Sunday, February 19, 2012

Half a Century After Glenn’s Flight, NASA Tries to Make Up Its Mind

In February of 1962, I was eight years old. That was plenty old enough to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS-TV narrate the countdown for astronaut John Glenn’s attempt to be the first American to orbit the earth. I say “attempt” because at the time, nobody knew for sure if it would work. When the rocket fired up and sailed safely into the sky, Cronkite dropped his objectivity enough to say, “Go, baby!” The world of space flight (and journalism, for that matter) would never be the same.

By that time, NASA had gotten on the one track to the moon, passing by logical waystations during the sixties: the Mercury single-man capsule, the Gemini two-man unit, and the Apollo, which became the way we ultimately got to the moon. There was a breathtaking simplicity about the program, which belied the infinite technical complexities of manned spaceflight. We were going to land men on the moon before the Russians did—it was that simple. Even an eight-year-old could understand that. And we succeeded.

Now I’m 58, John Glenn is 90, and NASA—well, I hate to admit it, but NASA is no longer the stripped-down, single-minded Cold-War-by-other-means fighting machine it was. Try explaining the current NASA budget to an eight-year-old, or a twenty-eight-year-old. Unless he has degrees in accounting and political science, he’s not likely to see much to be excited about.

There are two main initiatives at NASA these days concerning manned space flight (all of which, incidentally, is anathema to many scientists who would rather see dollars go to more efficient unmanned robotic flights). One initiative is called the Commercial Crew Program. This is aimed at developing not only crews, but an entire program, that commercial firms design and build with NASA’s “guidance.” NASA has always had contractors—it has never been in the business of manufacturing major flight hardware without commercial help—but the Commercial Crew Program is intended to move the entire enterprise closer to a free-market model, somewhat like the airlines. Of course, the average profit margin of commercial airlines over several decades is about zero, so that may not be a good model. Add to that the fact that there are not a lot of customers for manned-space-flight services, other than the U. S. and some other governments, and you have a very strange economic proposition, to say the least. This has not kept lots of companies from flocking to NASA’s information sessions to see how they can get a piece of the pie, but when Congress cut the 2011 allocation for this project to only $400 million, the schedule stretched out and it is not clear that NASA will get the $830 million it’s asking for in the present budget cycle.

One big reason for that is the Obama administration is proposing an overall flat budget for 2013 for NASA, which means the increase for the Commercial Crew Program might have to come out of the other big initiative for manned space flight, the Orion/Space Launch System. Orion (for short) is intended for deep-space activities, to asteroids or beyond. It has gone through several transformations, but clearly needs a lot of money (around $1 billion a year) to go anywhere anytime soon, which means probably ten to fifteen years. Orion is the logical extension of the quasi-religious feeling that man is destined to keep on exploring farther and farther reaches of space. Its supporters include hard-core spaceniks and a lot of Congressmen and contractors (many in Texas) who want to keep NASA’s existing facilities busy and its employees employed. If all NASA did was to contract out manned space flight to commercial firms, you could do that out of a couple of buildings in Washington, and what would we do with all those other labs and things?

I am sympathetic with people who do not want to lose their jobs. But I would also like to know that their jobs are worth doing, and will issue in some meritorious achieved goal within the foreseeable future. The way NASA is thrashing around like a canvas bag full of cats fighting does not encourage the belief that we will see strong, clear, directed effort come from the agency or its contractors any time soon.

NASA was once a great organization, and achieved great things. It still has pockets of high-quality and unique talent that we should keep around in some form for reasons of national pride and capability. John Glenn was once a strong, brave, 40-year-old astronaut. And in 1998, at age 77 he became the oldest person to go into space, on a Space Shuttle flight. But even Glenn has wisely put space flight behind him, personally, and long ago passed the torch to younger people.

As some commentators have proposed recently, perhaps NASA in its present form has outlived its ability to achieve simple, clear goals, and has become such a battered political football that it would be easier to start over with two or three different agencies, each directed at a specific goal that you could explain to an eight-year-old. But the way things are going with political paralysis in Washington, the chances of this getting done are small.

Manned space flight is a novel activity in historical terms, deeply tied to technology, which I think deserves to continue on some basis. It is so costly that turning the whole thing over to private hands is practically to give up, so the government needs to be involved at some level. But trying to do too many things at once, especially when you’re older, is a recipe, if not for disaster, at least for a lot of wasted effort. And engineers hate to waste effort.

Sources: I consulted two articles on recent NASA activities in the Commercial Crew Program, one published by Aviation Week at

and another at a website that promotes the space industry called

For those of you who never saw it, YouTube has a clip of the actual launch of John Glenn’s three-orbit flight on Feb. 22, 1962 at


  1. So NASA "has outlived its ability to achieve simple, clear goals?" Okay, it's been 55 years since the agency was formed. What exactly are its goals in manned space flight?

    Demonstrate US "leadership" in space; show that international cooperation is possible; do some science; advance some space-related technology. That's about it, and we can argue that NASA is doing all this with the Space Station.

    Maybe you'd like something other, like ending all manned flights, or building Martian colonies? That's not NASA's choice, any more than deciding what to do about Iran us really all up to US Army brass. We have Congress and the White House to make such decisions, and at this point, it's clear that neither Congress nor the White House wants to kill off manned space programs irrevocably, but they don't want to spend much money either. So we're coasting. We'll build spy satellites and experiment with death rays and other fun toys and now and then we'll invite an astronaut to the White House so the President can talk on TV about Our Leadership, but that's basically it for the next 20 or 30 years.

    How do your colleagues in the Aero E Department read things?

    1. Dear Mr. Shupp,
      Thanks for your comments. It turns out that we are a small, new engineering school and do not have an aerospace engineering department (you may have confused Texas State University-San Marcos with the University of Texas at Austin 35 miles up the road). I will say this: in three hours I spent last weekend at an information booth for prospective students, I received numerous queries as to whether we had an aerospace engineering department, and one family was positive that they'd seen a sign about it!

      Your comments are factually correct, and I agree that "coasting" is about all we can expect of NASA given the political climate. But perhaps it didn't come out clearly in my blog that what I object to is not so much the actual accomplishments of NASA, but the large gap between the potential (and pretensions about the future) and the reality. And that might require yet another blog post to clarify.