Over the last four decades I have gone back and forth in my thoughts about manned space flight. I was nine when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon and have never lost my respect for our astronauts and my wonder at space exploration. When we had the Challenger disaster, I just lost confidence in NASA’s ability to safely get people out of Earth’s orbit. The Shuttle itself is such a poorly conceived vehicle. The problems with the heat shield tiles was well known from early in the project. The Columbia Tragedy – and the anti-Apollo 13 incompetence of the ground crew at NASA – just made me feel that we should not risk the lives of the wonderful people who become astronauts by placing them in chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire vehicles managed by people who lacked a sense of mission.
The stunning successes of our unmanned space missions have made me reconsider my concerns about NASA’s competence. I realize that unmanned flights require a different set of engineering solutions from manned ones. And of course it is silly to go to the trouble of training people to become astronauts and then say that they are too valuable to send into space. The correct course of action is to get our astronauts into vehicles that will take them as safely as possible to where we want them to go.
All of this and a particular appreciation (or overestimation) of Prince Henry the Navigator drive my current thinking. We (humans in general, Americans in particular) need to be pushing, expanding, exploring. We become better for it. We reshape our psychic world through exploration – as well as understanding the actual, physical world that way. To quote William Blake “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”
Prince Henry the Navigator is like one of the moderately famous folks in a James Burke’s Connections episode whose importance one only comprehends after hearing of all the people who were influenced or inspired by them. Prince Henry funded a number of sea voyages, gradually working around the coast of Africa. He directed the development of the caravel. Henry was able to fund these voyages because he was governor of the Order of Christ, Portugal’s successor to the Knights Templar. Thirty-eight years after Henry’s death, Vasco de Gama sailed from Purtugal to India and the Muslim monopoly on the spice trade was ended.
I would love for us to have a Prince Henry equivalent, but wishing for a visionary bureaucrat is a rather poor use of wishes. President Obama has asked for a review of President Bush’s Mars agenda – and of NASA’s overall manned space flight goals. He has appointed a former Shuttle astronaut, Charles Bolden as NASA Administrator, and Major General Bolden’s nomination appears assured. Buzz Aldrin recently had an article in Popular Mechanics where he proposed a goal of a permanent manned presence on Mars by 2035. He also offered criticism of the solid rocket and booster programs, advocating a return to the liquid rockets and boosters. I am not informed enough to offer comment on the particulars, certainly not compared to these folks.
As an aside, before I began this essay I didn’t realize that Buzz Aldrin’s PhD thesis (at MIT) was about piloted rendezvous between space craft. And that techniques he devised are still used on space rendezvous. He is far more than just spam in a can.
I am glad that we are doing a review of our plans to go to Mars. I hope that the exercise is not simply another attempt to kick dirt on George Bush’s shoes, that it is a sincere examination of goals. I hope we can build the caravel-equivalent for interplanetary exploration and place humanity out in the cosmos. Let the meek inherit the earth, the bold should move into space.