“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong at over 186,411 miles away from Earth while walking on the moon. Behind this phrase there were 33,000 people who were and are part of the American Space Agency NASA, and who dedicated their lives to make this possible.
NOTE: This is my space adventure which happened in Jan 30, 2013 (2 years ago). But only now I got to write it in English.
It was a clear day on January 28, 1986 in Titusville (Florida) although the night before has been unusually cold for this time a year. A cold front brought the cold air from Canada. It was so cold, that ice has appeared on structures, lakes, cars and on the street, making it difficult to move everything and more slippery in the morning. There are not many days like this in Florida, because this is where the sun and the heat are at home even in the winter, but when there are days like this, they enter into the history of that place.
Thirty km (20 miles) from Titusville, in Cape Canaveral (part of Kennedy Space Center), placed vertically on the launch pad with the number 39, the Challenger space shuttle is ready to take flight in the 25th mission in US Space Shuttle Program, which began in 1981 with the inaugural flight of the shuttle Columbia.
The ice formed on the launch structure and even on the two supporting SRBs (booster rockets) was not worrying anyone, except possibly for the engineers who worked on them. Everything seemed perfect.
Philip Metzger, who was newly employed at NASA as an engineer and worked on the navigation and communication systems in the space shuttle program, was waiting impatiently the launch scheduled for 11:38 a.m.
Working in the American space shuttle program is a tradition in Philip’s family. Philip’s father worked in the Gemini and Apollo programs and he always took his family to the meetings at the Kennedy Space Center. Philip himself, as a child, was building rocket models and was interested in cosmic flights. When there would be a missile launch announced, he would watch it from his home’s porch in Titusville. Being part of this environment where mostly everybody was interested in the cosmos and space flights, he would have never thought he could work in another area and for someone else other than for NASA. Thing That happened as soon as he finished school in 1985.
Approaching launch time, cold started to subside and ice to melt. The sky was completely clear; such a spotless blue!
Philip along with several colleagues walked out of the office and looked toward the launching ramp, which was located a few kilometers away.
The shuttle’s flight that day was a special one: because it was the first flight of a person who had no connection with astronautics/NASA and had no special training at the base. She was actually the first passenger (and first teacher) to be transported into space; the Agency chose from over 11,000 candidates. Her name was Christa McAuliffe and in a little while she would make history. Because of this, the flight itself had more media coverage than normal, and so it was shown live on several TV channels.
“We have main engines start …4, 3, 2, 1 … and we have a lift off of the 25th space shuttle mission!” announced NASA’s reporter with a serious but enthusiastic voice. Trembling, the 2,000 tons of metal, electronics and fuel that made up the space shuttle began to rise majestically into the sky. Everyone around the area felt the vibrations emitted by the engines, even though they were a few miles away. The moment of a rocket launching is an emotional one, it makes people’s eyes moist, it gives voice to others, it is a moment that cannot be forgotten. Some of these emotions I have experimented later as well.
Philip Metzger was watching the shuttle’s flying maneuvers while continuing the ascent without problems.
Or as he and others thought.
Unknown to them at the time, the rocket and its occupants were actually starting their journey towards eternity. Seventy three seconds later, at an altitude of 20 km, Challenger shuttle disintegrated after an explosion; the crew actually survived the explosion only to die moments later because of the impact with the ocean at a speed of 333 km/h.
Philip looked up and couldn’t believe it. However, he was waiting to see the rocket emerge from the explosion clouds and glide towards the ground (there are some rescue procedures in case an accident happens, especially if the shuttle is was high enough and not affected physically).
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that.
Philip and his colleagues have spent much of that day listening to the radio in the hope that the astronauts could be rescued from the ocean. It was not meant to be. Seven lives were lost and NASA’s space shuttle fleet now had one missing.
