One of the most amazing quotes I've ever heard in regards to NASA is Gene Kranz who said "to stand still in space is to surrender." For decades NASA amazed not just America but the entire Human race. Niel Armstrong walking on the moon was televised live to the Soviet Union, one of the first broadcasts ever to do so. Prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton were asked "how can your country go to the moon and say 'we come in peace for all mankind' and still be at war?" the prisoners would respond "the Moon?!?" and from then on point to the moon and say "USA" which infuriated the guards. When the Space Shuttle first delivered then Fixed Hubble, it captured the imagination. We saw distant galaxies, and our understanding of the world vastly increased. Now almost every week we're finding planets around distant stars, some even appear to be Earth-like.
Yet as this happens, we now are not moving forward. At all. The planned follow up to the Shuttle "constellation" and the Aries HLV are scrapped. The target for budget cuts. To get to the ISS (International Space Station) we have to go through Russia. That is if the most expensive construction ever built is still there. See Russia has stated they plan on bringsaid station back down to Earth in a few years. As if that weren't bad enough now the Chinese are talking (seriously) about putting their own men on the moon. While I have no doubt they will sacrifice many men to get there, I believe they WILL get there
Here's the thing that (ought to) shock you, you know that "smart phone" you have? I'm sure it's only got a few gigabytes of memory right? Know how much memory was in the Mission Control room when they landed on the moon? About 30 Megabytes. Now a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes. Your phone typically has what 16 GB? think about that for a second . Your phone has more computing power then all the space craft that NASA put into space until the Shuttle, and Mission Control COMBINED. Your phone if properly programed could fly an entire Apollo Capsule, land on the moon and return. All that is lacking is the hardware to get it there.
So how do we proceed? NASA isn't high on the Government's priorities list, in fact to tell the truth even the things the Government should be doing don't appear high on it's to-do list. Indeed I'm not really sure what we've gotten for all the debt we've accrued, but I think for a couple of trillion dollars we could not only have gone to the Moon, but probably sent a couple of people to Mars. Actually I'm sure of it. Now talking about going to Mars when in a rescession is a bit much, but when you think that for all the debt that President Obama racked up, we could get at least Gingrich's moon base.
It seems to me more and more clear that NASA has lost the wind in its sails. While it is great to find out that there are "Earth-like" planets in far flung star systems, it really does us no good unless we start trying to figure out how to get there. We have this multimillion dollar Space Station. What are we doing with it? This was the investment (by most of the world no less) to get not only a permanent home in space but to go further. To sue this station literately as a spring board to bigger and better things. Why haven't we? Well part of the problem is it costs about 10 Million dollars to get a Metric Ton of stuff (whatever that may be) into space.
There are about a million ideas from "Space Elevators" to literally shooting stuff up into orbit via gigantic cannons, to reduce the cost. There are private companies that are coming up with different designs, for just about everything that you could imagine to get things up there, but there needs to be a boost (if you'll excuse the pun) to these systems. We saw that with the "X-prize". This is the competition to have a privately funded vehicle go into space, come back safely then turn around a week later and go back again. The winner was (no surprise to the aviation industry) Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites. Keep in mind this is the guy that built the "Voyager" the first plane to fly non stop around the globe. SpaceShipOne is perhaps one of the most amazing aircraft ever built, because it defies a lot of the logic that we would usually think about space flight. He went into orbit, and yet didn't "burn" for re-entry.
So Here's what I think. NASA should do something similar. Call them the X, Y, and Z Prizes. X prize is say, going to the ISS with a minimum of 10 passengers and say a metric ton of cargo (or appropriate mix) and much like the original X prize, the vehicle should be reusable and have a 1 week or less turn around. The Y
prize is to take 5 men to the Moon. Stay for a week, and come back
(preferably in a reusable vehicle). The Z prize. The mother load. Take at least three NASA astronauts to
Mars. Stay for say at least two-three weeks, and return safely. Set the prize (and following contract) at a fixed amount. No more Cost +
contracts. If you want a profit, buddy you better come in on budget.
Here you would provide the dreamers a dream, open the field to literally everybody, and you also get the added bonus of actually going to the Moon or Mars. If you want to Put NASA on it, fine. We can make sure that NASA astronauts are sitting in the drivers seat, but if you think about it the last man set foot on the Moon was in 1972? Hell we managed to fight one of the most massive wars in our history and go to the Moon at the same time. So do not tell me it can not be done. All that is required is a dream, and a desire to make it happen and it will happen. It is my firm belief that this is not a pipe dream, but our destiny, and it will belong to those that have the strength, determination and will to simply reach for it. When put like that, Space Travel is as American as Apple Pie.