blasting off… I remember as if it was yesterday how I watched the twin crazy-curling lines of the SRBs fleeing from the explosion, carrying on into the heavens as if they were determined to reach orbit by themselves, even though the rest of the spacecraft had been blown apart and its pieces were now tumbling end over end, like a perverse kind of confetti, down into the sea far, far below…

And Feb 1st will be the 6th anniversary of the loss of the very first space shuttle orbiter, Columbia, which broke up into a glittering trail of tumbling debris, watched by thousands of people on the ground below, after a piece of external tank foam struck its wing during lift-off, leaving a hole for the heat of re-entry to penetrate, dooming the lander and its brave crew even before they had reached orbit.

The aftermaths of all these disasters were very bad times for NASA and everyone involved in, and passionate about, the exploration of space, both manned and unmanned. But lessons were learned, and now NASA is a very different beast. The unmanned program is very healthy, and not only are NASA’s rovers and landers exploring and transforming our understanding of Mars, but other probes are exploring and investigating or are on their way to many of the planets, asteroids and comets in the solar system. But the manned program is struggling. The fleet of much-criticised-but-you’ll-miss-them-when-they’re-gone shuttleswill soon be grounded, and the first flight of the Ares capsule is so far away that it now looks certain there’ll be a period of at least a couple of years when NASA astronauts, and their international colleagues, have no access to orbit, and will have to timidly stick out their thumbs to hitch a lift into space with passing Russians or Whoever…

And all the while the space programs of China, India and other young whippersapper countries are building, and building, and their citizens are becoming more and more passionate about the exploration of space, more and more proud of their countries’ efforts, and more and more determined to invest in space in the future…

After the remembering and mourning is over, and bowed heads are lifted to the Sun again, NASA needs a shot in the arm, that’s for sure.

It now looks pretty certain that NASA will have a new Administrator before too long, as President Obama puts in his own man – or woman – to try and rejuvenate and refocus the agency. It loked for a while like a USAF General was going to be given the job, but that’s all gone very quiet, so who it will be is anyone’s guess.

What’s slap-across-the-face-obvious to many people is that NASA needs an Administrator who knows space and “gets” space, who has a belief in the worth of exploring space and appreciates the benefits it could – and for that matter already does – bring to us all. NASA needs an Administrator who is not just a leader, and a good book-keeper, but who appreciates the beauty of the universe and the epic nature of the exploration of the solar system. It needs an Administrator who can look up at a starry sky on a clear night and feel drawn up to it, tugged towards it by their very heartstrings. NASA needs an Administrator who watches a rocket launch and hears not just the dry leaf crackle of its fire-belching engines but the siren call of the future, too.

Yeah, I know, the chances of that happening are about the same as the chances of a rain-soaked Keira Knightley knocking on my door in the next five minues asking if she can crash on my sofa because her car has broken down… 😉

So, on to Plan B then. NASA needs to build something new, something revolutionary, something that will let them achieve their true destiny and be all they can be…

No, I wasn’t talking about the Ares capsule. I was thinking more along the lines of one of these


What? Why does NASA need a Time Machine? Because then it could go back in time, change the past, and Do It Properly. How I wish that right now, hidden away in some hangar at JPL, a Chrononaut – with his or her mission memorised – was walking up slowly towards a Stargate-like machine and pauses… someone in a dimly-lit control room overlooking the hangar floor is entering a code into a computer, flicks a few switches, and the Timegate flares into life in a kaleidescope of colour. The chrononaut turns, salutes the techs and scientists watching up in the control room, then steps into the swirling vortex –

And moments later… there you go, whole new world.

None of us would know anything about it, of course. All we’d notice walking up the street, or sitting in our offices or driving our cars would be the world around us shimmering for an instant, shifting… We’d maybe feel a “Whoah… deja vu!” Matrix moment, and when we blinked a few times and opened our eyes Things Would Be Different. Unknown to us the chrononaut would have succeeded in their mission to steer NASA onto a different course and not be diverted by politics, war and weariness as it was in our world. In the new, Real NASA world, we’d look up tonight and see not one but dozens of space stations skating across the sky, with SSTO spaceplanes flitting up to and between them. We’d turn on the TV and see the latest news reports from the International Moon Base, where a hundred or so scientists and astronauts are working away together. We’d go online and be able to see streaming video from Mars Base 3, where the third manned expedition to the Red Planet is settling in after their succesful landing on the edge of the Mariner Valley…

We’d take all this for granted because we’d have no way of knowing that, somewhere back in Time, that chrononaut had succeeded in steering NASA – and through it, Mankind – in a different direction to the one actually taken. History books in our libraries and schools would tell us how, instead of running before we could walk by grabbing anxiously for the Moon, touching it with trembling fingertips and then turning our backs on it – and running away in fear back to low Earth orbit where a beautiful but criminally under-supported space station circles forlornly – we built the space station first, and used it to learn how to live and work in space before setting off into the Great Dark, to the Moon and beyond. History would record how that space station, once completed, was used effeciently and inspiringly, by astronauts from all over the world, and as well as being a first class orbiting laboratory it was also a stepping stone to the worlds beyond – a true beach-head in space, not a bottleneck bearing a sign saying “Stop! No progress beyond this point!”

