NASA will have no goal after shuttle program

Growing up, I remember one of my favorite movies was “Apollo 13.” I watched it over and over on my family’s VCR, and I was fascinated by the fact that the U.S. was even able to launch astronauts into space. Space captured my imagination. I think I even wanted to be an astronaut for a while, and I have carried that same fascination with and love of space exploration — particularly NASA’s race to land a man on the moon — ever since.

I suppose I’m getting a little sentimental because the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which was delayed from April 19 to April 29 on Monday, is approaching. The final shuttle launch ever will be this summer. I’ve wondered many times about what NASA’s going to do next, and I wish I didn’t have to because it did, at one point, have a plan.

NASA was going to work on getting back to the moon with the Constellation program, which would have landed astronauts — for the first time since 1972 — on the moon by 2020. Unfortunately, the Constellation program is no more. Last year, President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for NASA cut the program, which NASA had already been working on for four years, and directed $18 billion toward other, more scientific projects, such as how to fuel spacecraft while in orbit and developing new engines that can accelerate even faster in space.

These goals are fine ones, to be sure, and the budget actually gave NASA more funding than it had, but what good are those new technologies and techniques if we’re not going to go anywhere with them?

The budget proposal also allocated more space operations to commercial spaceflight companies, such as Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX.

The company was the first to send a private rocket and capsule into Earth’s orbit and, according to an April 5 Associated Press article, announced Tuesday it had plans to develop the world’s most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, which took Apollo astronauts to the moon. The rocket meets NASA’s current safety requirements, but there are still plenty of reasons why having private companies take the lead in American spaceflight is a bad idea.

Allowing these companies to develop space technology may create jobs, but the companies will compete to get rockets up faster than the others.

It may have taken the Constellation program longer to have a rocket ready to launch, according to a February 2010 column on the Discover Magazine website, but that’s because it would have been more carefully planned out by NASA. Put private companies in charge of spaceflight, and you’ll get a 21st century version of the 1960s “Space Race,” but the players now are private companies looking to make a buck instead of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

NASA learned the ultimate lesson in 1967 when a fire in a practice launch for Apollo 1 killed three astronauts. After that fire, Gene Kranz, a Mission Control legend from the Apollo era, gave a speech to his flight controllers in which he said they had not done their jobs properly — by rushing to get an Apollo launch done — and had therefore been responsible for the fire and the astronauts’ deaths.

Kranz wrapped up his speech by saying, “When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by [astronauts Gus] Grissom, [Ed] White and [Roger] Chaffee.”

I’m not entirely convinced that these private spaceflight companies will be “tough and competent.” But I believe flight controllers at NASA still live up to this standard — Kranz even said so in a 2005 lecture at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Kranz said in his 2005 lecture, “I believe we are going to move into a new era of American space leadership. We have the young people, we have the technologies, we have the know-how.” Unfortunately, we’re not going to be leaders if we turn over the future of American spaceflight to private business interests.

Yes, the Constellation program would have been expensive. But the benefits of continued, manned exploration of other worlds, starting with Constellation and the moon, would have been priceless.

Associate/opinion editor Marshall Doig is a junior news-editorial journalism major from San Angelo.