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Sunday, 18 April 2010 23:40

Bungee cord for U.S. manned space program


The United States doesn't seem to like a long-range manned space program. And, it doesn't appear that it will be any different in the future. As NASA swings wildly in this direction and now that direction, the U.S. manned space program seems to be attached to a bungee cord provided by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. White House.


The U.S. federal government, that is, primarily the U.S. Congress and the President, does not seem to understand that for any federal program to succeed it needs to have consistency over the long term.

A program in education, defense, or other such endeavor is less likely to succeed when long-term consistency is not provided. A bunch of money is thrown at a program for a few years, and then several years of ignoring it zaps its forward motion.


This zig-zag motion, whether in funding or change in policies, doesn't help to promote success in any national program

Such an inconsistency seems to be the root problem of the U.S. manned space program.

A very good example of consistency is the Russian Soyuz Program. Although not very exciting at all, the Russian Soyuz programs (both its capsules and rockets) have consistently proven over many decades to be a reliable way to send its cosmonauts into space and to safety bring them back.

On the other hand, the United States seems to need to abruptly change their manned space program in very dramatic ways.

However, we didn't do this early in manned space flight. Mercury started the American bid to reach to the Moon with a space capsule that sent one astronaut into space. That was followed up with Gemini'”with a two-man team.


Ultimately, we got to the Moon with a trio of astronauts riding inside an Apollo space capsule. It was a giant step for mankind, but one that abruptly stopped for one man and one nation.


Then, the abruptness of change took over. We began the space shuttle program, which was a sudden change in policy on how to get astronauts into space.


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Although with big successes, the three-decade long space shuttle program was also fraught with even larger defeats and disasters.

It didn't prove to live up to the promises made for a low-cost and routine way to send astronauts, satellites, and cargo into space.


It did, however, provide a very effective way to build a gigantic International Space Station and repair satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope for continued scientific discoveries and international cooperation in space.

With the retirement of the space shuttle program given the go-ahead by the previous administration, the Bush team also proposed that the next-generation Constellation program would be the future stage of manned space exploration for the United States.

Relying on technologies from Apollo and Space Shuttle, the Ares rocket was already appearing to be a money-guzzling rocket when the Obama administration cut off funds to the entire Constellation program'”essentially ending the formal manned space program for the United States.

In its wake, the United States was left with an astronaut corps that relied on the Russians, possibly the Japanese, possibly the European Space Agency, and possibly private U.S. enterprises to ferry them back and forth to the International Space Station.


Then, just as this abrupt change of policy was announced, a flurry of protest erupted over this new direction of non-space exploration by U.S. men and women.

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Mostly, this protest was heard from members of Congress with large constituencies involved with manned space exploration, such as in the large space states of Texas (Johnson Space Center), Alabama (Marshall Space Flight Center), and Florida (Kennedy Space Center).

So, then the abrupt change of policy was abruptly changed again'”seemingly to appease these dissenting members of Congress.

Now, the U.S. manned space program'”which is directed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'”is gearing itself to go to an asteroid and later to Mars under a yet-to-be defined manned space program.

How do we get there? With what spacecraft? With what rockets? I'm sure this will all be defined in the near-future. Some time?

But, how do we know that all of this will not change again in the near-future (next week, next year, or next decade) before we actually carry it out if someone else doesn't like this plan and convinces this administration or another administration to make further alterations in the plan?

And, what happens if Barack Obama is not elected for a second term of office? Will the next administration decide to go in another direction than already proposed by Obama? Do we waste more money and change direction again?


It all seems like NASA is on a bungee cord, moving wildly in one direction, until it reaches the point of maximum stretch, and then reversing direction into another abrupt path that ultimately forces it to almost a breaking point. It then starts over again in other abrupt changes of directions and various paths of not-moving forward.


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NASA is at the whim of the U.S. Congress and the White House, and so far is seems that whim rather than scientific study and calm, rational thought is at the forefront of decision making.

An expert team advises the Bush administration to go in one direction. Then, another expert team advises the Obama team to go in another direction. How do two expert teams come up with the best way to go forward, and they are two different 'best' ways.

The result is a NASA organization unable to effectively proceed in any solid direction in fear that its temporary program will be swept away in another few months by another semi-permanent program.

Let's decide on one 'best' way and stick to it'”making sure with inspections and checks-and-balances that money is spent efficiently and effectively so that the American people (the tax payers) get the most bang for our bucks.

Whatever the United States decides to do with its manned space program, decide using facts and figures that support a consistent and reliable way to get to space and to explore it once we get there.

The unmanned space program, also directed by NASA, doesn't seem to have this bungee cord problem.

NASA cooperates with universities, laboratories, and other organizations to design, build, and carry out robotic, unmanned missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto'”all with great consistency, reliability, and overall success.

There is great 'spirit' and 'opportunity' with the U.S. unmanned (robotic) space program, one that proceeds toward 'new horizon's for a bright and prosperous future.

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All the while, the U.S. manned (human) space program takes the bungee cord approach of going in many directions, but never settling on one direction and never really going anyplace.

And, that is really an unfair statement to NASA, who is ultimately dependent on the federal government.

Even though NASA seems the puppet to an undeciding Congress and White House, it still come up with many dramatic successes over the past, and no doubt will do so in the future, where ever they are directed to go by our present and future Congresses and White Houses.

Whatever the new manned space program is called, hopefully its unofficial name will not be the Bungee Cord Program.

It would be great if we had a plan and stuck to it!



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