The disaster put a hold on the American space program for two years while they were investigating. Conclusions have been drawn and improvements have been made in the construction of the two solid-fuel missiles attached to the space shuttle; this is where the accident happened. The extreme cold made some of the rubber rings that sealed joints to stiffen the rocket’s segments very hard, so they were no longer malleable and that allowed hot gases to escape to the side and puncture the shuttle’s main tank, which in turn had blown up the entire space shuttle.
As a child, I remember the announcement of the disaster which also broadcasted on the radio in Romania, my native country. I was fond of astronomy & astronautics, and I could not believe that something like that could happen. It was the first time I heard of a space disaster and unfortunately, it was not the last.
NASA-past and present
Space exploration is dangerous, even more dangerous if compared to the seas and oceans exploration that happened hundreds of years ago. The fact that other astronauts and cosmonauts were killed before the Challenger, enabled the improvement of space transport so well, that at the moment all the launchings into the cosmos (with or without human load) have a success rate of 95% -97%.
Since its inception, NASA (the US Government Space Agency), has been at the forefront of space exploration and navigation, along and competing with the State-owned Soviet Space Agency (now Russian).
Over the years, NASA had many achievements, one of the most important is landing the first man on the moon; an achievement unmatched to date.
Some of the other achievements are the first orbital space station Skylab, the first visit of a planet in its orbit (Mariner 2 around Venus), the first successful landing on a planet (Viking 1 on Mars), the first visit to Jupiter (Pioneer 10) and of Saturn (Pioneer 11), the first reusable space vehicle (space shuttle), the space probes Voyager (our messengers and our messages “in the glass” that now run beyond the solar system), the Hubble Space Telescope (which for over 20 years has been scanning the Cosmos and deciphering many of its secrets), part of the actual international space station ISS, robotic missions to Jupiter (Galileo) and Saturn (Cassini-Huygens), Martian missions culminating in the recent Mars Science Laboratory (and Mars Rover Curiosity, the largest vehicle that landed on Mars so far), the mission to Mercury (the Messenger) and Pluto (New Horizons -which is en route to the planet).
Even in the communist times (in Romania), the US space agency achievements were quite present in the Romanian press, as well as everywhere in magazines and science & technology newspapers. As far as I remember, they were even more present than the achievements of their rivals, the Soviet space agency, which was not surprising given the somewhat cool relations to the Ceauşescu regime. I was fond of collecting clippings from all of these publications.
When you are a child, everything seems doable. All the boys wanted to become pilots or astronauts (unlike nowadays, when everybody wants to become rich). It was a passion that burned within me, but I knew deep inside that it will never become a reality. I told myself I should be happy with just building model rockets and nothing more.
Years passed. I started working in a field that was related to science and technology: computers and internet. By luck (literally), I came to live in the United States.
The Internet has changed the way people interact with each other on a personal level but also how entities (public or private) interact with each other and with people.
Some of these existing entities adapt harder, some faster. One of them a governmental entity, NASA, adapted quite quickly. The US Agency understood the power of Internet communication and the ability to keep connected with people who are passionate about space exploration.
To achieve this, the Agency set up a department of social media through which they started organizing events where active people in social media who are passionate about astronautics had a chance to be invited.
This NASA initiative has entered into its fourth year of operation. Their first events are known as NASA Tweetup (related to Twitter, where many of the guests had/have activity).
The events have evolved, those invited are now active not only on Twitter but also on Facebook and Google. The number of guests rose continually while the number of applicants increased as well; (there are certain conditions for acceptance, among them the guests have to be quite active in social media and be US citizens).
I have also been selected to participate at one of these events, it was at the launch of a new communications satellite called TDRS-K, launched with a rocket – Atlas 5, from the main base space Cape Canaveral (belonging to the Kennedy Space Center, FL.).
My dream since childhood of becoming an astronaut slipped on the slide long forgotten, but I still had one wish: to witness live a cosmic rocket launch. I wanted to be there close to it when the engines start to rattle and shake up the surrounding air. For some, driving a Lamborghini is the ultimate dream. For me, the Lamborghini had names like Saturn 5, Soyuz, space shuttle, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Saliut, Voyager, etc.
