40 years later, failure is still not an option

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April 12 2010 3:03 PM

40 years later, failure is still not an option

This week marks three related anniversaries.

April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. That was 49 years ago today.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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April 14, 1970: An oxygen tank disrupts on Apollo 13, causing a series of catastrophic malfunctions that nearly leads to the deaths of the three astronauts. That was 40 years ago this week.

April 12, 1981: The first Space Shuttle, Columbia, launches into space. That was 29 years ago today.

I wasn't yet born when Gagarin flew, and I was still too young to appreciate what was happening on board Apollo as it flew helplessly around the Moon instead of landing on it. But I do remember breathlessly awaiting the Shuttle launch, and I remember thinking it would be the next phase in our exploration of space. I was still pretty young, and hadn't thought it through, but I'm sure had you asked me I'd have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we'd have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.

Yeah, I hadn't thought it through. Of all these anniversaries, that one is the least of the three we should celebrate. Don't get me wrong; the Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it's also a symbol of a political disaster for NASA. It was claimed that it would be cheap way to get payloads to space, and could launch every couple of weeks. Instead, it became frightfully expensive and couldn't launch more than a few times a year.

This was a political problem. Once it became clear that NASA was building the Shuttle Transport System, it became a feeding trough. It never had a chance to be the lean space machine it should've been, and instead became bloated, weighted down with administrative bureaucracy and red tape.

More than that, though, to me it symbolizes a radical shift in the vision of NASA. We had gone to the Moon six times -- seven, if you include Apollo 13 -- and even before the launch of Apollo 17 that grand adventure had been canceled by Congress, with NASA being forced to look to the Shuttle. Ever since then, since December 1972, we've gone around in circles.

Now, there's a lot to be said for low Earth orbit. It is a fantastic resource for science, and I strongly think we should be exploiting it even more. But it's not the goal. It's like walking halfway up a staircase, standing on your tiptoes, and admiring the view of the top landing.

We need to keep walking up those stairs. In 1961, the effects of space travel were largely unknown, but Yuri Gagarin took that chance. He was followed by many others in rapid succession. Extrapolating from his travels, by now there should be a business making money selling tours of the mountain chains around Oceanus Procellarum by now. Of the three anniversaries, looking at it now, Gagarin's is bittersweet.

In 1970 Apollo 13 became our nation's "successful failure". A simple error had led to a near tragedy, saved only by the experience, training, guts, and clever thinking on their feet of a few dozen engineers. They turned catastrophe into triumph, and now, four decades later, we can't repeat what they did. Think on this: when the disaster struck their ship, the crew of Apollo 13 were over 300,000 kilometers from Earth. Apollo 13 may have been a successful failure, but it's a failure we can't even repeat today if we tried.

I've written quite a bit about NASA's future, including my support of Obama's decision to cancel Constellation, the program that includes the next series of big rockets to take people into space. That may seem contradictory on its surface, but I support the decision because, in my opinion, Constellation was over budget, behind schedule, and had no clear purpose. The idea of going back to the Moon is one I very much strongly support, but I get the impression that the plan itself is not well-thought out by NASA. The engineering, sure, but not the political side of it. And it's the politics that will always and forever be NASA's burden.

It was a political decision to cancel Apollo. It was a political decision to turn the Shuttle from a space plane to the top-heavy system it is. It was a political decision to cancel the Shuttle with no replacement planned at all (that was done before Obama took office, I'll note). It was a political decision that turned the space station from a scientific lab capable of teaching us how to live and explore space into the hugely expensive and bloated construction it is now.

NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds. I'm hoping that Obama's plan will streamline NASA, giving away the expensive and "routine" duties it needs not do so that private industry can pick them up. The added money to go to science, again in my hopes, will spur more innovation in engineering.

And NASA needs a goal. It needs to put its foot down and say "This is our next giant step." And this has to be done hand in hand with the politics. I understand that is almost impossible given today's political climate, where statesmanship and compromise has turned into small-minded meanness and childish name-calling on the Congress floor.

But I'm old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible.

Of the three anniversaries, Apollo 13 is the one we should be celebrating. I'll gently correct what Gene Kranz said that day: failure really was an option, but not an acceptable one.

Right now, at this very moment, those feats are all impossible once again. But for a time, they were not only possible, we made them happen.

It's time to do the impossible once again.

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