Gene Kranz: Obama "wrote the epitaph for manned space flight"

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I saw an article today that made me aware of a missed opportunity. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the safe return to Earth of Apollo 13, and the Cosmosphere -- just a short four hours from Tulsa in Hutchinson, Kansas, and home to the mission's command module, Odyssey, hosted a reunion of Apollo 13 flight crew and mission control. Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, flight director Gene Kranz, capcom Jack Lousma, Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, and a host of the men behind the consoles in mission control were in attendance.

After kicking myself for a while for not knowing about this opportunity and making plans to be there, I read a news story about the festivities, which included a panel discussion among ground personnel:

But there were a few things that home viewers couldn't really understand, the men who were there said.

For the astronauts, it was the numbing cold in the spaceship, which had been powered down to a minimal level to preserve its batteries. Lovell said the temperature dropped to the low 30s -- about the same as a home refrigerator.

And although the networks broadcast hours of footage from Mission Control, it couldn't capture the smell of the room, said flight controller Ed Fendell.

With the team in full emergency mode, "nobody bathed and everybody smoked," Fendell recalled. "The smell was overwhelming. You opened the door and smoke would come out."

It was the smell of determination.

The NASA veterans spoke about the future as well as the past, specifically the future of America's manned spaceflight program as redirected by President Obama:

Eugene Kranz, Apollo 13's flight director, drew cheers when he said he thinks Obama "wrote the epitaph for manned space flight" by the United States in February when he announced plans to scrap the Constellation project....

The Apollo veterans said Constellation would have given NASA the opportunity to learn more about how to live long-term in space before embarking on a lengthy Mars mission.

Haise and Lovell said they disagree with the president's plan, which they said doesn't contain the kind of solid blueprint and preparation it took to send men to the moon.

"I looked at what he plans on doing and then I listened to his speech... building a heavy-lift booster and going out to the asteroids and eventually going to Mars and all that, but there was no continuity to it, there was no substance to what he was saying," Lovell said.

He predicted that the Russians will essentially inherit the International Space Station because American astronauts won't have a way to get there.

"In the decades and decades that we have been sort of, you know, friendly antagonists in going into space, I think the Russians have finally won the space race," Lovell said.

Can a welfare state accomplish great things as a nation? It seems that great national achievements come from nations with liberty and entrepreneurial energy, and thus the wealth for conquering space or achieving military superiority, or from totalitarian nations that can focus scarce resources, even at the expense of the prosperity of their people, to attain an ambitious goal. (Of course, in the end the US prevailed over the totalitarian USSR, both in the race to the moon and in the Cold War here on earth.) The social democracies of Europe rode on American and Soviet spacecrafts but never launched a manned program of their own. Britain's global reach dwindled after World War II and Clement Attlee's premiership. The apex of America's space program came just as the Great Society spending and dependency machine was getting warmed up.

Once a society reaches the point where a majority of voters are getting more from government than they've paid in, there's a change of mindset. There's more political advantage to growing entitlement programs than funding exploration or military strength or leaving more money in the hands of the private sector. In such circumstances, the ambitious leave for places where there is scope for their ambitions. For most of the 20th century, America has been a destination for those ambitious folks, and their intellectual capital has only added to our prosperity.

President Obama and his supporters seem uncomfortable with an America of great achievements, great influence, and great power. Take Obama's comment at the recent nuclear security summit: "...whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower...." The comment inspired blogger Doctor Zero to coin the term "Hospice America":

What other nation, beyond the Western democracies, would not like it? Everyone from heavyweight contenders like China, to the comeback empire of Russia, down to nasty little street fighters like North Korea and Iran would love to be dominant military superpowers. Their dreams include detailed plans for using that power, should they ever acquire it.

... It was a far cry from the way someone like JFK or Reagan would address the same topic. They would have seen the responsibility of power as a challenge we should rise to meet, with confidence and determination, and offered thanks to God that America is the nation entrusted with this challenge.

Sadly, the America of new frontiers and bright mornings was long ago. Today we live in Hospice America, where caretakers with first-class temperaments and sharply creased trousers make us comfortable in the face of inevitable decline... and forward the bills for our end-of-greatness care to our children, who will go bankrupt paying them....

Muscular foreign policy is an expense Hospice America can't afford, and a distraction from the more urgent business of keeping its clients sedated and nourished. They're too feeble to handle their own finances, or manage their own health insurance. A modest unemployment allowance is provided for them, paid from cash advances on Uncle Sam's credit cards, because they can't really find work on their own any more. Genuine freedom and independence have been dismissed as unworkable. Instead, our congressional candy-stripers will quietly relieve their clients of meaningful decision making, while gently congratulating them on how "free" and "independent" they are.

MORE: Last week Obama gave a speech at the Kennedy Space Center about the future of America's manned space program. Excluded from the speech were the people whose livelihood and dreams are most closely tied to that future, and it outraged NBC correspondent Jay Barbree:

I just found out some very disturbing news. The President came down here in his campaign and told these 15,000 workers here at the Space Center that if they would vote for him, that he would protect their jobs. 9,000 of them are about to lose their job. He is speaking before 200, extra hundred people here today only. It's invitation only. He has not invited a single space worker from this space port to attend. It's only academics and other high officials from outside of the country. Not one of them is invited to hear the President of the United States, on their own space port, speak today.

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4 Comments

mark said:

Michael -

I've been too busy to read transcripts of all of Obama's recent remarks on the future of the space program -- so feel free to correct me if I've got my facts wrong -- but the reportage I've heard on this is that the President is intent on turning over much of the earth-orbit space program to private industry, and that private industry is already beginning to respond.