With my selection to participate in this event organized by NASA, my desire was starting to take shape (from 600 applicants, 60-70 were selected, and from which only about 50 people actually attended).
After a journey of several hours by plane, I arrived in Titusville (Florida), a small town of 40,000 inhabitants looking like a Russian Star City of Americans where everyone speaks about rockets and space exploration. It can be compared to Silicon Valley (US Technology Center) and Hollywood (the same for American Cinema).
After our first dinner with some of the group members, we all met the next day at the headquarters of the Kennedy Space Center, where we had the opportunity to get to know each other and the organizers from NASA. We also got to meet with Jason Townsend, who was the main coordinator (this after we got the entry permits).
Getting into the complex (part of it is an amusement park), the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex visitor greeted us with NASA’s rockets from ‘ 50-‘ 60-‘ 70 which were gathered in a park named Rocket Garden. That is where the “Grandparents” were resting; their names were Redstone, Atlas (old model), Titan and Saturn 1B.
This is where we had a press conference broadcasted live and on the Internet at NASA TV. There were several speakers from the Agency staff that gave us information on the new telecommunications satellite that would be launched soon (at the time of the article, the satellite was already in orbit), about the carrier rocket, other NASA programs including SLS program (Space Launch System), space shuttle replacement program (which were recently withdrawn from service), and about NASA’s future in general, especially now that the private space industry is gaining momentum.
Atlas 5 and the communication satellite & data TDRS-K
The satellite launched on January, 30th, named TDRS-K, had a mass of 3.4 tons, is an important piece of the constellation of telecommunications satellites of NASA (TDRS-Tracking and Data Relay Satellite), that helps the Agency connection between different locations, programs and NASA vehicles.
For example, communications between ground stations and other NASA space vehicles (whether space probes visiting Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, whether observation tools in orbit such as the Hubble telescope or the future James Webb, or international space stations ISS), pass through these telecommunication satellites. Whenever you launch a missile, the communication between it and the ground goes through these satellites.
Before having this constellation of satellites, NASA had ground-based stations in several places on Earth, some locations being quite dangerous because of the political instability.
Basically, without this belt of satellites found in the geostationary position (fixed point) above the Earth, at a height of 35,700 km, NASA would no longer effectively communicate and receive data with other space vehicles. TDRS system is the backbone in terms of communications that NASA is using to support all current and future missions.
The new TDRS-K satellite was launched to replace other satellites of the system which were in service for over 25 years, and is equipped with modern communication tools and data forwarding.
So far, 10 satellites were launched under the TDRS program but one of them was destroyed in the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
In some of the NASA launches, the Atlas 5 rocket was/is used and which is manufactured by a joint venture between Lockheed-Martin and Boeing (named United Launch Alliance-ULA).
The Atlas 5 is highly reliable two-stage rocket (100% success rate), with the first step equipped with Russian RD-180 engines (made in Russia), and the second stage (called Centaur), equipped with American engines RL10.
The average dimensions of Atlas 5 are 58 m in height, 3.80 m in diameter (payload can have between 4-5 m diameter) and 334 tons in weight.
The rocket is able to place payloads having between 9 and 29 tons in low Earth orbit (under 2,000 km altitude) or 4.7-13 tons into geosynchronous orbit (35,700 km in height).
Some of the missions that have used the Atlas 5 rocket for launch are: “Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter”, (Mars exploration probe in orbit), “Juno” (spacecraft that will become a satellite of Jupiter, and will explore the orbit), “New Horizons” (spacecraft now en route to Pluto), “Van Allen” probes (that studies the radiation belts surrounding Earth called ‘Van Allen’), as well as the famous mission called “Mars Science Laboratory” which put on largest robot on Mars so far (1 ton) called “Curiosity”; (the robot landing moment was transmitted live by several television channels in the so-called “Seven minutes of terror”).
