“Space is boring. All that money wasted on huge expensive machines by middle-aged white men stuck on boyhood science fiction dreams.”
This is the attitude of many people living in a different world from the men and women working in the industry. For our manned missions in particular, general disinterest reigns. Sure, we can point to enthusiastic children, but after visiting NASA visitors centers with rusting shuttle hardware and even more iconic articles showing their age, many promising engineers drift toward industries seen as more lucrative and dynamic. Who is cooler today, an astronaut or an Internet entrepreneur?
As industry professionals we can appreciate the achievements of the shuttle such as building the international space station and four missions updating the Hubble Space Telescope. However, we are anything but representative as part of a niche industry employing significantly less than 1 percent of the population.
The public frenzy surrounding the Rosetta mission and its lander Philae was not only a media coup for the European Space Agency and successful in bolstering public support, it was successful because of its exploration and subsequent required risks. This all bodes well for ESA for more daring exploration in the future. This frenzy was fueled by not just the innovation and success of the mission itself but also the success of making a personal public connection. Both Philae and the Chinese Jade Rabbit lander took on a heroic personality, even tweeting their own messages.
The spirit of daring, discovery and exploration (so well emphasized by how Philae has captivated the Europeans) is absent in the U.S. manned space program. We are hamstrung by risk aversion and lackluster missions.
Apollo 8 was sanctioned due to the belief the lunar program had to be accelerated for the United States to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. That mission spawned wonder with spectacular Earth-rise pictures and provided drama via the risk. Indeed, the Saturn 5 rocket was still seen to have significant issues after two tests. In the Cold War era the risk was tolerated as America was slipping behind technologically and the space race became a symbol of America’s recovering confidence as the world’s leading superpower. Today the risk our industry should be worrying about is the disenchantment of the American public with the manned space program and the slip from irrelevance to flat-out disapproval.
We must make a personal connection with the public and fuel national pride to re-engage support for the manned space program. Such an opportunity readily exists with a manned Orion flight to replicate and mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission in December 2018, followed by a bold manned Mars mission four years later. Certainly there are technical challenges to pulling this off, but that is the point.
As a nation we are supposedly committed to manned spaceflight, the pioneering spirit and fulfilling our potential. Such a mission would not constitute just a nostalgic stunt but would enable NASA to accelerate distant plans for more distant manned exploration and foster public support.
Space is anything but boring, but we have forgotten how risk-taking is a prerequisite for the reward of progress and of excitement. A robust manned space program that can maintain direction through successive election cycles will only be achieved with passionate public support, and this passionate public support will only be delivered by bold, meaningful missions.
Christine Pearson and Danielle Scheld