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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The New Era of Space Continues

The Indian space agency has launched its first probe toward the Moon, Chandrayaan-1: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7679818.stm. Good for them!

Chandrayaan-1 was developed, in part, with assistance from the U.S., as one of its onboard instruments was built by NASA. Data from this orbiter will most likely help Constellation pick future landing spots for our astronauts (though, of course, any discoveries made will be confirmed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter).

Between the cooperation in space and the recent deal on nuclear power, the U.S. and India are fundamentally shifting the shape of politics in South Asia, as the two largest democratically elected governments on Earth are now seen as cooperating, if not actual allies. This is a huge change after the Cold War, when socialist India was much closer to the Soviet Union. Having finally embraced capitalism, India is now moving closer to the U.S. This is to our advantage, especially given the potential threat of China--on Earth or in space. We could do a lot worse, and this country could use all the allies it can get!

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In the course of my job today, I got to listen to the following speech by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=29544. It was an interesting topic--integrity--for a man who many pundits seem to assume will not have a job come the next administration.

Obviously Dr. Griffin has felt wounded and insulted by the criticism the Constellation Program has endured for the last four years. However, the speech also served as a reminder to the NASA internal audience: the proper functioning of a government bureaucracy requires behaving with integrity.

That said, Griffin remained "on message." He stated that the current Constellation architecture will continue. Is it perfect? No, but it is the best architecture given the constraints the agency had to operate under and the requirements the Constellation mission had to use.

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Griffin's speech was given at the American Astronautical Society's Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here in Huntsville. The first panel of the morning--the one that most concerned my day job--was the Ares panel. After that was Griffin's luncheon speech and then a panel on the other parts of the Constellation Program, including the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, the Altair lunar lander, and Orion crew exploration vehicle. Wayne Hale, former Space Shuttle Program Manager, had a great and sometimes hilarious presentation on exploration and science.

The best speech I heard all day came from John Horack, Manager of the Science & Mission Systems department at Marshall Space Flight Center. I've heard Horack speak before, but he hit a sensitive spot for me today, as he discussed the "why" of human exploration. I have some notes, but they don't begin to capture the man's delivery or message. I'm hoping to get a copy tomorrow to pull some actual quotations, but I'll try to give some of my impressions now.

He spoke about the fact that space exploration is one of the few things this nation does that exists to create a better future. This is important when so many governmental actions exist to prevent negative consequences. He spoke of the need to build a better future, and how NASA exemplified that need. He spoke of how Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, still decided to fund the Transcontinental Railroad, and how that investment "made the future that much better." He spoke about the need for a better future, and challenged the audience to explain to their children, if we cut the space program completely, why we believed America would no longer exist or that the future would no longer be better for them. It was fundamental stuff, things we probably don't hear often enough, and things I obviously needed to hear. I promise to post some better quotations from Horack's speech as soon as I can obtain them.

And it bears noting how Horack introduced himself: "Hi, I'm John Horack, and I'm a scientist." There's this bizarre competition between science and engineering within NASA, but you hear none of that from Horack, even when I'm sure some of his programs have taken budget hits to pay for Shuttle or Constellation. He believes in exploration and what it can do for science, and that goes a long way toward helping others see the potential for cooperation and synergy. Now the cynic in me should probably qualify this, and say, "He says he believes in exploration," but jeez, why go to all the trouble? Why put one's best thoughts and words toward ideas one doesn't believe? Anyhow, I liked his speech a great deal, and given some of the negativity I've heard and expressed lately, I probably needed it.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I love John Horack. He has a way of communicating that is both inspirational and down-to-earth. I can really connect with him.

I also seem to be following in his footsteps, since I'm starting from the same science research background and I want his job...