I'm told by my space geek friends that I should be really excited about the upcoming Ares I-X launch. It's a new era of spaceflight... One of my oldest memories is of April 12, 1981. It was just a few weeks after my 6th birthday and I sat on my basement floor with a Lego(TM) All Terrain Vehicle space explorer set all assembled with my parents. The Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off of the pad ushering in a new chapter in American exploration. Space flight was now on its way to being a frequent and increasingly cheaper endeavor. The space shuttle would "change the future".
My parents were early technological adopters and we actually recorded the event on a VHS tape. My father wrote in his drafting letter handwriting "FIRST SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH, APRIL 12, 1981" and then broke off the tab that allowed the tape to be recorded on. His way of sealing the event in our movie library forever.
I'd be willing to bet my dad still has that tape. He was 18 in the summer of 1969 while Neil and Buzz were walking on the moon. In the 12 years that followed, his generation, and by proximity, my generation, were sold a future where Mars exploration was an almost certainty before the end of the century. Need proof? Check out Figure 1-1 on page 19 of the Augustine Commission report released last week.
My next vivid space related memory was Jan 28, 1986. I got permission from my 5th grade teacher, Mrs Boyer, who was a candidate in the teacher in space program to be highlighted that day, to go to the library for a few minutes to watch the launch.
Imagine what it's like for a 5th grade boy with space ship posters on his wall to run down the hallway to tell his class some devastating news. The Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded shortly after liftoff. I, like so many others, was heartbroken. I spent the following months following the investigation. I didn't understand the some of the details like I do now, but I knew for sure that this program we had held in such high regard suffered a devastating blow.
In the 25 years since then, the future of space flight we were going to have never really recovered. We've made some half attempts with vague overall goals at progress, but the big picture has completely stalled.
The Space Shuttle didn't bring cheaper, more frequent flights. We have not returned to the moon, and there isn't even the suggestion of Mars.
Space flight is hard. It's expensive. It requires risk and bravery to even attempt.
Culturally we believed that our progress would have continued at the blinding pace that it started at just like the automotive and airline industries did. Entire generations have been collectively let down because our future looks nothing like we thought it would.
The result in 2009 is that most have moved on.
Need evidence of this outside of my opinion? Today, we almost launched a test version of the replacement to the Space Shuttle, the Ares I-X. It's not really the new rocket that will replace the Space Shuttle, it's just some parts we used from other rockets put together to look like the new rocket. This new program "will be the next step in space exploration". My parents, who watched in awe in 1981 and broke the tab off of the VHS tape to preserve their participation in the historic event don't know that the Space Shuttle is being retired (they barely notice it's still flying) and have no idea that there is a half hearted plan to replace it. If you asked them in 1981 if they'd be willing to help foot the bill for the exploration that was ahead, they would have said yes. If you asked them today, they would look at you funny for even asking the question.
When we say things like "we need to inspire a new generation of engineers" this is the problem we need to solve. Not only does NASA need to overcome the skepticism of several generations, it needs to find a way to do more for cheaper. We need to actually create a cheaper more frequent method of getting into Earth orbit.
Scores of really smart people are trying all sorts of new things to overcome this problem. There's prize competitions, commercial space companies, and garage inventors all working on these problems and now closer to sucess than non Government people and organizations have EVER been in space exploration.
- NASA built the Ares 1-X, not even the actual replacement, but a sort of test version for 450 million dollars.
- SpaceX is building rockets to the tune of 35 to 70 million dollars.
Go ask a 10 year old who's the inspiring innovator out of those two. Go ahead, ask one.
There's no technical reason why NASA couldn't try to compete with the price of the SpaceX rocket systems. In fact, it's such a good deal they've already agreed to buy some if the tests go as planned.
Who's going to be the next group of people to get us to do something like stay home from work and break off the tab off of our VHS tapes?
It's going to be whoever actually opens this frontier for good. And it's going to happen soon.