The Martian and the Decline of NASA

Last weekend, I saw The Martian. The plot, briefly, is about an astronaut , Mark Whitney (played by Matt Damon and generating an internet meme about how much it has cost the US taxpayer to rescue Damon), stranded on Mars when his crew-mates believe he was killed. Whitney must survive until NASA can find a way to rescue him. NASA is generally portrayed in a good light (aside from abandoning one of their own at the beginning). The agency is portrayed as willing to take big risks to save their astronaut. It’s easy to understand why NASA has done so much to promote this movie (even if some people seem to believe it is based on a true story). This is the NASA we want. Alas, it is not the NASA we have. Today’s NASA is a hidebound bureaucracy that is risk averse and even somewhat callous towards the fate of astronauts.

It’s hard to tell when this began. Some of it may be baked into the Agency’s DNA. After all, its primary mission at formation was simply to get to the Moon before the Soviets. Not a lot of planning was done regarding what we would do once man made it to the moon. As a result, when, in the aftermath of the Apollo 13 crisis, NASA was asked what the purposes were for Apollos 14-20, the best response was collecting (more) rocks and playing a round of golf. This is primarily why the Nixon administration cancelled the Apollo program, no one could explain why we were there.

My personal view is Apollo 13 is the high water mark for NASA’s gung-ho attitude. Failure was not an option to bring the crew home. (It was a close call and probably closer than people realized). But after that, NASA didn’t want to risk astronauts’ lives in the exploration of space. Instead of recognizing the regrettable fact that the exploration of the unknown not only involves risk, but will most likely result in death, NASA turtled and was content to keep man in low Earth orbit.

Consider, around the time of the Apollo 13 mission, NASA had the RAND Corporation to consider the feasibility of the Apollo program as a basis for a manned mission to Mars. RAND’s feasibility study indicated not only was it feasible, but the launch window allowed for a manned flyby of Venus as well. It could be done with the technology available in the early 1970s. But not only was it not done, it doesn’t even appear that it was circulated amongst the higher ups at NASA. It was not even considered. There is every indication that the study was seen as just the answer to some hypothetical question. So instead of a bold leap into the vastness of space, we got the space shuttle program.

The space shuttle was supposed to be a cargo carrier. It would launch, put things in orbit and then return home and get ready for the next mission. It never achieved that goal. NASA was using the shuttle to justify its existence and was cutting corners to create the illusion of motion. But the space program wasn’t just treading water, it was sinking. A lot of this was learned following the Challenger disaster. While the main report highlighted many flaws of NASA’s operation, Richard Feyman’s dissent/separate statement punctuated the myth of NASA and “failure is not an option” ethos.

Even after NASA started flying following Challenger, it wasn’t going anywhere. What was originally supposed to be Space Station Alpha turned into the International Space Station. We still did all of the heavy lifting, but lots of countries got to take credit. No one is really sure what the point of ISS is. It seems to be where we take pictures of earth and test whether we can make booze in space. Yes, the photos are breathtaking, but shouldn’t our space agency have more ambitious plans than astronaut selfies.

***(The only exception to the above was the Space Station “Ralpha” concept. Following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush and his administration recognized the dangers of there being a lot of post-Soviet rocket scientists being unemployed. As a result, Bush offered to allow the Russians to work on the project to prevent idle hands. Unfortunately, Congress (controlled by the Democrats). refused to allocate funds unless everyone could help. This was the same Congress that cut of funding for SETI and the Superconducting Supercollider (SCSC). The end of the SCSC is still galling as it cost $50 million to end the project which was the exact amount needed to complete it. Had SCSC been completed, it would be competing with CERN. Do not allow anyone to tell you the Democrats are the pro-science party!)***

NASA degenerated even more by the turn of the 21st century. Yes, it was still looking at manned missions to other worlds, but it seems more and more that these were just mock-ups to show in order to justify its budget. It was a full blown bureaucracy. The agency was well aware of problems with the Space Shuttle program. The material used to insulate the liquid rocket booster tank was dislodging during launch, striking the shuttle and the solid rocket boosters. But instead of telling anyone, NASA minimized the risks involved until it was too late. Nothing, it seems, was learned from the Challenger Disaster. As a result we had the Columbia disaster.

NASA knew the shuttle Columbia had been struck by debris. It knew there was damage to the reentry tiles on the wing. But it didn’t tell the crew and made no effort to determine if it impaired the ability of the shuttle to safely return to earth. In fact, in the aftermath of the destruction of Columbia, NASA released a report showing how difficult a rescue mission would have been. Success would have been so remote as to make it not worth it. NASA, who had once deemed failure not to be an option, had now concluded failure was not only an option, but the most likely outcome. (Somehow I don’t think NASA will be promoting any film based on its efforts about Columbia).

The Shuttle program was cancelled without the United States having any means of getting into space on our own. The International Space Station that we built? We can only get there by going hat in hand to the Russians. And the Russians have no desire to keep it operational after 2020, the projected end of the station’s lifespan. And NASA seems remarkably blase about this turn of events.

Today’s NASA has even taken it one step further. Thanks to Congress, the idea of a manned mission to Mars survives. The Orion project has survived the Obama’s administration’s attempts to zero out the budget. Orion was scheduled to have its first manned test launch in 2020. NASA recently pushed that date back to 2023. The rationale was an assumption that there will be problems which will require delays to correct.

“Failure is not an option” gave way to “Failure is an option” has become “Failure is Assumed”.

In 1961, JFK promised the United States would reach the moon by the end of the 1960s.  This country did it. And we did it using computer technology that would barely power today’s coffee maker. Almost fifty years later, we seem incapable of replicating that feat despite having all of information gained by the Apollo era and massive amounts of computing power. It’s not that we lack the ability, we lack the courage to do it. Exploring the unknown involves great amounts of risk. People will die exploring the cosmos, just as Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, and Henry Hudson did when exploring this world. Each was a tragedy. But none of those deaths stopped exploration.

We need to get out and explore the Cosmos, instead of marking time on Earth.

(Edited 7:55 am 10/26/15 I forgot to include links to the NASA reports on Columbia and Challenger. They have now been added).


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