We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.
– Sir Winston Churchill in a speech to the Canadian Parliament. Dec 30, 1941
Whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself, I read a speech of Churchill’s. Comparing any problem we have today with the blitz puts things into perspective. Churchill never wavered in reminding his people what was important. And the British people never wavered either. That was “their finest hour.”
Lately writing has been very difficult, confronted with the situation in human space flight. There is much to read, but then again, not much of value.
Almost three years ago, August 28, 2008, I wrote a blog post about shutting down the Shuttle program; you can still read it on archives of the NASA web: http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/blog/waynehalesblog/posts/post_1219932905350.html
Then, as now, a number of folks propose that the current administration reverse the old administration’s decision to stop flying the shuttle. But even in the summer of 2008, it was too late. Not technically impossible, but already past the point of financial feasibility to resurrect the program. Then I wrote “the horse has left the barn”. Now the barn has burned down.
It is simply heartbreaking to wander the halls of the NASA human spaceflight facilities and listen to the empty echoes. Yes, the ISS continues on; and the other parts of NASA – science, aeronautics – they continue on. But the exquisite dedicated professional team that made human space flight look so easy is dismembered, dispersed, and nearly completely dismantled.
The plan, such as it is, consists of looking for the entrepreneurial heirs of Henry Ford to produce the Model T. The hope is the genius of free enterprise will move us from the horse and buggy era to the gasoline alley era of space exploration. That is a good hope, but in the meantime personally, I would have kept the horse until the automobile appeared.
But as they say: hope is not a plan.
The plan is to subsidize Henry’s descendants until they get their first auto-mobile off the assembly line. And thereafter for the government to buy seats onboard the jitney for quite a while. This is frequently compared to how the transcontinental railroad was built; or how airmail helped commercial aviation get started. Neither analogy is perfect, but can suffice for illustration.
But even now, there are forces gathering to squash the Model T builders. Without even that bare bones plan, we would be back to transporting ourselves on shank’s mare; no way to get to orbit except by continuing to hitchhike to space on the Tsar’s old buggy.
What we all agree is lacking is a clear expression of why space exploration is important to the nation, to the economy, and to the future of humankind. Just why the nation should care about the manifest destiny of space when there are so many problems surrounding us.
My friend Roger Launius wrote a brilliant first chapter in the book “The Societal Impact of Spaceflight” (NASA SP 4900, ISBN 0160801907). He examines the various arguments for the importance of human space flight. Another dear and extraordinarily competent friend, Mary Lynne Dittmar, has addressed the same subject in good grey language for policymakers in ‘HSF Value Proposition’ published online http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1903/1
And heaven knows, I labored to write a coherent rationale for human space flight, from my teen years right through my NASA blog pages. Go back to those archived blogs and read some of that labor. After 40 years of effort, I’m a bit weary of pasting words together to make the case.
On a recent Sunday evening, far from NASA and the space coast, my wife and I enjoyed a ranger talk at an amphitheater in one of our great national parks. The ranger was young and female but she embodied the best of the national park service in that talk. Even though the focus of her talk lay elsewhere, she started by describing the vision for the national parks and the purpose of the government service who is entrusted with their care. She quoted from the Act which created the National Park Service in 1915. She read a long passage from Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire”, and then quoted Bernard DeVoto. Even without having to resort to John Muir, the young ranger succinctly and completely described the vision, purpose, and essential rationale for the parks and the National Park Service. It didn’t hurt her exposition that we were surrounded by beauty and majesty on all sides. See the picture at the top of this post.
We could use that young ranger in our space policy debates. The leadership of our country just doesn’t seem to care. The media doesn’t have the attention span to get it. The head of the Office of Science Technology Policy can’t express it, if he knows what it is. The appointed leadership of NASA can’t either. Congress is, well, too interested in scoring political points in meaningless debates. The commercial guys can’t seem to sell it. These days the trivial and the urgent have drowned out the important.
It is almost too trite, but I caught a glimmer of a credible value statement last evening on the very late reruns: “. . . to seek out new life and new civilizations . . .” and – let’s say it all together – “to boldly go . . . “
Oh? You know it by heart already? Then why are we here, having a discussion about what we already know
That is a good value proposition; similar even to the one articulated by Fredrick Jackson Turner over a century ago, except for one critical detail: the frontier isn’t closed. Not unless we turn back from it.
So I will repeat Churchill’s question: what are we made of? Sugar candy?