As NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and looks forward to celebrating the 40th anniversary of man’s first footprints on the moon next year, I am marking my own anniversary of a sort. I have been a member of the NASA team for 35 years. As I reflect on my years as a civil servant in a relationship with NASA that means much more to me than just being an employee, I have had, and continue to have, a long-term, open-ended commitment to the agency in good times and in bad.
I joined NASA out of college on the heels of the Apollo 17 mission – when Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last NASA astronauts to set foot on our Moon. It was my dream from the time I was a young child to work for NASA and to be a part of exploring other planetary bodies in space. Little did I realize then that it would take so long to return.
Even when I began working on the space shuttle’s aerodynamic flight tests as a young engineer in the mid-1970s, I knew then that we would need the heavy-lift launch vehicle capabilities like the Saturn 5 rockets, the lunar landers, and capsule-shaped crew vehicles that can withstand high speed entries if we ever hoped to venture beyond low Earth orbit again and travel to other worlds.
In the 1970s, I also saw first-hand the devastating effects to my fellow aerospace engineers who were out of work when the
retreated from the frontiers of space, and NASA’s budget dropped precipitously. The generation of engineers from the Apollo program now faced the bust times, a drought in U.S. human space flight, and NASA suffered greatly as a result as they left the space program altogether.
Those were heady days for a young engineer like me, but I stuck with it and had some measure of success over the course of my career in contributing to the development of the space shuttle, helping the return to flight after the Challenger accident, and working on what eventually became the International Space Station. However, I never lost sight of our need to one day return to the Moon, establish a foothold there, build on that experience, and develop the capabilities necessary for young engineers to follow in my footsteps to take the next giant leap for mankind, with astronauts setting foot on the planet Mars in the upcoming 35 years.
When I look back over my career, the best of times has been over the past few years following the dark days of the
accident. I have witnessed tremendous progress down the correct path for exploration, and I consider myself very fortunate to be a part of the team at NASA helping to make this possible.
We are building on the lessons learned from Apollo and other past programs, to better transition our aerospace work force from the space shuttle to our new Constellation systems. We are in the design phase for the Orion crew vehicle and Ares 1 launch vehicle using derivatives of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and the Apollo J-2 upper stage engines. This launch vehicle is twice as reliable as any Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle design option we studied, and it costs 25 percent less to develop.
Today, we are testing rocket engines the J-2X’s power packs and gas generators, building a new test stand for the altitude-started upper stage, and crafting mock-up Orion capsules for testing. The elements for the Ares 1-X are now being shipped to
for a flight test next year.
On the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems front, SpaceX successfully flew their Falcon 1 launch vehicle and successfully tested their Falcon 9 clustered engines. We recently held a briefing for our industry partners on NASA’s procurement plans for the next major systems we will need to develop – the Ares5V heavy-lift launch vehicle and Altair lunar lander – in order for
to return to the Moon.
We are making tremendous progress, and we are taking measured steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, I have recently read some rants from cynical bloggers who question the direction we are going and speak out and hope that all will change at NASA with a new presidential administration.
Rather than continuing to make steady progress, they would rather re-open the carefully considered policy and engineering design debates from years ago, and some would keep flying the aging space shuttle past 2010 at the cost of several billion dollars a year.
Actions of this kind would stall progress and serve to keep
‘s human spaceflight confined to low Earth orbit. Or they would throw all of NASA’s money toward riskier and/or costlier launch vehicles.
Rather than looking at the facts of NASA’s engineering and programmatic analysis, they would simply like to hold to their deeply held opinions.
Rather than joining the cynics, I believe there are far more engineers like me who would rather be working to turn these dreams and their designs into a thoroughly vetted reality than to be swayed by such uninformed, and typically anonymous, criticism.
We need to maintain the momentum we have started, not lose sight of our goals, or devolve into petty bickering which stops all forward progress and squanders the gains we have made over the past several years.
If we maintain our focus, my hope is that there’s an engineer just now starting his or her career in the space business who will feel the need to write an op-ed for Space News 35 years from now about what next steps are needed after the first human journey to Mars. Progress toward inspired missions of exploration are the real reasons why people devote their careers and lives to NASA, in good times and in bad. That is why I gladly celebrate my 35th anniversary with NASA, and why each of us should take a moment to celebrate NASA’s anniversary, remember man’s first footsteps on the Moon, and renew our commitment.
Doug Cooke is NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems.