An Insider’s Perspective on the U.S. in Space

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Space shuttles flew for more than 30 years. For everyone from the oldest baby boomers to the youngest, it has long represented the United States in space. What’s next? BoomerCafé co-founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs’s “day job” is as a correspondent for HDNet television’s weekly program World Report. And for the last six years, covering space has been part of that job. In this essay, he gives us an insider’s look at where the U.S. is headed next.

Greg Dobbs in a training capsule.

A lot of Americans have strong opinions about the end of the shuttle program. Which means, when the last shuttle has touched down and its wheels have turned for the last time, there will surely be debate about the space program. Is this the end of our best days in space, or just a transition? My answer is, transition. Here’s why:

  1. One of the reasons NASA is retiring the space shuttle is to put the money that has been spent going into low earth orbit into new technologies to get us where we want to go next. Our spacecraft have been propelled primarily by the same technology for more than 40 years. If we want to go the distance in the 21st Century — back to the moon, to Mars, to an asteroid — we need new materials, new fuels; the idea that intrigues me the most is about beaming energy up from the ground.
  2. The space industry won’t be concentrated any more at NASA, but it has new horizons which probably will result in more innovation than we’ve seen in a long time, which means more spin-offs to make our daily lives better. It will absorb at least some of the “rocket scientists” who are leaving NASA. Private companies already are developing spacecraft to take our astronauts to and from the space station so that we don’t have to forever rely, as we shall for the next few years, on the Russians. The only difference from how we’ve built spacecraft in the past is, they’ll take the financial risk; NASA will just pay them to fly the missions. Critics fear sloppy standards, but private enterprise always has been behind American spacecraft; NASA doesn’t have much more than a screwdriver and a wrench in its inventory. Anyway, NASA won’t certify a ship unless it satisfies NASA’s standards.

Space shuttle launch.

Recently in Washington, I asked NASA’s Administrator, Charlie Bolden, why we’re not rushing back to the moon. His answer was, no matter who gets to the moon next, they’ll find that there already are six flags planted there, and they’re all ours.

There certainly will be some brain drain. Some experts think that could be fatal to our future in space. But recently I also interviewed Scott Carpenter, America’s fourth man in space, only the second to go orbital, after John Glenn. Since he’s been around since Day One and seen gaps in the past between one program and another, I asked him about all these fears and his answer was, “We’ll recover. There’ll be a time when we progress at a slower rate but we’ll recover.” I then asked how we’ll do that and he said, “Re-invigorate the national goal of flying to Mars.” When I asked why that’s important, he answered with the kind of pioneer spirit that got us to where we are: “Because it is inevitable that we will go there. That’s what humans do.”

Alan Shepard ... 50 years ago.

Charlie Bolden’s predecessor running NASA, Michael Griffin, used to evangelize that the other over-arching argument to push deeper into space is that throughout history, the nations that put their men and money into ships that sailed across uncharted oceans became the leading nations of their times. Not to mention beneficiaries of the riches with which those ships came home.

We don’t know what’s ahead, but think about this: Alan Shepard became the first American in space just over fifty years ago, when even the oldest of us baby boomers were just teenagers. He lifted off in a capsule that was all of 11-1/2 feet high and just over six feet across. It weighed about five thousand pounds. He traveled just over 300 miles, reaching an apogee of 116 miles and a speed of about 5,000 mph. The whole sub-orbital flight lasted less than sixteen minutes, from liftoff to splashdown in the Atlantic. Compare those numbers to the space shuttle.

My point is, no one then could even imagine a spaceship that lifted off like a rocket and landed like an airplane … let alone all the byproducts of the space age that we use in our everyday lives. Maybe I should be worried about where we’re headed now. But I’m not.

3 Comments

  1. I love the comments you relayed from Scott Carpenter (It’s inevitable) and Charlie Bolden (the nations that put their men and money into ships that sailed across uncharted oceans became the leading nations of their times.)!

    In our family, the dreams of 4 generations were sparked by space. My Dad was an electronics inspector for McDonnell Aircraft – and worked on the space modules when McDonnell worked with Motorolla on parts for them. Our generation was inspired to explore science and technology which rubbed off on our children and now the interest is passing on to our grandson!

  2. Hi Greg!

    I remember Apollo program with the first man, Edward White, in the space outside the capsule. I was a young boy. I was thrilled by Apollo program. I knew each technical detail concerning the rocket “Saturn” and the Lunar Module, also about the astronauts. I was a teenager when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin put the first step on the Moon. The third astronaut was Michael Collins. I staid wake up all the night for watching the event.
    That day, I thought that all was possible for the humankind. I was convinced that humans will able to cancel in a short time all diseases, starvation, war. We started a new era.
    After the Moon adventure, space shuttles program started.
    Today the Space Shuttle is stopped, and I am a boomer. I am feeling let down for my teenager expectancies. Diseases, starvation, war are raised. More that Earth is polluted increasingly.
    This year we will be seven billion people on the planet and for 2045 we will be nine billion.
    In my mind, today the true adventure is not to go to Mars. The true adventure is here on the earth. We have a better knowledge concerning the Moon than the sea, than the forests. With all the saving money from the space research maybe we can win against diseases.
    Before, we have to build the basement for the humankind, and not to build a house on the sand for avoid that it collapses.

    Best Regards.

    Richard, from France, student boomer in English language.

  3. Greg, I’m with you … no worries … on to the next stage of America’s quest … onward & upward! But those glory days of the space program are exciting memories that our generation will cherish forever. The moon landing was the most completely uplifting event that took place that entire chaotic summer of 1969 – the same summer that saw the largest rock concert in history, Rolling Stones member Brian Jones drown in a swimming pool, Senator Ted Kennedy drive his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, and the Manson murders. Here’s what I wrote in my journal as that summer came to a close:

    September 22, 1969: Well, it’s been an absolutely insane summer! All kinds of stuff happening in both my little world and the world at large.

    . . . astronauts Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrich landed on the moon in July. It seemed like everybody in America was glued to the TV set watching it, too. Landing on the moon is probably the most amazing thing to happen in my entire lifetime! Armstrong said, upon taking his first step on the moon, “That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” It was pretty cool watching those guys. I almost don’t know which is more amazing, landing men on the moon or the ability to watch it all on TV!

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