Remembering September 12, 1962

12 09 2012

JFK at Rice University, Sept 12, 1962.

Exactly a half-century ago today, President John F. Kennedy declared in a landmark speech America’s rationale for achieving the impossible: Going to the Moon. 

And it is in this speech, which we commemmorate on the day after another anniversary marked by such tragedy, in a social climate today burdened with so much loss, strife, and economic depression, that we can draw inspiration and hope for the future. 

Unlike our opponents at the time, Kennedy’s message was a message of freedom and peace in space.  And to ensure it, he had to sell it to the American people. 

Remarkably, with as relevant as his words continue to be, he could very well have been speaking to the America of today:

“… [T]his country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.  This country was conquered by those who moved forward…”

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.  For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own.  … [S]pace can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.  There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet.  Its hazards are hostile to us all.  Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.”

“We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

“The growth of science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

“…[T]he space effort itself … has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs.  Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel … and this region will share greatly in its growth.”

“William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

“Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.”

We might look upon the International Space Station today as the realization of Kennedy’s vow for peaceful, knowledge-centered pursuits in space.  -And private companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, and Planetary Resources are today challenging the hardships of space in the pursuit of space’s rewards.

As we look to heal – economically, socially, spiritually – we might look to space as the ideal environment that Kennedy championed, which holds true today: A frontier yet-unblemished by conflicts over belief, religion, combative nationalism, or economic strife; A place from which all explorers emerge with a renewed sense of kinship with our lonely world and the inhabitants of its many diverse and unique cultures; A place where we go to forge technological solutions and harvest knowledge from the very farthest extent of our reach so that all might benefit from it; A place where we have constantly demonstrated the best qualities of humankind.

Today, fifty years after Kennedy set us on a path that many would argue changed the course of history, whether considering the issue of jobs, rights, prejudice, education, or wars, I believe we need space much more than it needs us.

And Kennedy helped light the way.  

09/12/62 – Semper Exploro





The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episode 6

4 08 2012

Me meeting with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

For those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including paradoxes, Apollo astronauts, and billion-in-one reflections, look no further!

Direct link-through to my article on the NatGeo TV blog can be found here:

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/04/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-game-of-drones/

Cheers!

Ben





Revisiting Schmitt’s National Space Exploration Administration

27 06 2012

(National Space Exploration Administration logo, as imagined by Ben McGee)

Nearly a year ago, famed geologist, former United States Senator, and former Apollo Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt recommended what to many was the utterly unthinkable:

Dissolve NASA.

To be frank, I agree with him.

While to those who have paid even a passing visit to this blog, such an admission may seem completely counter-intuitive.  But the reality is not that Dr. Schmitt has suddenly turned his back on his own legacy, nor have I on our nation’s triumphant space program.

Far from it.

Honoring the NASA Legacy

In an essay he released last year, Dr. Schmitt made a direct call to whoever becomes President  in 2013.  In it, he made clear that only by wiping away the bloated, competitive, politically-crippled bureaucracy that NASA has become and by forging in its place a leaner, more focused, dedicated Space Exploration agency may we honor the NASA legacy.

The claim made waves when it was released, ruffling the feathers of many of his own contemporaries, but (like most other calls for action) quickly flared out and faded away.  Well, I want to re-open the discussion, as this was (in my humble opinion) a damn good idea and one that deserves further promotion and consideration.

With this in mind, let’s revisit his logic.

Leadership has Failed Our “Window to the Future”

To quote Dr. Schmitt:

  • “Immense difficulties now have been imposed on the Nation and NASA by the budgetary actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2004 and 2012.”
  • “The bi-partisan, patriotic foundations of NASA … gradually disappeared during the 1970s as geopolitical perspectives withered and NASA aged.”
  • “For Presidents and the media, NASA’s activities became an occasional tragedy or budgetary distraction rather than the window to the future envisioned by Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Apollo generation.”
  • “For Congress, rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable pork barrel spending in states and districts with NASA Centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors.”
  • “Neither taxpayers nor the Nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program.”

It’s actually fairly difficult to argue any of these points, particularly considering the reality that Schmitt comes from a rare position of authority on all points.  He’s a scientist who has bodily walked on the moon and seen the inner machinations of our congressional system as an elected representative.

But, how could we possibly create a new agency from NASA?  Schmitt points out that there is already a precedent for this sort of evolutionary change…

The Precedent for Creating NSEA Has Already Been Set … by NASA

When NASA was formed in 1958, is was forged by combining/abolishing two other agencies.  The first was the famed National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), with its many familiar research centers, (e.g., Glenn, Ames, Langley,) which had been around since 1915.  It did not survive the transition.

