One of the reasons that I write my weblog is to expose some of the mythologies about space and our space program.

Foxnews reader "DocZen" asks:

When are we actually going to Mars?...

...Is the current lull in space exploration just that, or did we just look at Apollo as a big waste of time/money?

The WWII generation went to the moon, no offense, but the baby boomers spent too much time smoking pot and protesting...what is MY generation going to do with its time on earth?

I'm printing some of his email here, because I think his questions and feelings are shared by many people.

Right out of the box, I'll say that I don't pretend to have an answer to the question of when we will send people to Mars. Predictions are always hazardous, particularly about the future. Almost no one would have predicted in July, 1959 that men would be walking on the moon a decade later. I also have to confess that I do not see Mars as an urgent thing, at least until we start to get our other space affairs in order.

Space enthusiasts tend to see the Apollo program as the Golden Age, the paradigm of how a space program should be, and how it could be if only we got another President with the vision of JFK.

This is a myth. Recently-discovered documents indicate that Kennedy wasn't particularly interested in space — as I described in this column a couple of weeks ago, he only pursued Apollo as a response to the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Gagarin flight.

If by some political miracle (and that's truly what it would take) we were to initiate a Mars program today, I believe that it would put us even further off track than Apollo did. We weren't really ready to go to the Moon in 1961, and it would be premature to set off to Mars in 2002.

I don't mean this in the sense of technical feasibility — clearly we were capable of sending men to the Moon in the 60s, and just as clearly we could send men (and women) to Mars today (or at least initiate an ultimately-successful program to do so) if we chose to.

What I mean is that by jumping to a grand goal before the technology has matured, we would again bypass some critical steps in making it practical and affordable, and thus sustainable. We first stepped on the Moon in 1969. We last did so only three years later, almost thirty years ago. We haven't been back because, in our hurry, we didn't lay the groundwork for a politically or economically-sustainable program.

In fact, NASA Administrator James Webb was very concerned about this at the time, but couldn't get Kennedy to accept it as important.

But Kennedy stands firm, telling Webb that the moon landing is NASA's top priority.  "This is, whether we like it or not, a race. Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians."

I think that, considering these new facts, and our stasis for the past three decades, relative to what was envisioned and possible, it's time to lay to rest John F. Kennedy as the template for the ideal president to lead us into space.

And in fact, it's a mistake to expect any president to have both that kind of vision and the political support to implement it. It might happen, but it's extremely unlikely (since it never really even happened the first time).

But if I can't say when we'll go to Mars, I can describe some of the conditions that will have to be in place before such a thing is likely to occur. And that's what I'll do in a column in the near future.

Heroic Disaster Prevention

This should be much bigger news. Two Afghan scientists hid radioactive material, which could, at the least, have been used to build "dirty bombs" from Al Qaeda. 

The story also points up just what fools the Al Qaeda folks were.

For people who want to honor them, and think that they deserve a Peace Prize, there's now an on-line petition available.

Such an act might undo some of the damage done by the Nobel Committee to its own reputation in recent years and weeks.

Barbara Finally Gets Her Ride

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced Friday that Barbara Morgan, the back-up Teacher-In-Space to Christa McAuliffe, will finally get to fly.

Dan Goldin viscerally and vociferously opposed civilians in space (except for corrupt Senators), and refused to reinstate the Teacher-In-Space program (it was suspended after the Challenger accident, in which McAuliffe was killed). Morgan is finally flying because she was formally accepted as a member of the astronaut corps and has been training for several years. However, I suspect that she'll still try to get in some teaching during her flight.

I Say It's A Hill, And To Heck With It

Speaking of the Red Planet, the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft has taken pictures of the Cydonia region of Mars. They've been analyzed and were released Saturday.

If that looks like a face, then I look like Cindy Crawford.

It's very clear to me that it's just a hill with terraces. But I'm sure that the Face-on-Mars loons will persist, claiming that the photo was doctored, or they'll get out Photoshop and fill in the gaps and claim that that was what it looked like prior to erosion. Or they'll just continue to live in denial and say it does so look like a face.

After all of the loony accusations of NASA coverups, their faces should be Red.

Next Thing You Know, They'll Be Following Orders

In the Washington Post last Thursday, they had a real howler:

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the committee that funds NASA, has expressed reservations about the growing cooperation between the military and the Pentagon.

Resolution To Microsoft Case

They've finally decided on a solution. The company will be split into two separate companies. One will write software, and the other will build patches.

Letters

An apparently-hysterical Peter Cook takes me to task for my comments on the Palestinian organ transplant:

So Israel "offers life to the innocents of its enemies"? Is that why Israeli soldiers gun down Palestinian children? Is that why the Israeli army won't let ambulances into the Palestinian cities they are occupying to evacuate wounded Palestinians? This is the same government which described children accidentally killed after blowing up a building with helicopter gunships as collateral damage. You need to check the facts as to what is really going on in the occupied territories before you start making statements like you did in this idiotic column.

Just quickly, I'm not aware of any deliberate gunning down of Palestinian children, those same ambulances have been used as covert delivery methods of bombs and bombers, and that is exactly what collateral damage means. Thanks for writing, though.

Reader Gary Mills informs us that:

Your discussion reminded me of a story told by some former RAND Corporation colleagues. Back in the 60s, RAND did a study for NASA on the economics of the proposed space shuttle, concluding that the shuttle wouldn't be a cost-effective launch vehicle unless it could be utilized at a high rate, which was impossible for two reasons: First, the shuttle couldn't be turned around quickly enough. Second, even if it could, there was simply no demand to put that much payload into orbit. I don't know if the study was ever published, but RAND never received another dime of NASA funding.

Many people aren't aware that the RAND Corporation was named after me...: )

Luke Gruber comments:

Thank you very much for the article on Foxnews.com regarding Space Station Alpha. I never compared Alpha to Skylab, but it does give me a rather dim view of our latest efforts.

You make a very good point for why we can't depend on the government to help us make meaningful progress in space exploration. I really think that a private effort is necessary. Unfortunately, even with a space-hero like Buzz Aldrin pushing for it, commercial "exploration" missions don't seem to be going anywhere.

I wonder what would happen if a group of private scientists got together with a group of marketing people and designed Space Station Pepsi or Moon Base Coors. I wonder what corporate/commercial sponsorship capital could do for the conquest of space. Just a thought.

David P. Abuisi writes:

I agree with what you say about the ISS. And the last part is true: As long as manned space is a jobs program in Congressional districts, it will be expensive. The solution everyone wants is to make it a commercial program. But nobody has ever presented a plan that takes the manned space program from a government program to a commercial program. And the reason for this is simple: There is no ecnonomic reason for the manned space program. It is a national prestige and exploration program paid for by the government.

My hope is that the science that is done on the ISS, hopefully a seven-person ISS, will lead to commercial products that need to be produced in space. This will give the economic reason for the manned space program to start the transistion to a comercial enterprise.

(I have worked for NASA contractors for 26 years on both the Shuttle and Space Station Training simulators at Johnson Space Center. I was laid off last Spetember because of cut backs caused by the ISS cost overruns.)

Well, there's a lot of fodder for future columns...

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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