Thanks to our brave chrononaut, when the time was right, when we had learned enough to allow us to do it safely, and repeatedly, when we had built up a real infrastructure, we built the ships that would carry the first men and women to the Moon and establish the first outpost there. Assembled at and launched from the space station, each of the three Luna ships carried four astronauts. Landing in close proximity to each other, like Columbus’ ships, the spacecraft essentially formed a small manned base on the Moon’s surface, which was developed and enhanced with each subsequent landing until it was a bona-fide Base, permanently-manned and staffed by scientists, engineers, techs and astronauts… No “flag and footprints mission” this, but the start of a real lunar “Oregon Trail”, with traffic flowing both ways between the Earth and its satellite…

And then, when we were ready, when there were people living and working succesfully and safely on the Moon, then it was time to reach forMars, but only after a thorough reconaissance of Barsoom by orbiters and landers. After several MROs had mapped the planet in staggering detail, a fleet of “Spirit”s and “Opportunity”s was sent to Mars, one for each of the potential landing sites identified by the orbiters, tasked with studying each landing site’s geology, meteorology and habitability, and image the landscape there in unprecedented detail. Finally, when all that had been achieved it was Time To Go, and the whole world watched and celebrated as the first men and women to journey to Mars hopped down the runged ladder of their Ares 1 lander and planted their boots in the crushed strawberry dust of Barsoom…

Fantasy, of course. But it’s sobering, and not a little heartbreaking, to think that if NASA had followed a different path, if the timid and cowering politicians of the 60s and 70s had chosen to look further than the next election and had supported the Agency instead of betraying and gutting it like a fish, if the public hadn’t fallen out of love with Apollo, if things had just happened a little differently, we’d probably be seeing the first manned landing on Mars around now… 


Sadly, NASA doesn’t have a Time Machine, there is no “Chrononaut Corps”, so we are staying where we are. We’re stuck with this present and this space program. And today, in 2009, as we remember watching as a beautiful, sleek white spaceship was blown to pieces in the brutally-blue Florida sky, although NASA is rightly praised for the stunning success of its unmanned space exploration missions, and for essentially completing the initial reconaissance of the solar system with its fleet of fragile metal butterflies, it seems to have lost its place in people’s hearts, and has lost a lot of the respect, and awe, it enjoyed previously, too.

President Obama will be selecting a new Administrator soon. God help the man, or woman, for they will inherit an organisation bogged down in a swamp of bureaucracy, swaddled in enough red tape to wrap up an aircraft carrier and held back by politicians with no vision, passion or sense of the grand.

NASA seems like an agency without a heart and without a soul, without a true, definite purpose in life that will get The People behind it like Apollo did all those years ago. It might have been given the goal of returning to the Moon, and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the amazing people who work for NASA will work towards achieving that goal until they drop from exhaustion, but the harsh truth is that very few people Out There, in the real world, care THAT about the Moon program. It’s old news. It’s not exciting, or inspiring. Tell people about NASA’s plans to return to the Moon – as I do very, very often in my Outreach talks – and there’s no fire or spark in their eyes as they listen. They nod, and look at the pictures, and watch the animations, then say with a sigh “But what’s the point? We’ve been there, done that, already, haven’t we..?”


And it pains me to say this, but they’re right. There are very, very few space enthusiasts/supporters/geeks more rabid or passionate than I. But as much as I want to support it, and feel excited and inspired by it, the Return to The Moon leaves me absolutely 1000% unmoved and uninspired. Astronauts on the Moon! Building a base! Exploring! YES! Woo-hoo! It should fill me with wonder, and awe, and fire, but… no… it doesn’t. It has no sense of adventure, no grandeur, and I can’t get out of my head the image of the Return To The Moon as a little more than a historical recreation, a space age Renaissance Fayre.

“We went to the Moon with Apollo. Why are we doing all that again?” someone asked me sadly at the end of a talk I gave not so long ago, and although I desperately, desperately wanted to support the plan, and support NASA – an organisation I love dearly – I was genuinely stuck for an honest answer. But I guess the only answer is, cards on the table, hand on my heart, I DON’T WANT US TO GO BACK TO THE MOON! I want us to go to Mars!

No, not just because, as some of you might have guessed, I am a Mars nut; this goes beyond my own personal obsessions and fascinations. It just makes sense! We don’t have to go to the Moon to go to Mars, we just don’t need to! And I can’t get my head around the fact that when there’s so much interest in the search for life Out There, NASA is committed to spending a gagagillion dollars going to a world where there can’t BE any life! It’s crazy! One of NASA’s Prime Directives – possibly its most important one – contains just three words: Follow The Water. So where are they sending astronauts? To the Moon, a world drier than the bottom of one of Gandhi’s sandals – a world where there’s NO WATER!

