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*Another* ‘bold new vision’ for NASA…

So. I sat here last night, at my computer, putting the batteries in my new camera as I waited for NASA TV to start broadcasting President Obama’s – latest -speech about the future of NASA and the future of manned space exploration. There was much excitement leading up to this speech, which was given at Kennedy Space Centre, because rumours were flying that it would give NASA a new direction, a ‘bold new vision’, and clear, exciting goals to aim for. The hangar was full of dignataries, reporters, various spacey people, and when Obama strode to the lectern, grinning that Obama grin, I allowed myself to think that hey, maybe, just maybe, the shot in the arm was coming, and by the time I headed out the door to go take some pictures of Venus and Mercury and the Moon I’d be living in a world where NASA was reinvigorated and rejuvenated and, maybe, just maybe, I’d feel more confident that I’d live to see people walking on my beloved Mars before I was lowered into the ground in that long wooden box…

Soon the ‘goals’ and ‘aspirations’ and ‘plans’ started flying, like frisbees in a park on a warm evening. Obama explained that he loves NASA like a fat kid loves cake, like a dog loves lamp-posts, like Katie Price loves the sound of a camera lens cap popping off… So, he was giving NASA a new plan: more probes to explore the solar system… a partnership with private industry to transport astronauts into space… a new heavy lift rocket is to be designed asap… there should be a manned mission to an asteroid in 2025… there should be a manned mission to – or rather, around, i.e no landing – Mars in the 2030s, and a landing on the red planet “would follow”…

I turned off the computer and headed out the door, up to Kendal Castle and started taking pictures of Venus and the slender crescent Moon shining over the hills on the western side of the Auld Grey Town. I knew that Mars was shining almost overhead, but for some reason – and this was probably a first for me – I couldn’t actually bring myself to look at it. It didn’t seem right somehow. I mean, what was the point? Thousands of miles away, far, far over the western horizon, far, far across the Atlantic, yet another President was shaking hands and slapping backs and shoulders after telling yet another room full of people that space was important, and inspiring, and vital, and that in the future – not now, but in the future – yes, people should definitely travel Out There, of course they should, it’s…

I came back down the hill and downloaded my pictures. They were beautiful, really nice, and I was really pleased with them. But the world hadn’t changed, it delt exactly the same as it had been before I put my batteries in my camera. I know this new “plan” is ‘logical’, and ‘practical’, and ‘affordable’, and I know that many commentators are agreeing with Obama’s claim that it will mean more astronauts going into space more often than would have happened under the previous plan, but I just can’t get excited about it. It’s all just ‘in theory’, it’s all just yet more noble words, more heady aspirations, more glorious dates written in marker pen on a white board by a President, ready to be wiped off by The Next Guy.

It’s taken me since then to gather my thoughts about this, to be honest. I was intending to write a long, detailed post about this, analysing it, peering into every nook and cranny, speculating about the future, but you know what? I really can’t be bothered, I just can’t. I know Obama means well, and is sincere, and would love to send NASA on a triumphant trip across Time and Space to conquer the solar system, if not the universe, for America, but I can’t help thinking that this new “plan” is just yet another wish list, set out to appease the critics who tore into him after he bravely announced the end of the Constellation program – hell, he’s even backtracked on that and put the Orion capsule back on the table, for use as some kind of lifeboat for the ISS “in the future”. Even the closest milestone set out in this new “plan” would occur near to or after the end of Obama’s term, so…

At first look it’s a good plan. It’s certainly better thought out than the previous plan – which, let’s face it, wasn’t so much a ‘plan’ as a bizarre, coffee-induced dream in which NASA landed lunar modules the size of small buildings on the Moon and then built a Moonbase using magic pixie dust, or something. More space probes is great news, and NASA needs a heavy lift launcher, that’s slap-across-the-face obvious. Without one they ain’t going anywhere further than the ISS. And a manned mission to an asteroid IS a great idea; it would teach us a lot, and might, literally, help save the world one day. I’ve no quibbles with that.

But there’s one major thing wrong with this new plan – a manned mission to Mars WITHOUT a landing? What a stupid, stupid *****g  idea. What is the ***** point? That’s not exploration, that’s tourism, that’s sight-seeing. So, what, they’re going to build a fantastic new ship, learn how to fly it, travel all the way to Mars in it, using all that food, fuel and water, and then just fly around Mars a few times and come back? Why? WTF?! No-one wants to send people to Mars more than I do, but for the money a manned recon mission would cost you could send probably a dozen rovers and/or orbiters, carry out a sample return mission, or more. Sending astronauts to Mars just so they can gawp out of the window and take a few 8Gb memory cards’ worth of pictures during a brief stay is lunacy. And I’ll get flack for saying that, but I really don’t care; it’s a folly, a compromise, an attempt to pacify the “pro Mars” movement and give the impression that NASA, and America, are “Going To Mars” when really they’re “Going To Take  A Quick Look At Mars And Then Come Home Again”.

I know that’s the way they did it with Apollo – orbits before a landing – but really, I mean, really, go all that way and not land? I honestly can’t see the point of that, I just can’t.

I know, I’m never satisfied am I? More probes to explore the solar system… a new rocket… astronauts to an asteroid… on paper, it’s all good, all worthy, all doable… I should be celebrating, right?

But then I read this…

By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

… and my heart just sinks for some reason. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just being unrealistic, or not grasping the practicalities or something. Maybe. Maybe. But I just have this feeling in my bones that this is all just talk, that as sincere as Obama is, he knows – as does every President – that he can say all these wonderful things, set all these ambitious goals and pledge all this wonderful support because he knows that he won’t be the one writing out the cheques to pay for them because he won’t be in office then.

Sorry. My thoughts about this are very muddled. I just felt the need to write something, anything about it.

I just think NASA needs to be given a great dollop of cash and allowed to stop p*****g about in Earth orbit and get Out There and do something magnificent, something that will make Earth’s young and old alike stare up at the starry sky on a clear night and feel proud to be Human.


4 Responses

  1. Indeed. It seems rather pointless to go all that way with humans and stay in orbit… I’m trying to think of something that they could do from orbit that a probe couldn’t…


  2. I feel the same way about an Apollo 8-like flight around Mars. Some analyses of that idea say it really means a landing on Phobos. I suppose that’s a LITTLE better than just staying in orbit, but we can still get to an asteroid a lot easier and closer than Phobos. Either way, it’s so far in the future that I wouldn’t get too hung up on the details for a 25yr plan. Once we have a HLV and a deep space ready crew module, then we can get to business.

  3. Well,

    If we get the ability to travel to Mars faster than we have at the moment, and with larger vehicles, it may not be such a bad idea at all. And suppose such a craft would remain in orbit for a while, send down a few landers with rovers and do some live remote exploring, just like unmanned planes and vehicles can be remotely controlled here on earth.
    You could do a lot of exploring in a short time then. And hopefully identify places where it would be really worthwhile landing a human exploration party to set up a base. It seems to me a very logical next step.

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