Still Astronaut Wannabes

This year, NASA set a new record for the number of applicants to its astronaut program.  18,300 people applied to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of those hopefuls will be disappointed, because NASA expects to actually select only between 8 and 14 astronauts.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, every kid wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.  Of course we did!  Every time there was a rocket launch we trooped into the school auditorium to watch it, and when the rocket cleared the launchpad we cheered in support of those brave men riding in the capsule at the very tip of that pillar of flame.  In my third grade class our science project involved a life-size mock up of the Gemini capsule, covered in aluminum foil, that sat in one corner of the classroom.  From watching Walter Cronkite on TV, we knew all of the steps in the launching and recovery processes.

worldmostexpensivesuit-americanastronautcostumeSo obviously we dreamed of one day being astronauts.  Astronauts were celebrities.  Astronauts were cool — like the Beatles, except clean-cut.  Astronauts were the future.  Astronauts were leading the great national effort for America to win the “space race,” and they got to go to the White House and meet the President, too.

The days of intense national interest in rocket launches and sending a man to the moon are long behind us.  We don’t even have a space shuttle program anymore, and space flight opportunities are limited to occasional trips to the International Space Station.  But NASA is hopeful that a new era in space flight is just around the corner.  It is talking about sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, private companies are increasingly getting into the space business, and the movie The Martian was a big hit that made astronauts world-wide heroes again.  Maybe the manned space program will once again come to the forefront.

I think it says something positive that more than 18,000 people applied for the astronaut program.  People still want to be part of a great effort, still want to move the frontiers forward, still want to explore.  In short, they still want to be astronauts.  Why not?  Heck, I still think it would be cool to be an astronaut.


Empty Space

Soon the current mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis — the last mission in the United States space shuttle program — will end.  For the first time in a generation, the United States will have no existing program to place human beings into outer space.  Until a new program is developed, Americans who want to get to the international space station will have to rely on the Russians to get them there.

Of course, American exploration efforts are not limited to manned space flight; NASA continues to make excellent use of unmanned probes and drones to explore the planets, asteroids, moons, and outer reaches of our solar system.  Many people — including Dr. Science — believe unmanned space exploration is the most sensible approach.  They reason that space is too hostile to human beings and therefore it is too expensive to design crafts that can safely house humans in that hostile environment.  In their view, we get more far more science bang for the buck through use of unmanned devices.

I understand that position, but also think manned exploration must be a continuing focus.  Right now, there is great uncertainty about what course the United States will follow with respect to manned space flight.  There will be a gap of some years — at least — and the bright, experienced people who worked on the shuttle program will move on to take new jobs.  A great opportunity has been missed.  Rather than spending billions on ill-fated stimulus projects, We should have invested that money in the manned space program — which has a history of producing useful technology and encouraging innovation and also has an inspirational and aspirational component.

America must, in part, be about pushing the envelope and leading the world; it cannot simply be about health care dollars and internal disputes about who gets what piece of the pie.  The end of one of our most noteworthy forays into the realm of exploration and pure science, with no replacement at the ready, sends a sour message about where we are going as a country and as a society.

We are either moving forward, or we are moving backward.  I would rather move forward.