So I'm curious how a free market capitalist legitimately criticizes Obama's move to unleash market forces in an area previously monopolized by government "welfare"? Why is Obama not hearing an "Amen" from Adam Smith crowd?

Personally, I (like you?) favor maintaining our governmental investment in an earth-orbit space program; but then again, I'm someone who (1) believes that government should be priming the pump for individuals and businesses, and (2) is highly suspicious of markets lacking adequate information structures and other barriers to entry.

I'm all for commercial manned space flight, but I'm concerned about abandoning our government-funded capability to send people into Earth orbit before the commercial capability is literally off the ground. And even when we do have regular commercial service to LEO, we will likely still want to have a military capability, just as we still have C-5 and C-17 aircraft to meet special military requirements, despite the existence of civilian air cargo service. Our economy and our military are increasingly dependent on satellites for communication and navigation. We need to be able to defend those resources against an attack from an adversary.

As for the Moon, the asteroid belt, and Mars: The capacity to return to the Moon and stay for more than a couple of days would seem to be the prerequisite to going on to Mars and beyond. It's been over 40 years since anyone has designed a rocket that could take us beyond Earth's gravity. Until we can get that far once again, we've no business trying to go farther.

Moogle Author Profile Page said:

I suspect part of the problem with financing manned (or womanned) space flight is the "Been there, done that" mentality. We got to the moon, got the T-shirt. Now, the next T-shirt is about 150 times as far away ... at its closest.

Burt Rutan built an airplane that could fly around the world non-stop. So now that he's done that, how about building one that will fly around the world 150 times non-stop? If you can do it once, what's the big deal about doing it 149 more times? And then there's the gnawing question of WHY would anyone want to fly around the world 150 times non-stop? There does come a point where one has to seriously question the value of a particular T-shirt.

The high-level Constellation plans I saw in the media didn't appear to be any revolutionary new technology. Instead, take old technology and try to make it big enough. Basically, how much aluminum powder can we strap to a tube and get something that doesn't blow up ... too often. Not that there isn't value in knowing that, but how much value?

A perusal of mechanical history will reveal examples of pushing old technology past its pragmatic limits. Even when the result was technically functional, the behemoth aspects rendered the practical aspects at least questionable. Lord Rosse's telescope and the Spruce Goose come to mind. (Lord who's telescope?!)

I believe private business is already sending inanimate objects into space. Boeing specs its Delta IV as being able to shoot 50,000 pounds into low earth orbit (LEO), Lockheed says the Atlas V is good for about 65,000 pounds. Apparently, there's money to be made shooting junk into LEO; perhaps not so much to be made doing it with people. And people must be kept alive (such a bother). So government money will probably be required to keep shooting people into space. But, we've already done that. No excitement there, and who wants to be boring practical? (Say, does anyone know if Rocketdyne still has a few of those F-1 engines laying around?)

Now about your lament on the intractable nature of entitlements: I will point out that when the Pubs were large and in charge, the big question asked by the faithful, the one question that would literally make or break a Republican political career, the one that was invariably the first question asked any candidate and failure to say the right thing promptly ended further questioning, the one and only thing the Pub inner sanctum cared about, if you answered it right you were in and nothing else mattered, the one question that shoved all others aside, the one question that rendered concerns about good government and fiscal responsibility moot and obsolete because those weren't anywhere near as important as this one all-important, overarching question.

Do you think abortion should be banned?

As a result, we got a bunch of Pubs running around throwing on sackcloth and ashes intoning all the right words to appease the single-issue keepers of the sacred halo (who were, indeed, appeased), while doing nothing beneficial about entitlements and government spending (since the single-issue faithful didn't care ... well ... they sort of said they did, but not really as long as you said the right single-issue words) and adding another entitlement with the drug benefit (in an attempt to bribe the Medicare crowd knowing the single-issue crowd had been appeased).

Should the Pubs ever regain enough power to do anything of value (assuming things haven't been screwed up beyond all hope of salvation ... although I think we are past the point of fubar and the best we can hope for is to find one six-pack intact in the smoldering wreckage), might I suggest that emphasizing good government rather than single-issue satisfaction will significantly augment the chances of actually witnessing the historical anomaly of good government -- elusive goal that it seems to be (kind of like going to Mars).

XonOFF said:

Been there, done that doesn't suffice.

Man's long-term occupation of a Moon base would provide unbelievable advantages. A telescope on the far (dark) side, for example. What better position could there be for monitoring the stars, or Earth from a nearside Moon base?

Besides that, if we don't do it, China, Japan, India and the ESU will be glad to. They're all on the virge of manned landings. Will beat us now under Obama's plan.

As it is, even NASA hasn't yet figured out how to shield man from radiation overexposure from a 6-month mission to Mars, much less return. Can't just load up the rocket with lead.

Smaller steps are needed. It's not just re-using old technology either. Not by a long shot, or short. The computers which landed man on the Moon in 1969 had less power than a typical wristwatch today. And, that's not much of an exaggeration. It had 16KB of RAM. The Abort Mission Alarms which sounded throughout the final descent were (as it turned out) simple memory overload.

Go to the Moon first. Then onward.

btw, you know the military has a parallel Shuttle program used for military purposes? In the beginning, they were to have their own Shuttles and launch facilities on the west coast. Economics won out, though, so the military ended up using NASA for Shuttles and launches. But, DOD does have rocket launch facilities on the west coast for other types of launches (satellites). You may have notice some Shuttle launches were shown and announced as 'military' missions, then reporting basically went silent until re-entry.

There's been some rumble of late regarding the military's potential presence on the Moon already. Maybe that's why there's been no push to return for over 30 years.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 18, 2010 2:02 PM.

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