Is it me? Am I missing something? Am I the only person who thinks we shouldn’t be messing about with a Return To The Moon when we could be going to a world that actually fascinates the public, that genuinely inspires people… a world we know has water and an atmosphere… a world we now know has methane IN that atmosphere, that might, just might, be the smoking gun in the search for extraterrestrial life?

I’m sure there are some good, serious, practical, scientific reasons for going back to the Moon, but they’re not being communicated to the public, that’s for sure. No-one “Out There” has any idea why NASA is going back to the moon, seriously, they don’t. All they know is that the Moon they’ve seen on National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel documentaries is a cold, dead, ash-grey, dust-covered ball of rock, with a black sky and old, old rocks everywhere.

But Mars… ah, Mars, as the people who watch those channels and programs know, is a world, a real world, with awesome volcanoes and enormous valleys… it has a huge pink sky streaked with lemon-hued candyfloss clouds… it has two moons skating across its night sky… and it is important and exciting enough to warrant the expense of designing, building and launching not one but TWO rovers to it, which are still driving around there happily, half a decade after landing..!

But there is some good news. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe. Maybe we don’t need a chrononaut to set NASA back on track. Maybe we can do it now, today, without having to build a Time Machine and risk a Star Trek “temporal storm” or something. Maybe all it needs for NASA to be the agency it can be – the agency it wants to be – is for it to be given a genuinely pioneering goal, a single task that would make sense to people, resonate with them, and get them back behind the agency where they belong and where they actually want to be.

It could happen, it really could. All it would take would be for the new US President – who is clearly an intelligent man, a man of vision who has an understanding of the importance of science, technology and exploration – to give NASA a clear purpose, a crystal-sharp mission, then let them just get the hell on with it without meddling or interference from politicians, bureaucrats and pencil-pushers. And what could this mission be?

Find out, once and for all, if there is life Out There.  Answer, once and for all, that ultimate question – Are We Alone? Discover, once and for all, if we share this magnificent universe with other forms of life, intelligent or otherwise.

Can you imagine how much that would inspire and excite people? It’s a goal, a Holy Grail quest everyone can understand and identify with. Obama could Let NASA off the leash and challenge it to look for life, by building telescopes that can analyse the atmospheres of extrasolar planers, by initiating a serious SETI program, and by sending people to Mars, where they would pull on their boots and spacesuits, step outside their habs and just get down and dirty on the Red Planet, looking for life under and inside the rocks that litter its surface, and if they don’t find it there then they would get out their drilling rigs and look for it beneath the crust.

Will he do that? Probably not. But today, on this dark Remembrance Day, as space enthusiasts, scientists and armchair astronauts around the world remember the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia, and how they gave their lives to push back the frontiers of space and push Mankind onwards, I prefer to think of a Future That Might Be instead of the Future We Lost.

Every schoolkid – and even a few adults – knows what the acronym “NASA” stands for. But today, on Remembrance Day, NASA needs to relaunch itself and forge a new future. NASA needs to redefine itself.

NASA Needs Another Summit to Attack.

And that summit is the discovery of life, and that life is probably waiting to be found, right now, on Mars.


5 Responses

  1. Well said…I agree with you, but at the same time you can see from your own argument why they may not do it that way.

    Back in the 60’s, Yyou wanted an orbiting space station before the moon. But an orbiting station is not exciting, not a measure of achievement compared to the moon, hanging like a silver apple to be plucked.

    In rushing to Mars now we would be making the same mistake that NASA made all those years ago. With our better communications technology the moon could now BE our orbiting station – OK so it doesn’t have zero gravity, but one/sixth is still not that bad from a “reduced fuel needs” point of view.

    The moon COULD allows us to push infrastructure in both directions – out towards Mars, down towards low earth orbit.

    Yes, I want us to go to Mars too. But not if we go for the “footprints and flag” mission that you rightly condemn.

    I don’t want us to VISIT. I want us to STAY.

  2. […] Remembering past tragedies… and shaping the future… January 2009 1 comment 4 […]

  3. past present future i going to time change

    year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010

  4. Space exploration is only muddled when you paint it as all the events from the Apollo end of mission to today. Not actually seeing it, technology is ‘out-pacing’ mission objectives and planning. For all the good intentions ‘manned interplanetary rocket travel’ is not keeping up with ‘telesis’ and ‘robotics’. Looking at cost of resources and reliable endurance, our machines handle space better than humans. You could fund NASA at 20, 30, 50 or 100 billion dollars a year; however, space-age utopias wouldn’t emerge. I would love to live on an advanced O’Neil styled space station (the ultimate galactic suburb), I would love to be on a voyage on a plasma-ion rocket crossing from the Sun to Saturn in less than 75 days. I’d love to ride to the hydro-therms on Europa in a bathyscathe…. but this is only going to happen when smart people can do this without a governmental hand out. If big aerospace can’t make these ventures with a big government check… then it will have to come from folks who have the money, ambition and talents in this time of history. A thousand millionaires + a few dozen billionaires + some not so mad geniuses could do in 10 years what 50 years of government bureaucracy can’t…. a viable space based market zone. Its worth doing and its being done… because human curiosity and endeavor aren’t exclusively Earth-bound notions anymore.

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