Is the U.S. Space Program History?

If you're fascinated by all things related to rockets, trips to the moon, and the inner workings of the US space program (and who isn't), then you won't want to miss Discovery's new miniseries, When We Left Earth. It traces the 50-year history of the Space Age in the United States, and is packed with footage from NASA's archives that is getting its first public showing (including color film of the first spacewalk). You can see a clip here, dealing with what the astronauts went through as they waited for that first crewed moon flight in 1969. Will we ever see crewed space flights like this again?

Over at the New York Times, John Schwartz has seen the whole miniseries and says it has a not-so-subtle message: Will we continue to fund the space program? He writes:

Along with the drama of the Discovery programs and the overwrought musical score and the sometimes-portentous narration by [Gary] Sinise is, always, the message of the series: Human space exploration is worthwhile, even necessary. While critics of the manned space program argue that robots outstrip the abilities of humans for less cost and risk, the film puts forward Edward Weiler, the former chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope program.

The telescope was famously flawed upon its initial deployment and had to be repaired in orbit through a bold shuttle mission that involved five spacewalks of unprecedented complexity. “I can say unequivocally that if it wasn’t for the human space program, Hubble would be a piece of orbiting space junk,” he says.

NASA is now in the process of winding down the shuttle program; no flights are scheduled after 2010. What comes next, a new generation of spacecraft known as Constellation, will not be flying until 2015 at best. In the middle is a gap that will be filled by buying seats to the space station aboard the Russian Soyuz capsules. That period to come will test the nation’s commitment to spending the billions of dollars it takes to send humans into space and keep them safe from start to finish. It will test the notion that we need to send people into space at all.

These are topics worthy of a spirited national debate. And the Discovery Channel has put the argument on the table.


The miniseries will start Sunday at 9 PM on Discovery Channel.

50 Years of NASA's Home Movies [NYT]


Corpore Metal

Sorry but Edward Weiler doesn't convince me. Robots are still cheaper and give us much more science for the buck than humans do. While it's true that the Hubble was fixed with human EVA, let us note that Shuttle safety problems delayed the Galileo probe to Jupiter by more than a decade.

Anyway, the reason why we keep casting about for a reason for human spaceflight to exist is because the only one that matters, permanent, self-sufficient colonization is so enormously hard—the gap between our dreams and our current powers is overwhelming. In the face of that giant, that hugest of challenges, it's hard to think of viable first steps that don't get swept away as the temporary measures that they are.

Think about it what will it really take to colonize Mars permanently? Decent solar and nuclear power and mines are just the start. How do we re-engineer humans to live permanently in reduced gravity without illnesses and birth problems? How do we ship an entire ecosystem to Mars? Do we even know how to build an self-contained ecosystem, let alone ship it to Mars. There are just so many things to consider it boggles the mind.

That being said, building a lot of space elevators would be a good start.