Atlas 5 is one of the most successful American rockets, and so it continues to be used in NASA’s programs and other partners’ programs.
This was precisely the main reason why we were invited at NASA and so we were taken to see Atlas 5 close up, right on the launch pad (a privilege not many have).
I must admit that I was one of the fans that waited a lifetime to see their idol from just a few meters away. As I approached the rocket I began to tremble with emotion. A few minutes later after I got off the bus I looked at it with amazement and pleasure. Again, all my childhood I wanted to see a machine like this, and now I was just a few dozen meters away from it. And there was a bonus, I was about to see the equipment in action the last evening of the event organized by NASA. ‘Equipment’, does not mean that there are just random pieces of metal and fuel together. The people who have the same passion as mine, maybe they are even more passionate, dedicated their lives to the field and worked hard to bring it to life; and last but not least, these are the people who have put heart and soul into what they do. These people consider themselves lucky that they can do this and I can’t do anything but envy them.
We were taken in the control room where they control the rocket and its launch. This is the place where you can hear the “3, 2, 1 … and we have lift off!“. At the time there only a few were on duty, but on a launch day, the hall is usually filled with people making sure that each piece of work is working perfectly, that way everything is perfect at moment 0 when the rocket is launched.
Shuttle Atlantis Museum , VAB/launchpad 39 and Astronaut Hall of Fame Museum
Kennedy Space Center also houses one of the American space shuttles that was decommissioned last year: Atlantis. Atlantis was also the one who made the last flight of the US Space Shuttle program, which started in 1981 with the flight of shuttle Columbia.
If the shuttle Colombia, the first shuttle to fly, wouldn’t have disintegrated at re-entry in 2003 in the atmosphere (killing all seven crew members and being the second disaster involving the space shuttles), probably it would have had the honor to conclude this US program.
Being last to fly, Atlantis had the honor of having built a house-museum only for it, meaning that the building is now under construction around the shuttle (note: now, two years later, the museum is open for public). Atlantis has not even been cleaned (as was done with every other shuttle), it will be displayed exactly as it landed from space.
In order to be ready for flights, shuttles were assembled in the so-called VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building); yes, everyone at NASA uses abbreviations. In this building, which is one of the largest in the world by volume (3,664,883 cubic meters at a height of 166 meters), the shuttles were brought here and put together with the main tank and two solid fuel rockets called SRBs (for this job they use cranes capable of lifting 250 tons each). Back in the day, this is were they assembled the Saturn 5 rockets that carried people to the moon too.
The building is huge, not only from the outside but also from the inside. It’s so huge that it has its own “climate” inside. There could be small clouds that forms in the upper parts of the building on very humid days.
The launch pad 39 is located close from VAB. This is where space shuttles are launched from. Space shuttles were transported from VAB to the ramp by means of vehicle-tractors, so called crawlers, the largest land-based transport vehicles (their weight is 2,700 tones, have two diesel engines of 2,700 horsepower plus 16 cylinders – each with two electric motors of 1,000 horsepower).
We didn’t get too close from the launchpad, but instead the hosts took us to the new pad which is now ready for the new space transportation system that NASA will have and which will replace the space shuttle: SLS (Space Launch System), which will be somewhat similar to Saturn 5, only stronger and more modern.
Here we are, right on top of the launching ramp (we got there by elevator), where the view was breathtaking (literally, the wind was quite strong).
After I witnessed the ‘present’ of the agency, the time came to learn about the history of NASA and for that, we were invited to explore the Museum “United States Astronaut Hall of Fame” at the Kennedy complex which has the largest collection of memorable personal belongings of the astronauts who participated in the NASA programs. Personal items or equipment that were used in different missions by: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, James Lovell, Sally Ride, Alan Shephard, John Glenn and by other astronauts (62 in total), that awakened memories for some of the people in the group, who were older and had caught those days, and the admiration from the younger people who have read about that period of time.
