Difficult Times

This post has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks, but I have struggled to move beyond it.  There’s a lot of room here to say the wrong thing, but at this point I just need to write this and get beyond it.

At the moment, the world is celebrating the final flight of the Space Shuttle, STS-135. At 5:56 am eastern time tomorrow, Shuttle Atlantis will roll to a stop on the runway at Kennedy Space Center and at that moment, the shuttle program will effectively end.  Thirty years of shuttle flights will draw to a close.  In that fleeting moment, the shuttle will capture the attention of the world.  Then minutes, hours, days, or weeks later, it will fade from the thoughts of many, if not most.

The challenge with space exploration is that it is not a necessity of life for the majority; there will always be more pressing concerns.  Whether it’s the debt ceiling, the federal budget, taxes, war, death, disease, or scandal, something will be pressed to the front of the collective consciousness of society.  Space exploration will be left to the die-hards and, frankly this is okay.

It has been argued that exploration is at the core of the human spirit, that to be complacent is to let that spirit die.  Exploration, in that sense, comes in many forms, be it scientific research or medical research, both of those push the boundary of human knowledge and thus can be deemed exploration. For some though, there is a need to focus outward.  Some argue that space exploration should be cancelled and those minds and resources should be moved to problems like healthcare or education.

I have always argued that space exploration is a healthy aspect of the government’s investment portfolio.  Space exploration is ultimately a study of both other worlds and ourselves.  We learn the limits of human endurance and of the body’s ability to endure harsh environments.  Those lessons then improve our every day life here on Earth while they help us expand into the Solar System. In order to ensure a bright future for its population, the government must invest in the areas deemed too risky for private industry, that it must continue to invest in the evolution of knowledge and technology, so that its spirit continues to grow.  This is why I lament the end of the Shuttle program, and more importantly, the loss of its supporting workforce and their collective experience.

Instead of continuing to evolve, to push ourselves, to explore new frontiers, we are now in a steady state, waiting for bold leadership to select a viable new direction and then waiting to see if someone will be willing to pay for the vision that is offered up.

Two years ago, my office included a group of twelve training leads for the Space Shuttle program.  These individuals were selected because of their talent, their leadership abilities, their work ethic, and their drive to do what they did.  In three weeks, that group will no longer exist.

The decades of experience the individuals in that office gained will be lost to NASA.  Some will join a few of the commercial companies now developing new space vehicles and for those few, the goal of transferring the government’s expertise in low Earth orbit spaceflight to private industry will be realized.  But most of that knowledge will simply be lost.  Careers and lives that have been dedicated to this cause are now stopping and shifting abruptly.

Years from now once a new vehicle is developed and a new mission is selected and funded, we will be in a position where we will need that expertise and we will not have it.  A common criticism I have seen leveled at NASA lately is why weren’t we able to easily recreate the successes of the Apollo program with modern technology.  After all, we did it before; it should be easy to do again in the digital age.  When a program is cancelled though, the workforce is let go, the infrastructure is dismantled, and data is lost.  Experience and knowledge walk out the door and it is irreplaceable.

If we are ever to truly expand the reach of humanity beyond Earth, we must take a smarter approach to space exploration.  Currently, the exploration goals of NASA are subject to the whims of the current administration.  In this partisan environment, one party’s vision is the other party’s trash.  So a Democrat must throw out the plans of a Republican and a Republican must throw out the plans of the Democrat.  So we shift with the administrations, scrambling to establish as concrete a foundation for a program as we can, in the hope that the next administration will see its value and we will be able to continue that work.

This approach will not lead to long-term success.

To explore, to establish a true human presence off of this planet, will take time and money.  We can’t look at plans that are four years down the road or even ten, we need a plan, a strategy, that takes us twenty, thirty, or even fifty years into the future.  We need a logical progression from one destination to the next, with the recognition that as one program retires, we carry the lessons learned and experience gained to the new program.  We need to naturally transition from program to program, not start, make progress, stop completely, and then restart.

The International Space Station, recently completed, has been in orbit for 10 years.  In another ten years, we could possibly decommission it.  How long will it take us to evolve from that?  Will it ever be replaced?  We should already be developing plans for its successor, for our next step in establishing a firm human presence in orbit.  In ten years, will I be decrying the loss of the ISS workforce as we continue on another startup program?

In a way, I don’t lament the end of the Shuttle program.  There is a reason people no longer drive around in Model-Ts or use Commodore 64s or listen to 8-tracks.  Technology progresses, new needs emerge, and we continue to evolve our capabilities. The shuttle program has completed 135 missions in 30 years.  It has assembled the most complex engineering challenge that humanity ever attempted.  It has contributed a staggering amount to the scientific knowledge of the human race. It has, in effect, completed its mission.

We could have continued to fly more shuttle missions year to year; however, it is time for us to move beyond low Earth orbit and continue our exploration of the stars.

Yet, we are not able to do that.  And by the time we are, the knowledge and experience of those who have contributed to the significant achievements of the shuttle program will be lost.  That is the tragedy here.