Saturday, January 17, 2004
Op-Ed Contributor: The Citizen Astronaut
Op-Ed Contributor: The Citizen Astronaut: By GREG KLERKX
Published: January 17, 2004
In his account of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, "Of a Fire on the Moon," Norman Mailer describes a telling moment that is pointedly relevant to NASA as it moves out of the glow of President Bush's announcement of a grand new space program and into the cold reality of trying to make it happen. At Mission Control, in the aftermath of Neil Armstrong's "one small step," delirious cheering has given way to smiling contentment as NASA personnel bask in the satisfaction of their achievement. But among the reporters present, Apollo's luster had already faded. "By an hour and a half of the moon walk they were bored," Mailer writes. "Some were actually slipping out."
The journalists at Mission Control weren't the only ones quickly bored by Apollo. The Apollo 13 mission wasn't even televised nationally; only when it ran into life-threatening trouble did the networks — and the American public — pay attention.
The architects of Mr. Bush's new space plan must surely hope that their audience is more steadfast. Yet if that is to be the case, the White House and NASA must take a hard look at what, beyond cold war competitiveness, first excited the American public about going into space: the real allure of space is personal.
The appeal of space travel has always been twofold. It is not merely about exploration; it's also about experience. Ever since the dawn of the Apollo program, NASA has done an admirable job of promoting the scientific excitement of space flight. Now it must do more to engage Americans directly. To fulfill the promise of the space age, everyone should have a chance to go into space.
To many people this idea will seem just this side of kooky. Many surveys over the last two decades, however, have shown that a surprisingly large segment of the population is willing to pay for a trip into space if transportation at a reasonable cost and with reasonable assurances of safety is available.
It was not so long ago that NASA cheerfully boasted that the shuttle would revolutionize travel — into space and on Earth as well. Ultimately, the shuttle was to have served as the template for spacecraft that could take ordinary citizens to and from orbit, just for the thrill of it, and would also make possible such trips as a one-hour flight from New York to Paris.
These days, unfortunately, the shuttle is not the best advertisement for space travel of any kind. More important, NASA has never really accepted the idea that space travel should be for anyone but professional astronauts. The agency did all it could, for instance, to stop a businessman, Dennis Tito, from visiting the International Space Station in 2001.
Underlying NASA's resistance is a fundamental disdain for sullying the human space flight enterprise with the brassy sheen of commerce. But this is backward thinking. Was Charles Lindbergh any less inspirational because he was, to put it bluntly, an aerial privateer chasing a cash prize?
President Bush's Mars initiative neatly places NASA's goal of exploration in the public spotlight. Now the agency needs to allow the rest of us to participate.
As it shoots for the moon, NASA should provide material encouragement to entrepreneurs who are making progress in developing human-rated spacecraft for popular use. It should also create incentive programs to reduce the cost of launching things into orbit, which is still the biggest challenge, and thus the greatest cost, in space flight. Name a price per pound: if a company can meet it, give it the money. That would help both NASA and the embryonic "space tourism" industry.
Reviving the idea of popular human space flight requires more than a presidential mandate. It requires a cultural shift at NASA, its contractors and its political guardians. But if ever there were a moment for NASA to be bold, it is now.
If human space flight can make a tangible impact on Earth — be it for transportation, tourism or even rapid delivery of global emergency aid — bolder exploratory ventures, like those outlined by Mr. Bush, are much more likely to be sustainable over the long run. Americans pride themselves on being participants, not just spectators. Give them that chance with space flight, and the next time humans set foot on the moon, it really might be to stay.
Greg Klerkx is author of "Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age."
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