Over the years I worked in space applications. Many of them were military, but several were NASA programs. The amount of technology developed for these programs was tremendous. On the other hand, they take way too long. I will give you an example. I worked on the ISS in the 1980s (it may not have had the I back then). I found that there were people on out team that had worked on it in the 1970s. What was eventually launched was not much different from what we could have launched in the 1980s. The point is that people tend to fall away from these programs becuase they take several times longer that they need to. I believe that this is part of the reason that programs do not get the public support they need.
Another issue is that NASA often limits the technology used to play it safe (and I am not talking about crew safety). This means that the technology launched is often obsolete before it goes up. NASA needs to change, but in addition, we need to provide funding in a more reliable way. That means we either have to say, we will spend this much, or that we will have goals that we are trying to reach, and fund those. I don't see either happening any time soon.
Naperlou, I wonder if the sluggishness of development at NASA is because there is no outside impending deadline. The moonshot was driven by the desire to beat the Soviets to the moon -- that plus Kennedy's "end of the decade" challenge. What would force a deadline now? Nothing really.
I think part of the problem is lack of public interest and NASA is dropping the ball in this area. One of my most unforgettable experiences was visiting an open house at the John son Space Center. It was geared to families and areas normally closed to the public where opened. My son got to shake hands with Rick Husbands and there were several shuttle astronauts available for autographs. We got to see moon rocks up close as well as go in a simulator. The event lasted all day and was a highlight for our entire family. It was filled with families and was an obvious success attendance-wise. Of course we went home with a model shuttle craft with a remote control and all the bells and whistles, serving to stimulate my then pre-schoolers imagination and love for all things space. Since then over the years, I have checked with NASA about there next open house only to find they had stopped doing them. We need to bring the excitement of space back to a generation that is so desensitized to its incredible beauty due to the nature of computer graphics that makes them feel like they have already seen everything. When you take a kid out into the country so that they feel like they can actually reach up and touch the stars, it changes their perspective. Introduce them to the real workings of space technology, it generates excitement. We need more public exposure to these sort of things!
@Rob: You can learn about NASA's plans here. (It's also the first site that comes up if you Google "future NASA missions").
As you read this, five men and one woman are orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station, the Curiosity rover just completed a year on Mars and is still going strong, the New Horizons probe is on its way to Pluto, and the Cassini probe is continuing to send back data from Saturn. Those are just a few of the missions NASA is currently engaged in. Meanwhile, just yesterday, SpaceX completed a demonstration of its Grasshopper VTVL (vertical takeoff-vertical landing) vehicle.
Exciting things are happening, and a pessimistic attitude that treats the space program as a dying relic of the past runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we want politicians to support the space program -- and more importantly, if we want young people to dream about space -- we need to be positive and optimistic.
Technology have become so commonplace and the successes so routine that we have lost much of the wonder of how these things are accomplished be it space exploration, modern medical devices, or the smart phone in one's hand. The Opportunity and Spirit rovers were designed to perform 90 day missions and operated for years. Curiosity is working well and is expected to operate for years. Hubble got a corrective len package, has been upgraded a couple of times, and has produced some of the more impressive images ever produced. We have learned to communicate with spacecraft over a billion miles away. When a problem has arisen such as the ammonia leak on the space station or the water issue in the space suit, the challenge is overcome with little fanfare. These accomplishments have become almost a footnote in the public's conscienciousness.
Without a disaster, we rarely see NASA in the news for these accomplishments. We cannot get live coverage of a launch of a crew to the ISS yet we have "reality" TV of people sharing a house, living on an island, or in a jungle until they are voted out. We have live nightly TV coverage of lottery drawings. It's a sad state of affairs.
@Nancy: NASA temporarily suspended its Education and Public Outreach activities in March, due to the sequester which has effected the entire federal government. This is definitely something worth writing to Congress about because of the importance of getting kids excited about space travel.
That being said, there are a lot of things that we can do as engineers to help spread enthusiasm about space. I've been working with my local public library to help acquire some NASA historical artifacts and design an exhibit around them. We're hoping to invite Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who was the first Latina astronaut, and is now the director of the Johnson Space Center, to come talk to students. (Dr. Ochoa, if you're reading this, please e-mail me!)
Dave - I think these types of actvities have been severely limited for years now...glad to hear about what you are doing and it certainly serves as inspiration for all of us.
Here's a fun resource for kids written by one of the Rocket Boys - it's fiction but it excites the imagination! It also mentions the Helium 3 that has been a topic of discussion as an energy source from the moon for years...
I agree completely. The technological benefits of returning to space are boundless. There is one intangible difficult to quantify—national pride in being THE country capable of providing much needed advances in technology and bringing forth the possibility of better living standards for the entire world. In my opinion, advances in medicine would be worth the effort. If we could eliminate 10 % of the waste and fraud in the Medicare and Medicade system we could finance NASA in a much more generous fashion.
I don't think any of NASA'a sensible and ultimately useful objectives in space require human presence. unless it's to provide material for press releases and "Discovery channel" documentaries. All of NASA's most impressive work - Hubble, Mars rovers, navigation satellites, apcae borne experiements - are carried out by unmanned craft via telemetry. Cheaper, safer, more productive. In terms of unmanned missions, NASA doesn't need to "return" to space. They are still up there.
@Battar: I agree with you that NASA doesn't need to "return" to space when they are already there. However, I disagree that a human presence in space is unnecessary. There is a lot of exploration that can be carried out by robotic probes, but human spaceflight is an important end in itself.
That being said, William Anders, the astronaut who took the iconic "Earthrise" photo, has said that we shouldn't travel to Mars until we're ready to do so as humans, rather than nationalistic Americans or Russians or Chinese or Indians.
I agree with that sentiment, although I'm not so sure about the possibly centuries-long wait it might impose.
you say that "Human spaceflight is an important end in itself".
What problems does it solve, what scientific or engineering objectives does it meet?
If it's an emotional ideal, it's just not worth the multi-billion dollar investment. Just to put things in perspective, NASA could sent 3 robotic probes to Mars for the price of a single shuttle mission.
A customer who was thermal printing strip steel had a problem: When the strip's speed increased, the thermo printer would catch fire. When he set a flame to a piece of the strip, he couldn't get it to burn. What was the problem?
Engineers are well positioned to be the leaders for innovation in this new age of machines. Human-centered design enables us to manage the vast amounts of information and the power of technology in solving the world’s problems.