Friday, August 12, 2011

NASA needs a new tune

“How many of you think you know what the gap is going to be [in] American capability to take things to low Earth orbit between the end of shuttle and the onset of the next American capability?" NASA Administrator Charles Bolden asked a packed room at the University of Maryland's Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center on Thursday morning.

He opened the first NASA Future Forum of 2011 with a speech saying that though the shuttle days are over, NASA still has a future.
What remained unclear that morning, though, was what exactly that future might be.

"It’s in terms of months," Bolden said. "We will be flying American vehicles to the International Space Station in less time than it took us to recover from Challenger or Columbia."

The American space program won't have to rely on the Russians, the Europeans or the Japanese, Bolden said, though of course we still want to work closely with our international partners. Private companies like Orbital Sciences and Space X will take over the responsibility of access to low Earth orbit for Americans, with Space X possibly bringing cargo to the ISS by February.

The administrator of NASA was all smiles as he spoke about the future of NASA to a room of attendees gathered to hear and discuss advances in science, technology and exploration that will help bolster NASA's future and inspire a whole new generation of explorers.

Though Bolden sounded optimistic, the news about delivering cargo to the ISS wasn't entirely convincing and the first panel of the day quickly digressed into the same old NASA rhetoric, taking the wind out of Bolden's sails. Rhetoric about the glory of innovation and the spirit of dreaming, about eating your vegetables and studying hard so you, too, can be a John Glenn or a Sally Ride (even though the future of manned spaceflight is, at best, questionable right now, but don't focus too much on that!). Sadly, once again, NASA missed the opportunity to remind the world (and itself) that its missions are about more than manned spaceflight.

When it comes to the future, science - real science - is what NASA needs to get back to, and the organization needs to find a way to make it fun and interesting and sexy. Relying on the glory of the Apollo days (though they were glorious, indeed) isn't enough any more.

The second panel focused on technology and innovation and the one speaker whose rhetoric sounded fresh was a man the moderator introduced as the panel's "token scientist." Ralph McNutt, Jr., is a physicist at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The list of NASA probes he has worked on is long and envious. (How can one person keep up with so many acronyms?)

[Ralph McNutt, right, speaks while David Barbe, left, listens.]

McNutt spoke about two probes whose futures were bright and promising. The first was the ongoing MESSENGER mission to Mercury. MESSENGER is the first spacecraft to ever orbit the Solar System's innermost planet and has already corrected something kids were taught in grade school.

“Mercury is very definitely not like the Moon; It’s much more like the other terrestrial planets in the Solar System.” Innovation, combined with technology, McNutt said, was key to making the MESSENGER discovery possible. The spacecraft uses a gamma ray spectrometer to examine the planet's surface. The spectrometer must be very cold to work properly, though, not a simple requirement to meet for an instrument in orbit around the Solar System's hottest planet.

[Though Mercury's surface looks a lot like the Moon, the MESSENGER mission has shown that the planet is more like its terrestrial planet siblings. In the three months it has been in orbit around Mercury, MESSENGER has snapped around 40,000 photos of the planet. Photo credit: NASA/MESSENGER.]

Ultimately, a soda can-sized cryogenic cooler was taken from air-to-air missiles to be used on the spacecraft. The small cooler was only supposed to last a few years at best (nowhere near good enough for a space mission) but was improved upon for MESSENGER. That type of "innovation on the fly" helped to open a whole new chapter on our understanding of the inner part of the solar system, McNutt said.

He then spoke about a future mission scientists are working to make a reality: Solar Probe Plus. This probe would visit the outer atmosphere of our Sun - the place where the disruptive solar wind that messes with our Blackberry devices and our satellite signals originates.

“The problem is, we still don’t understand the physics of how exactly the Sun makes the solar wind and why the corona is so hot," McNutt said. To make that kind of research happen, we'll need new innovators and new technology. This rhetoric was inspiring. Figuring out the mysteries of the Sun and coming to the rescue of crackberry users worldwide are dreams that modern kids can get behind.

The NASA spokespeople said over and over again during the morning of the forum that they want to reach out to academia and the public for ideas and innovation, and they encourage the public to reach out to NASA. But if the agency really wants to attract people, they need to ditch the old Apollo-era glamor and focus on a new-school allure. NASA needs a new hero. A Carl Sagan. A Neil deGrasse Tyson. A Mythbuster. One who will champion good, old-fashioned science.


  1. "NASA needs a new champion" (or something like that)

    They have one. His name is Elon Musk. Who cares if he doesn't work for NASA (or more importantly the US govt, that's a really really good thing). The fact of the matter is he's done more for not only Americas but humanities future in space than anyone since Apollo. Why should Americans dump money into building a new rocket when we have someone willing to sell us a tested, efficient rocket for literally 1/10th the price (and that's conservatively speaking). SpaceX is the future of space flight, we just need to let go of this stigma we have about NASA needing to be the one to do everything and accept that a great American company is doing it better than any govt run business could ever hope to.

  2. What "wasn't entirely convincing" about the Dragon cargo deliveries? They've launched the Falcon 9 twice now, and launched and recovered the Dragon.

    As for manned spaceflight, Russia's still upgrading and launching Soyuz capsules. China's made several manned launches of their own system, India's working on one of their own. The SpaceX Dragon is intended to carry humans eventually, Musk has remarked that it could be done now if the Shuttle's level of reliability was acceptable, and others (including major players like Boeing) have their own projects. The future of manned spaceflight is questionable? The only thing certain about it while we were stuck with the Shuttle was that we weren't going anywhere. The biggest change is that we're no longer shackled to low Earth orbit.

  3. @cjameshuff - Thanks for the good points. To answer your first question: In person, Bolden's speech sounded like a sales pitch calmly reassuring us that all would be well. His delivery made me question whether or not he really felt we would actually be sending cargo to the ISS by February. It may well be that that is the case (and if so, well done!), but his tone made me question how confident he was in what he was saying.

    On your second point, you make a good argument. I suppose I'm from the camp of "I'll believe it when I see it," and I'm not convinced there is much future for a kid these days who applies to be a NASA astronaut. (Again, I'm talking NASA here, not other programs.) These kids would have a more promising future as a physicist or scientist who dreams of working on unmanned science/exploration missions, like the Solar Probe Plus project McNutt was talking about.

    This NASA Future Forum was about NASA's future of space exploration, not the world's future. This story is a response to those ideas. For now, in the U.S., the two go hand-in-hand, but that may not always be the case. And if that's true, what happens to NASA???