After Neil Armstrong

What future for space exploration?

Neil Armstrong's star. Photo: Getty Images

To mark the death of Neil Armstrong, we have republished this 2008 assessment of Nasa on its 50th birthday

Fifty years ago this month, President Eisenhower announced he was going to end his nation's space race humiliations. He would be establishing a national aeronautical agency that would control America's civil rocket launches and restore the country's ailing scientific reputation. The Soviet Union was then grabbing world headlines with space spectaculars that included putting the first animal, Laika the dog, into orbit. By contrast, America had little else but explosions and ignition failures on launch pads to show for its efforts in postwar rocketry. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) would stop the rot and restore America's faltering space endeavours, Eisenhower told Congress on 2 April 1958.

Thus Nasa, which went on to earn itself a reputation for unfailing technological expertise, was brought into existence primarily to save America from political ignominy. Grand schemes for traversing the heavens and revolutionising space exploration were afterthoughts. And thereby hangs a tale. In coming months, as the agency celebrates its 50th birthday and displays itself as the source of endless technological triumphs, there will be much harking back to glory days: to US flags planted on the Moon and to giant leaps made for mankind.

But behind the bunting and the bombast, it will be hard to avoid the sense of unease hanging over Nasa. Yes, it has achieved great things, but it is also beset by major political and financial worries. This, after all, is one of the world's most lavishly funded scientific organisations, an agency with an annual budget of $16bn (£8bn). American taxpayers who provide that money are entitled to see significant results. The question is: do they get enough of them? After 50 years, has the agency done enough to justify the money that has been pumped into it? What has it done for science and, more importantly, what is it likely to do in the future? Answers to these questions make disturbing reading.

For a start, we should note that Nasa has now less than a dozen flights to make on the space shuttle, the only craft it has for putting human beings into space. In 2010, its shuttle fleet is to be grounded permanently; the risks of another Challenger or Columbia disaster occurring are considered to be too high to be endured. Thus, in a couple of years, Nasa will be unable to send men and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), even though its $100bn cost has been met principally by US taxpayers. Instead America will be entirely dependent - until 2014 or 2015 when replacement rockets are ready - on Russia to get men and women into space, a situation that Moscow is likely to use, primarily, to extort geopolitical concessions from the US.

But how on Earth has Nasa ended up rocket-less and technologically impotent? Most agency supporters blame politicians. Nasa has certainly been shunted in every possible direction by different White House administrations, many of them deeply suspicious of and unfriendly towards space exploration. The claim is only partially valid, however - for Nasa, right from the start, has tried to control political agendas as much as it has let itself be shaped by them, according to the historian Gerard DeGroot, author of Dark Side of the Moon. In 1960 John F Kennedy used US space failures to attack the Republican Party and win the presidency by claiming America was dangerously exposed to Russian rocket attacks. He exaggerated Soviet space achievements and underplayed America's. Nasa, which might have been expected to defend its reputation, said nothing: it knew it would flourish under Kennedy. "Thus Kennedy was like Nasa," says DeGroot. "On the surface, both were handsome, articulate, bold and brave. Underneath, both were manipulative, mendacious, scheming and untrustworthy."

Later Kennedy found he had inherited an agency that was devouring more cash than any other federal programme. However, the president was assassinated before he got a chance to do something about this haemorrhaging of money. The space programme became a homage to the dead president and therefore untouchable, adds DeGroot.

Then came the Apollo Moon landings, which were Nasa's crowning glories, though it should also be noted that many serious risks - the launching of untested equipment, technical short cuts and use of untried software - were taken, but revealed only decades later. Apollo 8 was originally scheduled for only an Earth orbit mission, for example, but at the last minute was sent to circle the Moon in 1968 to restore Nasa's slipping lunar landing schedule. The world marvelled to hear astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis while in lunar orbit. Yet the mission was "the greatest single gamble in space flight then and since", according to the astronaut Deke Slayton. "We didn't even have the software to fly Apollo in Earth orbit, much less the Moon."