For a decade, Philip Metzger was part of the team that prepared the launch of space shuttles. Every time a shuttle took flight, the excitement before and after the launch gave him and his team no peace. None of the releases were considered a routine, especially after the Challenger disaster.
Philip made a career change when the international space station ISS program took shape: in 1995 he joined the team that was testing and assembling the components of space station before launching it into orbit. One of the most important events of this period was a test called “Multi-Element Integrated Test”, which was considered the biggest aero test in the history which lasted a few months; 24/7 they put together sections of the space station and tested them as if they were operating in space; as a comparison – the space shuttle is the size of a football stadium.
“Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab” within SwampWorks
Since NASA has several programs running at the same time, after completing the main work at the international space station (2002), Philip got his doctorate in physics of granular materials. He intended to enter the team that was in charge with the exploration of Mars and moon, since that is the main direction someone takes at NASA after the withdrawal from exploration of the space shuttles.
Later, he founded the NASA laboratory “Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab” (granular mechanical operations on regolith -regolith is a layer of soil, dust, crushed rock solid that covers large rocks – layer found on Earth, Moon, Mars, asteroids and some other planets).
This laboratory was one of those visited by us the next day at NASA.
Philip’s laboratory is part of the so-called “Swamp Works” (by analogy with “Skunk Works” Labs, secret laboratories of Lockheed-Martin – from where the super planes SR-71 Blackbird , U-2 spy planes, invisible F-117 Nighthawk planes and the F-22 Raptor, etc. came out).
In the “Swamp Works” complex, NASA is preparing for the future. The main goal is to explore and utilize the natural resources of the solar system, be it water, metals, minerals, and more.
If humanity intends to settle on other planets, it will need to learn how to exploit these resources on the spot (it would be too expensive for these resources to be sent from Earth on a regular basis).
Philip’s team is working on a robot prototype that could excavate the lunar material (rocks, regolith and ice), and also use it in the construction of embankments, roads and landing places.
Other teams are working on some technology prototypes that would not allow moon or martian dust to settle on certain equipment (especially electronics), because this would damage them, and also on some tools prototypes that can detect water in the regolith from the lunar poles.
This research comes in the context in which President Obama outlines one of NASA’S direction, basically, the mining of resources found on some asteroids around the years 2025 and sending people on or around Mars around 2030.
Private space exploration is gaining momentum
But NASA is not the only one which who dreams of reaching these natural resources from outer space.
A few private companies are also interested to do the same.
One of the private companies is called “Planetary Resources” and the founders are Peter Diamandis (the initiator of the Google X Prize) and Chris Lewicki (a former NASA employee). This company also has a list of reputable investors: Larry Page (Google founder), Eric Schmidt (former President of Google), James Cameron (Director), Ross Perot (billionaire), Charles Simonyi (former Microsoft software architect and Executive).
The aim of the company is to develop a robotic industry to be able to exploit the resources found in asteroids. Someone said that this company could become, in the future, the first company valued at a trillion dollars (Apple and Exxon Mobil are now the most valuable, each valued at over $ 500-700 billion).
The other mining company is “Deep Space Industries” which is basically trying to do about the same thing which is: the robotic extraction of resources from asteroids and planets.
These companies are recruiting talent mostly from NASA. Those companies won’t necessarily be competitors of NASA, but rather partners. It wouldn’t be the first time when NASA is cooperating with commercial companies in exploration and exploitation of the space. Many of the components that are used by the organization are manufactured by the private companies (Lockheed-Martin, Boeing). SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Bigelow Aerospace and Blue Origin are other newer private companies that have contracts with the American Agency (SpaceX already has made shipments of materials to the international space station).
After he retires from NASA, Philip Metzger said that the private sector will be the direction in which he will focus his attention. A man with a big passion, will rarely sit on his front porch waiting for the days to pass.
