I am sending the following letter to NASA's new Administrator, Charles F. Bolden, Jr. and to the President etc. in hopes of setting a new course for the moribund Space Agency. It is a long-shot, I know, but I remember when the Moon Mission was, when that was proposed by J.F.K.
Dear Mr. Bolden:
As I write this, the Space Shuttle Discovery is preparing for the 128th shuttle mission. It is also the countdown to a far less inspiring deadline: the retirement of the entire 3 shuttle fleet in 13 months.
I grew up with the space program, watching and rooting for Americans to go "where no man has gone before," to quote the perhaps over-worn Star Trek lead-in. I can scarcely believe that in about a year, America will have gone from the nation that invented the manned space program, to not being able to send men and women into space at all. (The private endeavors are thus far barely able to penetrate the upper atmospheric boundary and are, frankly, stunts designed to awe gullible, and rich, paying passengers for a joyride). The idea that we will only be able to reach the International Space Station by hitching a costly ride on Russian Soyuz Spaceship, despite the end of the Cold War, strikes me as both foolishly complacent, and an abrogation of our national ambition. Is it any wonder we are slipping behind the world in math and science when we are telling our children that being able to launch Americans into space is somehow a task better left to others, outsourced to anyone who will do it, even to countries who may not be our allies in the future?
I realize that the economy is reeling, and times are difficult, but as John F. Kennedy said in 1962, "We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Besides, no one ever said the Apollo program, or the Space Shuttle, or any of the other many successful NASA programs were a net American loss. The benefits of the space program, not just for our national image, but in real, tangible payoffs are as numerous as they are well-documented, and I won't rehash them here.
I am equally disturbed, and a bit alarmed, at the concentration of effort on the under-funded and behind-schedule Ares Rocket. At best, this will not be ready until 2016, and most objective observers who also look at the lack of funding, would put its ready date much farther into the future than that, perhaps 2020. This week, a blue ribbon panel of scientists concluded that we may not re-reach the moon until 2030! They also concluded -- correctly, albeit understatedly -- that it makes no sense to throw away the then-completed Space Station in 2016, in order to use the "use the freed-up money to develop the heavy-lift Ares V rocket."
I humbly propose a different scenario. One that will:
1. Get Americans to Mars by 2020
2. Keep America's current and only means of practical orbital space travel -- the Space Shuttle -- working until there is a suitable replacement.
3. Utilize the Space Station, and even expand it, with a new and highly exciting mission; a mission that will inspire people young and old with its ambition and its periodic progress.
4. Enable the development of next generation space ships to reach not just Mars, but the entire inner solar system, faster, better, and cheaper.