Nevertheless, Nasa pulled through, survived the near destruction of Apollo 13 and flew its last lunar mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. After that it was downhill all the way. The space shuttle, first launched in 1981, was intended to be a space truck that would fly missions every week once its four-craft fleet was in operation. Nasa was going to make space travel commonplace.

But the spaceship - although brilliantly engineered and constructed - possessed a crucial design flaw. Instead of sitting on top of fuel tanks filled with thousands of tonnes of high explosives, the shuttle was strapped to the side of them. There would be no escape should these tanks explode - as they did on 28 January 1986, destroying the shuttle Challenger. And when pieces of insulation fell off the top of fuel tanks during launch, they often hit the shuttle below, as they did on 16 January 2003 when Challenger's sister craft Columbia sustained wing damage that caused it to disintegrate during its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere 16 days later. Those two accidents claimed the lives of 14 astronauts, a death toll that makes the spaceship one of the least safe forms of transport in existence. Hence the decision to scrap it in 2010.

And finally there is the International Space Station. Conceived in the Reagan era as a Cold War response to the Soviet Union's Mir station, it was remodelled by Bill Clinton's administration as an international orbiting laboratory that would keep Russian space scientists out of the hands of rogue nations after the Soviet Union disintegrated. The station - which also depends on Canadian, European and Japanese involvement - has already taken ten years to reach its current half-complete status and its costs so far are staggering. Not a single piece of scientific data of any worth has been produced in that time. Nor is any expected for the foreseeable future. Thus Nasa's most palpable legacy, as it celebrates its 50th birthday, is the most expensive and wasteful piece of technology ever constructed, a device built to satisfy political aspirations but incapable of solving a single important scientific problem. Moreover, the agency will soon have no means of its own to reach this orbiting white elephant.

As to the future, Nasa is committed to the development and use, around 2015, of Orion and Ares rockets - its shuttle replacement launchers - for which men and women will be put back in capsules that will ride on top of rockets just as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins flew towards the Moon on top of a giant Saturn V booster. This will be the technology that will take human beings to the Moon by 2020 and to Mars a couple of decades later, says Nasa.

Just why mankind is returning to the Moon is unclear. Nor is it obvious that the manned exploration of Mars is anyway justified by the costs involved. In any case, the funding for such missions has yet to be pledged by the White House, which has merely indicated a general desire that Nasa aim for these goals.

 

 

Robot missions

At the end of the day, Nasa is beset by the most fundamental of all problems that concerns space travel: thinking of a good reason why men and women should undertake it. In an age of mini aturisation and telecommunication marvels, astronauts waste space, oxygen, room and payload. Yet Nasa's raison d'être was, above all else, to put human beings into space and, in particular, to get Americans higher and further than Russians. Everything else that it has done has been an afterthought. Yet humans have brought nothing but trouble to the agency.

By contrast, Nasa's unmanned space probes have produced magnificent returns and demonstrate what the agency can do when it is left to get on with science. Its robot missions have shown us that Venus is a searing, acid-shrouded hell; that Saturn and Jupiter have moons with ice-covered oceans; that Mars has canyons and ice-filled craters; and that our own planet is now suffering from serious climatic change.

Best of all, however, have been the stunning photographs of distant galaxies, stars and nebulae gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope. These are the most popular by-products of any Nasa endeavour - by a long way. Yet their cost represents a tiny fraction of the money spent by the agency on human space flight.

Nasa clearly has the "know-how" to explore space. After 50 years, that much is clear. But demonstrating that prowess while saddled with projects such as the ISS and a new set of manned Moon launches has become a challenge that will stretch Nasa to its limits. This, in short, is an agency that badly needs to find a way to free itself from the shackles of its past.

Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer

 

NASA by numbers

1958 US Space Act establishes National Aeronautics and Space Administration

1961 Yuri Gagarin is first man in space

1965 Alexei Leonov takes first space walk

1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the Moon

1986 Launch of Mir space station; Challenger explodes on take-off

1990 Hubble Space Telescope sent into orbit

1993 International Space Station (ISS) project established with support of 16 countries

2003 Columbia disintegrates on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere

2004 Nasa's rover robots look for water on Mars

2010 ISS due to be completed; shuttle comes out of service

Research by Simon Rudd