Romanian participants at a NASA Lunabotics competition
In his career at NASA, Philip also got to know several young Romanians who competed in the Lunabotics Mining Competition last year, in the team ‘Coandă’. Team Coandă (from Politehnica Bucureşti university), was the only participant from Europe (from 40 international teams).
Lunabotics competition is a competition at the university level that wants to encourage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to form teams and seek to develop innovative concepts and prototypes in excavating and exploitation of lunar soil. The challenge is that the students to be able to build a prototype, called Lunabot, to excavate and deposit a minimum of 10 kg of lunar material (simulated), in 10 minutes (there are some other factors taken in consideration, such as tolerance to dust, ways of communication, vehicle mass, the energy required to operate and autonomy).
NASA will directly benefit from the most successful ideas and the winning teams will receive scholarship awards and invitations to rocket launches.
The opinion of Philip about the Romanian team was a good one.
The students were fantastic: enthusiastic, creative, determined. They were the only team from Europe. Their lunabot was extremely unique and creative, unike any other one in the competition. Coming to Lunabotics from outside the United States is challenging because the students not only had to develop the robotic mining robot, they also had to deal with compatibility of electrical connectors and computer systems, travel visas and passports, shipping, raising the extra funding needed for travel and shipping, and so on.
Every team that manages to get to Lunabotics with a working robot has already accomplished a major victory, but to also overcome these other challenges is proof that they are a very hardworking and determined team. The students who build lunabots are helping humanity discover how to use the resources of our solar system, which are billions of times more vast than what we have available on the Earth.
I would have loved to find some Romanians as well who work at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to take their interview (not only to Philip), but unfortunately, I could not find any. Those with whom I was able to talk to, work in other locations of NASA (among them, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California).
Launch of the Atlas 5/TDRS-K
“Go Atlas!“… “Go TDRS-K!” “T-15 seconds …5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … and lift off of the Atlas 5 rocket with TDRS-K, enhancing and improving the capability of space-based tracking. ”
Originally, the noise of the rocket engine start was not heard very well from the place where we were taken to view the launch (approximately 8 km away), but people started to get excited anyway, as they do at football games. Many of them were prepared with cameras to videotape and take photos, but others just sat and watched the rocket ascent into the sky. NASA TV also filmed it, and then interviewed the participants.
As the rocket rose, noise and vibrations began to be felt around our spot as well. At some point everything started being very intense (just imagine the type of noise that a blowtorch makes only much more intense, especially after the rocket has exceeded the speed of sound).
After many years in which I have dreamed of such a moment, now I lived it.
“No … I have no words, I have no words to describe … poetry … should have sent a poet … so beautiful …“, in the words of Dr. Ellie Arroway, the main character in the movie “Contact” (1997), at the moment when they made contact with the extraterrestrial civilization to which they were sent to.
Emotions overwhelmed me in such way that I didn’t get to photograph and tape much. I knew that others would do a better job filming it than I would, since they have more modern and efficient equipment for night-time and I would find it on Youtube or NASA videos.
The engines rumbled, the rocket vanished into the night and, once with the ignition of the second stage, it became too distant and so we weren’t able to see anything but a bright star moving further away. The speaker kept us updated of its status and after entering the orbit and NASA TV taking a few interviews, we gathered and waited for the buses to take us back to the Kennedy Space Center, where we had our last group meeting.
From the launch to low Earth orbit (under 1,000 km), the flight lasted about 7-8 minutes, with a speed of 8 km/s (minimum speed necessary for an object launched from Earth to reach and remain in orbit). It took a few more days of maneuvering and restarts of the engine for TDRS-K to reach orbit geosynchronous, 35,000 miles around the Earth. Over the next 6 months, the 3.4 tones satellite will be operational at full capacity and it is expected to remain so for at least 15 years.
NASA’S Social Activities
The NASA social event on January 30th, barely ended and again on February 10th and 11th, another one was organized. This time it was at from the Vandenberg base in California, where the launch of a new satellite maps-geology of the Landsat program happened. Around 80 people were selected from over 2,000 applicants.
