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Looking Backward And Forward In Space

By Keith Cowing
October 13, 2017
Looking Backward And Forward In Space

No, human space exploration is not a dead end, op ed, Marillyn Hewson (Locheed Martin), Washington Post
“For Post columnist David Von Drehle, NASA’s renewed focus on human space exploration is “unnecessary” and “a dead end.” I fundamentally disagree with this assessment. I was excited to see President Trump ensure that the United States remains the leader in space by reestablishing the National Space Council. Under the leadership of Vice President Pence, the council held a meeting last week for the first time in nearly 25 years, announcing a distinct objective: promote a clear U.S. space policy and enact the reforms necessary to strengthen American leadership in space. Von Drehle’s argument against human space exploration boils down to three main questions, and I’d like to address each of them.”
The mission to Mars is one stupid leap for mankind, op ed, Washington Post
Keith’s note: Sigh. Marillyn Hewson’s pro-human spaceflight op ed response to the anti-human spaceflight op ed by David Von Drehle is as formulaic and uninspired as Drehle’s is ignorant and incorrect. Of course Lockheed Martin is going to support whatever NASA wants to pay them to do and of course they are going to plug their product line (Orion, SLS, Mars Base Camp). One would hope that the reason we explore and utilize space involves more than just the whims of big aerospace parroting back NASA’s old talking points.

As for the humans vs robots thing: America (and other countries) sends a wide array of robotic space missions ranging from small cubesats to large space telescopes and human missions to low Earth orbit and beyond. This is done because different missions require different tools. All space missions are a mixture of humans and robotics regardless of where the human may physically reside. We’re not at the point yet where a robot can completely replace a human. Nor are we at the point where a human can go everywhere that only robots currently dare to go. Even a cursory look at how we have explored Earth will show that exploration has always been a mixture of humans and their technology – with technology going ahead of humans. But in the end, with few exceptions, humans eventually go to all of the places where their technological avatars first visited. Because that is what humans do.
A new NASA Administrator will soon take the helm at NASA. Rep. Bridenstine will be the youngest person to ever hold that position. He likely first saw “Star Wars” on VHS. Apollo Moon landings were always history for his generation. His generation also saw the shuttle come and go with two crews lost. While there are now people with grandchildren who have never seen a human walk on another world there are also millions of children in high school who have never known a world where humans did not permanently live in space. To Bridenstine’s generation and the one following his, space has been a constant thing that people do. Its normal.
Yet the people making or purporting to represent space policy are from older generations (i.e mine). They seem to be stuck on reliving past glories more than they are on using new space technology to visit places we’ve never visited to do things we’ve never done before. NASA is still stuck on echoes of Mike Griffin’s “Apollo on Steroids” meme in the form of SLS and Orion. And the budgets needed to pay for these old ways of doing things threaten to undermine NASA’s research portfolio.
Is it a coincidence that the most ground-breaking, cost-effective, and imaginative technology is focused on human exploration and that it is not being developed by NASA? Instead it is being developed by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and their companies filled with 20-something employees. The hottest thing in space right now is cubesats that can be built with parts you can order online. The generations that are now looking toward their future in space see it as something that anyone should be able to achieve. To them space exploration is participatory. It is not a spectator sport.
It is perfectly fine to seek inspiration from Apollo. That is perhaps its greatest legacy. But the world has changed in the intervening half century. People are no longer content to watch someone else go into space. They want to sign up and go – themselves.
Just as arm waving inaccurate op eds by editorial page writers mislead people, pronouncements from aerospace behemoths about the old way of doing things in space – for the same old tired reasons – mislead people as well. NASA needs to figure out how to support and enable a participatory space program and then stand back and allow this to happen.
I would hope that when the National Space Council selects the membership for its external panel that there will be young people selected to serve on it. I also hope that the panel will look forward eagerly to decades of space exploration yet to come instead of looking back nostalgically at decades of space exploration long since past.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.