The PJ Tatler

On the past and future of NASA

For every failure in the space program, there have probably been a dozen successes. Some Mars orbiters had issues, but several have been on orbit now for years, returning some incredible information and imagery. The Mars Rovers were only supposed to last about 90 days on the surface of the red planet; they actually lasted more than 6 years. Hubble launched with flawed optics, but it was still the clearest view we had ever had of deep space — even with the flawed mirror. And thanks to the space shuttle program, its astronauts, its training regimen and the many support engineers, techs and others on the ground, Hubble was upgraded several times on orbit, always extending and improving its view. Hubble recently passed a milestone — its millionth image. It was originally slated to operate for 10 years; Hubble has now been exploring the universe for 21 years. NASA even launched the Deep Impact mission a few years back, which successfully slammed into a comet while its own mother ship and Hubble observed the resulting plume to determine what comets are made of. Deep Impact amounted to hitting one bullet with a smaller bullet across the vastness of space, but the team pulled it off. Cool stuff, and all in the post-Apollo era. From Cassini to Voyager to the Chandra and Spitzer telescopes, NASA’s successful mission portfolio is astounding. And the technology developed first for space and then applied across nearly every aspect of modern life is unmatched.

Maybe I’m biased because I’m an incorrigible Hubble-hugger who wanted to work for NASA since I was a kid (and I got to, for about 8 years), but the space program’s golden era didn’t end with Apollo in my mind. It continued in fits and spurts, as complicated and risky endeavors tend to do. Failure is always an option when what you’re doing is hard, it takes time and patience, is very complicated, requires hundreds of thousands of man hours to figure out, and depends on the fallible human mind. NASA has had its share of failures, but the successes more than outnumber them in my opinion.We have learned to take its successes for granted while failures tend to generate the headlines. That’s just the way things are.

I do think there’s a chance that with the final shuttle flight, we’ve introduced so much uncertainty into the future of space flight that the entire enterprise is at risk now. Getting humans to space and back again is not like riding a bicycle — you can collectively forget how to do it. Those jobs lost won’t come back easily, for the simple reason that much of the expertise will wither away.

Whatever President Obama is doing to NASA, it is not reform. It could turn out to be a boon, but could also turn out to be a slow death. We’ll see.

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