First, a hearty Welcome and Thank You for test-driving my blog. I hope it brings you many hours of enjoyment and thought-provocation. But for now, you’ll have to wade through the obligatory first post self-indulgence…
I’m a space geek, which considering the circumstances was probably unavoidable. My grandfather followed the Gemini and Apollo programs pretty closely, and my uncle lived (still does) not far from Cape Canaveral. I remember all of the moon landing missions, and was lucky enough to see a couple launches of the final Saturn boosters. I collected all of the space-program toys that my grandpa could get from the Gulf Oil stations or that could be pried out of Tang jars.
So yeah, I’ve been marinating in this stuff since I was a little kid. And now that the last Space Shuttle is in orbit, it’s high time for me to get off my butt and start blogging.
What the heck does that have to do with anything?
Considering everything I just described, when time came to head off for college, what would’ve been the obvious choice of majors?
Well, English, of course. I like writing.
Okay, you can stop laughing now. Mike Collins, Apollo 11 command module pilot, was once quoted as saying “what the space program needs is more English majors”. So there.
But since nobody else in aerospace apparently feels that way, I embarked on a career in boring old plain-jane aviation. Eventually got qualified as an aircraft performance engineer, something of which I am immensely proud. And I kept on writing.
Again, what does this have to do with anything?
I write about aerospace and other things. And that’s where the Space Shuttle comes in…
NASA has turned into a first-class, grade-A boondoggle. A money pit. A place where great ideas go to die in the bottomless well of bureaucracy. The shuttle essentially became a vehicle with no clear destination, meant to service a space station that didn’t exist. So, we set out to build a space station so the shuttles would have somewhere to go. Can you say “circular logic?” I knew you could.
And then there was Columbia. Out of that tragedy, NASA was presented with a golden opportunity to follow a different path. For the first time, it looked like they would take a competitive approach, like the Pentagon does when they want to buy a new fighter. Let the contractors prototype their own designs, hold a fly-off, and Uncle Sugar will decide which one they want to drop money on. Private industry would have a bigger role in transport to low orbit, and NASA would focus on the higher-risk work of developing technologies that would finally get us beyond Earth orbit again.
Until they decided not to anymore. Until they decided on a do-over of Apollo that ended up being unrealistic, unsustainable, and unaffordable. They set up a slow-motion train wreck that has reached its inevitable outcome: our country no longer has its own access to space.
Hopefully that won’t be for long.
Human spaceflight is uniquely complex and risky. But it does not have to be mind-bogglingly expensive. Right now, there are private individuals who have invested their own fortunes in new vehicles and hardware that have already driven down the price of access to orbit. And they will continue to drive it down and innovate along the way. In the Sixties, getting people up there was sufficiently new enough, with uncertain benefits, that a government program was the only quick way to do it. But after fifty years, launching to and recovering from orbit is now well-enough understood that it’s time to let private enterprise take over. Let SpaceX or Boeing or Blue Origin get our people and stuff up there, and NASA can get back to doing the research necessary to actually go somewhere again.
We’ve not lost our space program. What we’re doing is unleashing a space industry.
And that brings me back to writing.
I’ve finished a novel, Perigee, which explores the new world of private spaceflight and its tension with the old guard at NASA. The first chapter sets up the end of the Shuttle program, but in a markedly different way than what you might have seen on TV the other day. I’ve posted it here on the blog and offer it up for your enjoyment. Perigee‘s first draft is done, but I’m rewriting some elements. This obviously includes chapter one since, well, there ain’t no shuttles no more. Other chapters will be posted if there’s enough interest, and the full novel will be available at Amazon once I’m satisfied with the final product.
Bottom line: I’m sad to see this era pass only because those things were cool. But let’s face it: all they did was literally fly around in circles. It’s time to go somewhere again. And in the meantime, if I can’t participate in it, I can at least write about it.
This blog will be about a lot of other stuff, too. Very few topics will be off-limits, but this is where my head is today.
In the meantime, Glenn Reynolds summed it up quite nicely in the Atlantic some time ago.
UPDATE: blogger and “recovering aerospace engineer” Rand Simberg is always worth reading on this topic. Here’s his take in Popular Mechanics.