And again on February 20th, they organized yet another event in which 150 active participants in social media were invited to NASA headquarters in Washington DC, to chat live with the astronauts on the International Space Station.
On March 10, NASA will participate in the film festival and SXSW technology in Austin, Texas, one of the most popular festivals of its kind in the.
As you can see, NASA Social team is very active on this front of popularizing science and technology by using new means of communication available that have emerged with the spread of large-scale Internet.
The Future Of NASA
With the end of space shuttle program, which was the main program of the Agency, NASA is in the process of refocusing its business and its this processess. It needs more attention and support from people, more than before because that way maybe the Government will allocate more money for space exploration. The participants in the programs organized by NASA can help in spreading Agency’s messages.
“The Agency’s future is bright. We envision the cooperation between the United States and other nations to bring the solar system in the sphere of humanity. I see the government agency cooperating with private entities, discovering together new ways to contribute to the advancement of humanity on the space path. These are the best moments in space exploration, those that we live today,” says Philip Metzger.
NASA will continue to explore the solar system and beyond, but gradually it will coming off of the activities on low-Earth orbit, which will be taken over by the new private entities that will become service providers for the Agency.
The future of NASA, as it has been outlined by the Obama administration (at least the intermediate one), will be the interplanetary exploration, and in particular Mars and asteroids in the next 20-30 years. For this, they are now working on a new launcher called ‘SLS’ (Space Launch System), which together with the Orion spacecraft, will be the rocket that will be used in the future to launch astronauts to the deep space and Mars.
Some argue that NASA is transforming from an engineering organization which builds things, into a scientific organization that does research. They are intertwined now as well, but engineering dominates, and those who support this transformation have argued that the private industry can take over the tasks of NASA’s engineering. Becoming a more scientific than technical organization, NASA could probably look for more effective answers to the questions: ‘where do we come from?’, “and are we alone in the universe?”, questions that haunt humankind from its beginnings.
If this transformation will actually take place, it will take many years, probably decades.
From what I saw on site and what I learnt from NASA’s history, I have no doubt that these plans will be achieved. I’m optimistic.
It’s true, it will take years before we see any results, many political battles will be fought within the Government and Congress due to the budget and objectives. But for now, within NASA there is some disorientation (yes, the current Administration has mapped out some interim targets but not all are convinced of their feasibility). The organization is not as focused as it was in the 1960s when the main objective was the Man on the Moon. Currently, the Agency does not have the capability to send astronauts into space without resorting to private carriers (SpaceX), or foreign (Russia), and also there are other programs that do not involve human flights which are threatened due to budget restrictions.
The budget is basically the same for 10 years (not increased, nor decreased), while the number of NASA programs have varied and vary more than in the 1960s, which eventually led to a discrepancy between the budget and what NASA can do with it.
We can make a comparison between NASA’s 2012 budget, which was around $17 billion (in 1965 the budget was 35 billion), and the budget for the most expensive military program in the US and the world: fighter aircraft F-35 which has swallowed up so far more 400 billion dollars (2001). There could be a lot done if NASA had at least a quarter of the budget that the fighter aircraft had, and humanity would benefit more from the Agency’s achievements (how did it until now).
The Agency is in a transitional period and I hope that it will find its direction sooner rather than later.
“As we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17!”, were the last words spoken by the last man who set foot on the Moon, astronaut Eugene Cernan, in 1972.
I am sure humanity will return on the Moon and will explore Mars as well as other parts of our solar system. My belief, and not just mine, is that our long-term future is in outer space and it depends only on us to make it.
As for me, I hope I can attend the inaugural flight of SLS, which is expected to take place in 2017, which will send the Orion spacecraft around the moon. This with the help of NASA Social.
You can see my photo gallery of my NASA visit here: Part 1 and Part 2