Offseason for the space program: been there, done that

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Published on: March 18, 2012

March madness is in full swing on the college basketball courts, and spring training is in full bloom on baseball fields here in Florida and in Arizona. Both of which can mean only one thing to me: we are in the offseason for NFL football.

But just because my Minnesota Vikings aren’t playing each week – OK, go ahead, make your own joke about whether or not they play on any given week – well that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things happening during the offseason. In fact, sometimes I think there’s more news off the field during this time of year than there is between Kick Off Weekend and Super Bowl Sunday.

This past week the official NFL calendar for the 2012 season began with the free agency period, and the NFL draft is just a month away. During this time, coaches are assessing their team’s strengths and weaknesses, determining their strategies for the coming season and making plans to field a team they think has the best chance to go all the way and win the Lombardi Trophy.

As I consider this, I think that in many ways we’re in the same kind of scenario right now with our nation’s space program. With the end last year of our Space Shuttle program and the gap we’re expecting now as we wait for either NASA or some commercial enterprise to come up with the rockets and spacecraft that will be able to launch our astronauts into orbit from our own country, it feels much like our space program is in its own offseason.

Our space policy makers and budget approvers are assessing our space program’s strengths and weaknesses. They are trying to determine exactly what our strategies should be for where we should head next in space, and they are making plans to field the launch vehicles and spaceships we’ll need that have the best chance for us to succeed in our space endeavors.

Meanwhile, fans of the space program like us are restless. Yes, our astronauts are still living and working in space aboard the International Space Station, but with them having to hitch rides into and out of Earth orbit aboard Russian space vehicles, it’s just not the same. To continue the NFL metaphor, sending our astronauts to Kazakhstan for the ride into space atop a Soyuz rocket reminds me of the time in 2010 when the roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsed and the Vikings had to play a game in Ford Field in Detroit. Interesting, maybe even a little fun, but it’s nowhere near as exciting or fulfilling as when we play a game on our own home field.

So as space fans we sit and wait for our roof to be repaired so we can play again from our home turf. And as we endure this offseason, we must continue to put up with those who don’t get it, who don’t understand why a robust space program that includes human spaceflight is so important to our nation. And we must constantly deal with the same old arguments from people who would have us abandon the risks and rewards of spaceflight for the perceived safety and satisfaction of staying on the ground.

You know the type. They are the ones who are always quick to say it’s all too expensive, there’s no good reason to be in space, we should solve our problems on Earth first before going out there, and really, it’s all just a big government jobs program anyway; corporate welfare to line the pockets of the rich shareholders.

Looking at our future plans in space while facing the gap between the end of one program and the beginning of the next, one commentator said “The American people might wonder if all these billions, and all of the science and engineering and work, might not produce something more useful… In a country with as many problems as serious as ours, there must be some better way to use it.”

Who said that? You might be surprised to learn it was NBC’s David Brinkley. Those words were part of his commentary offered on the evening of December 14, 1972, the day that Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidt lifted off from the Moon in the lunar module Challenger to dock with Ron Evans in the command module America.

Apollo 17 was our final lunar landing mission, and at that time all the news was focused on the fact that Apollo was ending and that man was not expected to return to the Moon again during the 20th Century. That instead, Skylab would keep us busy in Earth orbit while NASA developed the Space Shuttle during the offseason.

All the reports and predictions signaled doom and gloom for our space program. Public support for the space program was gone. Unemployment in places like Cocoa Beach would skyrocket and the city would become a ghost town. It was the end of an era and the future was uncertain.

Here’s what Brinkley said in its entirety…

With this last moon landing the primary job given the national space agency is done, and done well. And now one not familiar with the Washington establishment and bureaucracy might expect to see the space agency closed down and the money spent on something else. Well needless to say it won’t.

Instead it has dreamed up a multimillion dollar plan for a space shuttle, a sort of flying truck to be put in orbit around the Earth and kept there for long periods. Guesses at the costs run from five billion up to 30 billion and more, the eventual cost is vague and uncertain. Even more vague and uncertain is just what its purpose is, what the benefits might be, how it might be useful to the American people who are required to pay for it.

Even in reading NASA’s press releases it is hard to find any real purpose. It will, of course, keep the agency’s payroll going. It’ll mean government contracts for builders of space hardware and jobs in their plants. But the American people might wonder if all these billions and all of the science and engineering and work might not produce something more useful, if this country really needs another expensive piece of hardware in orbit, when here on the ground we can hardly get the mail delivered.

The space shuttle will take enormous amounts of money, talent and energy. In a country with as many problems as serious as ours there must be some better way to use it.

Pick a cliché : The more things change… Those that forget history… Déjà vu all over again…

But I’m inclined to offer “been there, done that” as most fitting. Today we face an uncertain future. We don’t have a clear vision for exactly where we are going and when. There is much debate about the rockets we need to build and the best way to spend our money. I take comfort knowing we have faced all of this before; more than once, in fact.

It is the offseason once again for our space program. The fans are restless. But opening day on a new era of spaceflight is coming, as sure as training camp for the NFL will be here before you know it. It’s still tough to say what the playbook will look like, or who will be playing what positions on the gridiron. I am confident our coaches will sort it all out and field a space program we can cheer for with all of our hearts.

In the meantime, I’ll keep the bratwursts and sauerkraut simmering on a low heat.

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