Thursday, March 4, 2010

How (Not) to Inspire The Next Generation of Astronauts

I had a rough night last night.

I am the Space Exploration Merit Badge counselor for the local Boy Scouts, and last night I was asked to go visit with a group of boys, ages 11-17, and help them to earn this badge. This is something I'm normally quite happy to do, so I dusted off a presentation that I gave last year at this time to a similar group of boys, packed up an overhead projector, and cheerfully headed over to the troop meeting.

Little did I know what experience I would have. In one part of my presentation we went through the design of the Space Shuttle. We talked about the solid rocket boosters, the main tank, and the Space Shuttle main engines (fantastic machinery, all). We talked about the orbiter itself and how much stuff it can haul into space. This is normally very exciting stuff, and true to form the kids loved hearing stories of how deafening the roar of the engines can be when it launches and how the astronauts that the Shuttle carries have almost completed the assembly the International Space Station.

However, last night, right after this, things went distinctly wrong. These boys were all excited about the prospects of going into space, but then suddenly the discussion veered towards the retirement of the Shuttle (only 4 flights left!). Then it veered towards the cancellation of the Constellation Program, which was intended to be the next U.S. manned space flight capability. The boys quickly did the math: no Shuttle + no replacement = no way to send astronauts to space. The mood quickly darkened in the room.

I tried to explain to the 30 (!) boys anxiously listening to me that the Obama Administration intends to cancel Constellation in favor of encouraging private industry to step up. I even ticked off the best bets: Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. I even tried to explain that in the intervening years we'll be sending up astronauts to the Space Station via Russian rockets. I even tried to mollify them by explaining that the Constellation program's cancellation isn't a sure bet, and that Congress may push to re-instate it or reach for some other intermediate solution.

It didn't do any good. These boys are smart. They know bad news when they hear it. It doesn't matter that the Russians are willing to give us a ride for a buck. It doesn't matter that there are private companies that very probably will be sending people into space within the next decade. What matters to these boys is that the stereotypical -- but not impotent -- dream of working for NASA and getting your astronaut wings is no more.

Our wonderful and beloved country, thanks to our esteemed President, will soon be out of the business of sending people into space. America will no longer be a space-faring nation. Robotic spacecraft, which is my own bread and butter, just aren't the same, despite what amazing things they can accomplish, and these boys know it.

It was a major downer of an evening. The balance of the evening we spoke about building model rockets, basic rocket principles, and what it means to be in orbit. It was all very good stuff, but there was just no way to shake what had gone on before.

I get President Obama. I get what he's trying to do. I get the logic and the approach and the "hope" that private industry will come through. It may very well turn out to be the best thing in the long run (though I'm not placing that bet ...).

However, when Constellation was funded, even though it was over-budget, behind schedule, and had more technical problems than you could shake a stick at -- at least one could point to the program, as flawed and warty as it was, and say, "There's our manned space flight program! We'll get back up there, yet!" Now, what do we have to point to? Some private companies who are stretched so thin that they are arguably one recessionary dip away from bankruptcy?

Don't get me wrong, I believe in the private sector and in the previously-named companies. I believe they have tremendously talented people working with them and don't intend to quit until they pull it off. The incentives are even greater now than they ever were before.

But what if they don't?

It was indeed a rough night last night.

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