The good, the bad and the ugly in space this week

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Published on: August 12, 2012

I have some things to say about a variety of topics so let’s call this week’s Orbital Inclinations the good, the bad and the ugly in space.

The good of course was the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity.

Like every good self-respecting space cadet I stayed up most of the night to watch the entry and landing. With NASA TV on one screen, and the JPL real time animation of what was supposed to have happened 14 minutes ago with the Mars Science Laboratory on another, I followed every second of those seven minutes of terror, and found myself struck with awe as each call out from mission control indicated everything was happening just as it should.

When the touchdown was confirmed and the control room broke out in a scene reminiscent of a Super Bowl winner’s locker room, I just sat there dumbfounded, my brain and heart overloaded with so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t process them all — my own version of a 1202 program alarm. (Google it if you don’t understand the reference.)

A week later, with only a handful of stunning photos of the area at Gale Crater seen so far, the science is just beginning to trickle in. Much more will follow, but from an engineering standpoint we can declare the $2 billion mission a tremendous success and another giant leap forward for mankind.

And it’s been great to see Facebook and other social media lit up this week with comments, links and references to every new development and image coming from Curiosity, including quite the collection of illustrated meme’s.

My favorite so far is the one that shows a picture of Earth and Mars next to each other. Above Earth it says “NBC, six-hour delay for an event 3,500 miles away.” Above Mars it says “NASA, 14-minute delay for an event 155 million miles away.”

I guess the obligatory Olympic references were inevitable, so why fight it? Strike up the Star Spangled Banner because Curiosity went for the gold medal, stuck the landing and made an entire nation proud of the can do spirit of exploration displayed by the Mars team.

And the best is yet to come.

As for the bad… This past week at the Kennedy Space Center an unmanned prototype rocket and lunar lander called Morpheus crashed seconds after liftoff from a simulated lunar surface that was set up near the north end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway.

No one was hurt, but the experimental lander was completely destroyed in the crash, fire and subsequent explosions of its propellant tanks.

The spacecraft had successfully flown a number test flights at the Johnson Space Center while attached to a tether hung beneath a large crane. A similar tethered flight was done at KSC as well, but the crash this week came during an untethered test flight.

The accident is a setback of course, but this new vehicle was an experiment in design, manufacturing and operation. The Morpheus team was trying something new, and as was seen during the missile hey days here at the Cape so long ago, sometimes rockets fail and make spectacular fireworks in the sky.

But what this team was working on was important and, despite the accident, remains important and worth pursuing. So I wish them well as they pick up the pieces, learn from whatever mistakes were made, rebuild and get back flying again.

The Moon still beckons, and Morpheus could be the way to get there.

And speaking of returning to the Moon, here comes the ugly.

Recently the Space Coast Economic Development Commission invited representatives of the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns to come here and talk about their plans for NASA, commercial space and related topics as it affects the Kennedy Space Center.

A representative of President Obama did show up and described the President’s support for commercial space to low Earth orbit and NASA’s plans to return astronauts to deep space exploration with the Orion capsule and Space Launch System heavy lift rocket.

Now we can quibble over the details, but at least a thoughtful plan was presented.

It’s unfortunate I can’t say the same thing for the Romney camp. Their response was to not show up and instead submit a written statement that was mind-numbingly embarrassing for its lack of specific detail and for its suggestion that we need yet another presidential panel to study what we should be doing in space.

Here’s what the Romney campaign said:

“Governor Romney will provide the clear, decisive, and steadfast leadership the space program requires. As President, Romney will bring together leading officials, researchers, and entrepreneurs to establish clear goals and missions for NASA that fulfill its objectives of spurring innovation, pursuing exploration, and symbolizing American exceptionalism.”

Here’s my unsolicited response for the Romney campaign to consider:

I am a lifelong, registered Republican who desperately wants to fully support my candidate for president, slap a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker on my car and proudly wear the red, white and blue elephant pin that I bought in our nation’s capital shortly after George W. Bush moved into the White House.

As a lifelong space cadet, my bookshelves are filled with presidential, blue-ribbon studies about what we should be doing in space. In fact, another study on NASA’s strategic direction is under way right now by the National Research Council. We don’t need another study that will tell us the same thing as all the others did, which essentially is this:

We need to reduce the cost of getting into orbit, we need to go back to the Moon to learn how to live there and take advantage of its resources, we need to send humans to Mars and other places in the solar system, all the while taking full advantage of the opportunities at every step to enhance our scientific understanding of our world and universe around us, relying on a human and robotic exploration program that has full, aggressive and stable funding — all done with specific goals identified for the timing of each milestone, and with the aim of improving our life here, stimulating our economy and ensuring our national security and national prestige.

I want to enthusiastically endorse Governor Romney, support him and ultimately vote for him this November. So far, when it comes to the single issue of our space program, the Romney campaign is making that very difficult.

They say politics are ugly and that’s exactly what the Romney plan for space looks like right now. He can change his tune about space, of course. There’s still time. Lord knows President Obama did the same thing during his initial campaign.

And that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly for this week’s Orbital Inclinations.

SPECIAL NOTE TO ALL FLORIDIANS: Please don’t forget to vote in the Primary Election this Tuesday, Aug. 14. If you are a Republican, I encourage you to vote for Dr. Dave Weldon as your Senate nominee. I know Dave quite well and he is clearly the best choice among the candidates.

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