Image from NASA.
The Orion capsule was successfully tested last week. For those who don’t know, the Orion is NASA’s future crew capable capsule, which will hopefully be used to explore to the moon and beyond. The capsule was tested on December 5, 2014, lofted into space for a very short time and then reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to land just off of Baja California’s coast.
I’m glad it worked. I’m glad so many people who worked on the Orion test received the gratification of a successful test. For the work they’ve done, they deserve to celebrate. But what does it mean? We’ve done something like this before nearly 45 years ago. Then for the next few years after that we did it better, with humans inside capsules, with better funding, greater public motivation, and very competitive external political pressure.
This is why I see this test as a false start. The conditions in the late 60’s/early 70’s helped to fund NASA for a bit. But the conditions don’t exist now. One might say the opposite of those conditions exists now: desultory and low funding, a generally uninterested public, and no real external competition. So why would anyone think NASA will be able to keep Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) on track? Politics tends to get in the way of progress, sometimes, why should it be any different with space?
Look at it this way: NASA’s budget hasn’t really increased or decreased very much (page 10 of this slideshow), politicians still quibble about whether the program is even necessary (and some do believe so, a few for the wrong reasons), and I still don’t hear very many of the general public talking about the need for space exploration. I do hear plenty of worry about the U.S. economy, affordable care, ISIS, gasoline prices, education, and unemployment. But such issues are natural for us to worry about. They are more immediate, more tangible–even though many people in the U.S. use many products that would likely never have existed without a space program.
Those issues are why NASA will likely not achieve momentum to keep this current effort going. Social programs will ALWAYS outcompete NASA, and so NASA lives a bit like the brilliant, but spurned, step-child, getting crumbs from the adults’ budget table every now and then. As crass as it sounds, NASA’s programs like Orion are akin to the building of monuments to kings. It will probably always be like that, so long as space exploration lives at the sufferance of the very few: presidents, senators, and representatives. They are why NASA came into being. They are why NASA received money for Apollo. They are why NASA started living hand-to-mouth nearly 40 years ago. They will be NASA’s destroyers. They are why there was no real follow-up to Apollo. By the way, they are theoretically doing what we told them to do.
It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see something like the Orion capsule being tested. It’s not that it’s uninteresting. I want to see us as a species move out into the stars. It’s just that I must wonder what kind of start this is. NASA’s Administrator Bolden said this “Day One of the Mars era.” I’m not so sure. It might’ve been a good day for NASA, but what does that mean?
I know it sounds bleak, but there are good things happening with space. Small satellites seem to be interesting to more people and more companies. Some bigger internet companies are expanding on that interest, making very big plans for small satellites. These big plans with small satellites require more launch capability, which will hopefully be developed. It looks like that might happen, too.
Private launch companies–ones not beholden (yet) to military and government funding–are trying to come forward. A few are even talking about eventually using their spacecraft to travel to Mars. There are a few countries that are becoming more active in space as well. Some aren’t waiting to see what the U.S. will do. And who knows, between those countries and private companies, someone might do it for less money than NASA can. And not a single politician will be in control, money-wise.