In December of 1968, America won the moon race.
NASA didn’t actually accomplish JFK’s goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth until eight months later with the historic Apollo 11 mission, but on that fateful Christmas Eve, when the Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis to an awestruck planet, as they circled our nearest neighbor, the Soviets knew that they weren’t going to win, and they not only quit, but also pretended they’d never been racing.
It was a very risky flight, the first one to send an Apollo capsule beyond earth orbit, and the first manned flight of the Saturn V rocket, after an almost-disastrous first flight in which the vehicle had several premature engine shutdowns and almost shook itself to pieces. There was no second unmanned test flight to see if it had been fixed.
Does anyone imagine that NASA could do that flight today? Not just because they don’t have the hardware to do it. Even if they did, the agency, indeed the nation itself, no longer has the courage to do bold things in space. The actual moon landings and the Apollo moon program were ended sooner than originally planned, after only six successful flights, not just because their monetary cost was so great, but also because losing astronauts was viewed as almost inevitable if they continued (it almost happened on Apollo 13). Also, the race with the Soviets — the driving purpose of the program — was over. Though the Cold War continued for another couple decades, we had won that particular battle in it, and space was no longer considered important enough to risk human life on it.
As an example, fast forward to this past fall, when two successive failures of the Russian launch system on which NASA is now dependent to get the astronauts to the International Space Station since last summer’s retirement of the Space Shuttle had the agency contemplating abandoning the ISS, in which the nation has invested almost three decades and around a hundred billion dollars.
Why? Despite the fact that such an act would put at risk that national investment, they were concerned about the lives or health of an astronaut crew.
Think about that.
In war, we risk soldiers’, sailors’ and airmens’ lives every day. In the Navy, sailors are expected to risk, and even sacrifice, their lives if necessary to save a ship. But preserving the ISS, in which the nation has invested more than the cost of dozens of carrier battle groups, isn’t worth the risk of people, a key part of whose job description is exactly to take such risks? Are NASA astronauts national heroes, or national treasures, too valuable to hazard on actual spaceflight?
Well, some may have noticed that we’re in a new Cold War with the successor to our old adversary. Russia is sending assault helicopters and ships to help its ally in Syria remain in power and slaughter its people, not to mention its ongoing aid to Iran with its nuclear/missiles programs. There is a law called the Iran North Korea Syria Non-Proliferation Act (INSKNA) that dictates we not do business with nations that do such things, but it is toothless, at least with regard to Russia. Why?
Because every time we negotiate a new contract with the Russians to get our astronauts to and from the ISS, Congress is compelled to waive INSKNA. Given that Congress wants to continually underfund the commercial crew program which is the only hope of ending our dependence on them (now stretched out to 2017 according to NASA), the State Department is deprived of a means by which to pressure our adversary.
But there’s a solution. The 2017 date assumes business as usual, in which the crew providers meet NASA’s exacting safety standards, most importantly a launch abort system in case of a mishap during parts of the ascent. But SpaceX has now flown two flights with its Dragon capsule, one of which went to and from the ISS a couple weeks ago. On both of which, astronauts would have done just fine, with couches and a life-support system. Were they to accelerate development of the latter, they could probably get crew to and from ISS this year in an emergency. If Boeing were to skip some unmanned testing of their CST capsule (as NASA did with Apollo 8), they could probably be ready in a year or two themselves. There are doubtless astronauts who would be willing to fly such a mission and show that, like their predecessors in the sixties, they too have “the right stuff,” willing to risk their lives for their nation. Safety improvements could come along later, as they always do (there are never absolutes in such things).
The question is, is this an emergency? If the ISS isn’t important, why did we spend so much time and treasure on it? If it is important, why do we make ourselves hostage to a foreign and hostile power for access to it? If non-proliferation isn’t important, why did we pass a law about it?
It is time for the Congress, and perhaps the nation itself, to make up its mind whether or not it is serious about both our national security, and opening up a new frontier. Frontiers have never been opened without risk, and this one will be no different.