Thursday, July 23, 2009

Space Exploration - 40 Years Later

What would you say if you were part of man's greatest triumph ever, and yet after 40 years of scientific achievement, unimaginable advancements in chemistry, physics, and biology, along with other peripheral sciences, you could not repeat that feat even if it meant the preservation of the human race? I am referring to our human exploration of the Moon. As most people know by now, it started with Apollo 11, 40 years ago on 20 Jul 1969--six months before I was born; and it ended with the last mission, Apollo 17 on 19 Dec 1972--only weeks before my third birthday.

In a 2001 interview [19 Sep 2001, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Neil A. Armstrong] Armstrong stated "Well, had you asked me that question thirty years ago, I probably would have said, no, I can't imagine that we'll make such a small number of steps over the next three decades. " Though he also noted that he understood why the manned missions, or any missions to the Moon had fallen out of favor (due to "conflicting requirements for resources that the country has"), I suspect that he was being gentle with NASA and the various administrations between 1972 and that day.

I have been a space fanatic for most of my life. I think it may have started with movies like Star Wars in 1977, my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the likes of The Right Stuff (1983), all of which inspired me to learn more about space. In my early grade school years my family was living in Maryland, just a stone's throw from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I was an active member of the Rocket Club in junior high and high school, developing my own designs and flying them when I could afford engines. I also participated in many of the monthly model rocket launches at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt when I could convince my mom to drive me down there. At some point I told my dad, an Aerospace Engineer working for the USAF, that I wanted to become a "space architect". I followed the early adventures of the new Space Transportation System (STS, better known as the Space Shuttle), the crews, and the missions themselves. I remember where I was when the Challenger was lost--it was my young generation's equivalent to Kennedy.

Later, my interest turned into serious efforts to pursue the same engineering degree my father had received but mine would come from the University of Colorado at Boulder. First semester, freshman year was when my dreams encountered reality. Beyond the fact that I was shortly thrown out on my ear from the College of Engineering, I also began to understand the true reason for the US space program. I learned that the space race, the Mercury and Apollo missions were started more for political reasons than for reasons of true science or exploration. I became disillusioned with NASA and what it stood for. As I tried to sweep up my shattered dreams of being a proud member of the armed forces (Air Force ROTC) and a member of the next generation of "rocket science" engineers, I continued in fits-and-starts with my education at CU Colorado Springs. I stayed abreast of space activities through memberships in the National Space Society and the Planetary Society. I read about the current happenings in Aviation Week and Scientific American, all the while fighting my way through the morass of higher education. Eventually I migrated from my interim studies as a Physicist, back into the school of engineering and finally graduated with a BSEE.

In the mean time I had thought of getting my private pilots license, of joining a group of private aviation developers (Eclipse Aviation, Adam Aircraft), anything to get back into my dream of aviation and space science. Eventually I was left with living vicariously through my friends who had jobs in the aviation community--a community that I still had not obtained citizenship to.

That is where I come back to on this 40 year anniversary. I have not witnessed a man on the Moon in my personal memory--oh sure, there is the footage, the photos, the sounds; but the closest I have come is my memories of Pathfinder's landing on Mars (4 Jul 1997). Its success, of course was shortly followed by the losses of the Mars Climate Orbiter (23 Sep 1999), the Mars Polar Lander (3 Dec 1999), and later the disastrous loss of our second, original STS OV, Columbia on 1 Feb 2003. NASA finally got the "recovery" boost it needed with the successes of Sprit (4 Jan 2004) and Opportunity (25 Jan 2004) landing on Mars--two semi-autonomous robots, not humans.

It was with Columbia that I finally gave up on NASA and turned to the possibilities offered by private enterprise. After following the highlights of the X-Prize and the various competitors vying for press and money, it was obvious where that trophy would go: the future winner had finally thrown their hat into the ring when Scaled Composites joined the race. I had the chance to witness this best new prospect for private space exploration when Scaled took their first baby steps with the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. I actually got to see the toddler walk when Robert, Jeff, and I flew out to the Mojave Desert to witness the first private attempt to graze the firmament by the space-plane marked N328KF (21 Jun 2004). Not long after that, we learned that the design was to swing into full production with the SpaceShipTwo, under the guidance (and with the finances) of Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. There has been progress but not the grand leaps that I expected from the commercialization of such a bold venture. It seems that private space may be plagued by failure as much as NASA. Scaled suffered an accident, loosing three members of their team on 26 Jul 2007. And later that year a valued member the modern-day explorers club, Steve Fossett, was lost to the wild blue yonder (c. 3 Sep 2007).

I started writing this blog entry back in July of this year and got depressed. I found myself putting it off until now. Why? Because, I have had to contemplate the thought that the flame of exploration is dead. I had hoped it was not, but I fear that I no longer have the drive which I once did back in the 1980s—back then I thought I could change the world and I thought I would be a member of the first generation to know space as a homestead for my children. Now I see that four decades have pass for the most well know of the astronaut generation. Neither he nor I have seen anything more impressive than an expensive looking glass in orbit around our wet orb, peering at the prize but no longer seeking to land on its shores.

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