Lately, NASA seems a little left behind. The shuttle program is over. We have to catch a ride from Moscow in order to send scientists up to the Space Station. Meanwhile, China has landed a rover on the moon, and Iran has successfully sent its second monkey into space. It looks like the next US trip to space may come from private enterprise in the form of Virgin Galactic. Even that would just be a short trip in very near space.
NASA is now in full development mode. The agency's leaders seem convinced that if they build great space technology, politicians will finally see the value of supporting a return to human flight into the heavens. The Robonaut program is designed to help scientists on the space station, but the program also has an eye to planetary accommodation. Recently, Design News editor Ann Thryft did a story on NASA’s work to develop a 3D printer that can build structures on the moon and other planetary surfaces. NASA is still in the game, even if its game prep is on the sidelines.
Design News editor Rob Spiegel sits above NASA's buoyancy pool, which was designed to train astronauts for space walks.
Last week, I visited NASA as part of a group that included 10 engineers who had won a tour of NASA from Littelfuse’s Speed2Design contest. Five media partners were also part of the program, including Design News. During the trip, it was clear the agency is itching to get back into human-based space journeys.
Our tour guides were one of the highlights of the visit. In stage after stage of the trip, we were ushered around by actual program leaders, not the usual PR contingent. They seemed to be fired up by the presence of fellow engineers. They took us into the bowels of their development labs, pulling back curtains and showing us new equipment that made their PR folks nervous. All the while, we kept hearing the refrain, “We can be back into human space travel within three years of a go-ahead.”
“Even a human-based trip to Mars?”
“Yes, even a flight to Mars.”
One scientist showed us a dune-buggy-like vehicle that would be “the perfect car for a new city.” I don’t think he meant a city on Earth. They showed off equipment designed to support maneuvering on planetary surfaces. This time around, it’s less bulky, less clumsy looking. There would also be robots to help humans as they set up shop on the moon, on Mars, or even on an asteroid brought into moon’s orbit for study and mining. All of this could happen within three years of a go-ahead by our politicians. Or, it could sit on the sidelines for decades to come.
The last time the US shot its citizens into space, we had two powerful motives: We wanted to make sure our competition -– then the Soviet Union -– wouldn’t pass us in technology development, and we wanted to inspire our children to take up the study of science and math. With China getting ready to land on the moon, and with our children’s test scores in science and math plummeting in world competition, we may have that perfect storm again.
If US politicians once again give the AOK to explore the universe and inspire our children to take up the sciences, NASA’s ready and chomping at the bit. All through my visit to NASA, I kept hearing the whispered refrain: “Send me in, coach.”