The second was the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), the innovative military space missile (and manned space mission) effort spearheaded by the legendary Wernher Von Braun.  All manned spaceflight and space exploration activities were stripped from ABMA and rolled into NASA.

In truth, Schmitt’s recommendations for what to do moving forward aren’t so drastic as they seem.

Indeed, based on a surprising amount of overlap between NASA activities and those of other scientific national agencies and organizations, they make the utmost sense.

Decommissioning NASA According to Schmitt:  A How-To Guide in 6 Easy Steps

  1. Move NASA’s space science activities into/under the National Science Foundation, (including Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.)
  2. Move NASA’s climate and related earth science research into/under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  (My extrapolation: physical space science activities should be wrapped into the United States Geological Survey – with emphasis on the Astrogeology Science Center.)
  3. Place NASA’s aeronautical research under the purview of a reconstituted NACA, composed of Langley Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Dryden Research Center.  (California’s Ames Research Center, Schmitt proposes, is now redundant and should be auctioned off to commercial spaceflight developers.)
  4. Procure spacecraft launch services exclusively from commercial providers, (SpaceX, ULA, etc.)
  5. Retire NASA as an official agency as the International Space Station is de-orbited by 2025.
  6. Have the 2012-President and Congress recognize that a new Cold War exists with China and “surrogates,” and in response create a new National Space Exploration Administration, “charged solely with the human exploration of deep space and the re-establishment and maintenance of American dominance as a space-faring nation.”

A Breakdown of NSEA: Young, Lean, Imaginative

What would NSEA look like specifically?  Schmitt lays out the proposed agency in compelling detail.

NSEA would gain responsibility for Johnson Space Center (for astronaut training, communications, and flight operations), Marshall Space Flight Center (for launch vehicle development), Stennis Space Center (for rocket engine testing), and Kennedy Space Center (for launch operations).

NSEA’s programmatic responsibilities would include robotic precursor exploration as well as lunar and planetary resource identification research, as with the Apollo Program.

Instead of grandfathering the NASA workforce as-is, the new agency according to Schmitt would be almost entirely recomposed and given authority to maintain a youthful workforce – “an average employee age of less than 30.”  Why?  Schmitt claims that, like with Apollo, “Only with the imagination, motivation, stamina, and courage of young engineers, scientists, and managers can NSEA be successful in meeting its Cold War II national security goals.”

(Of note is the fact that during the Apollo program, the average age of mission control personnel was 28.  The average age of NASA employees is now 47.)

Clearing the Legislative Hurtles Before Beginning the Race

With an eye toward the chronic challenges NASA faces due to regularly shifting budget priorities and directives, Schmitt regards that the legislation that creates NSEA would also be required to include a provision that “no new space exploration project can be re-authorized unless its annual appropriations have included a minimum 30% funding reserve for the years up to the project’s critical design review and through the time necessary to complete engineering and operational responses to that review.”

This is a much-needed safety net for the inevitable unknowns that are encountered when designing new spaceflight hardware.

The National Space Exploration Agency Charter

Finally, Schmitt penned a charter for this new space agency, which simply reads:

  • “Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Simple.  To me, this breaks down as four primary directives:  Develop the tech to sustain a human presence off-world.  Utilize extraterrestrial resources.  Stimulate the American economy and imagination while affording us the opportunity to assert space activities as peaceful endeavors.  Develop the ability to protect Earth from NEOs.

I think this is a bold new direction, one which honors the NASA legacy, enables direct, decisive space exploration activities, and streamlines the country’s scientific bureaucracy.

Let’s talk seriously about this.

Semper Exploro.





Space Suit of the Week

31 05 2011

A quick note today on a very excellent blog series called Space Suit of the Week.  Its weekly contributions feature, unsurprisingly, space suits as they appear in art, culture and history.

While entries vary in style from edgy or morbid to fascinating and  fun, the posts carry readers on a romp through some of the most identifiable imagery in our collective psyche.  It’s quite awesome.

The series is actually a sub-part of the The Fox is Black blog, which is billed as an “art and design website that seeks to discover and share the most interesting, beautiful and inspiring parts of contemporary life.”  I’d say that space exploration definitely fits the bill. 

Check it out if you get a chance.





The National Space Exploration Administration

26 05 2011

Is a National Space Exploration Administration the future of NASA? (Hypothetical logo credit: Ben McGee)

I’m a convert.  Yesterday, Apollo astroanut, geologist-moonwalker, and U.S. Senator Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt made what amounts to one of the most daring space exploration suggestions to date:  End NASA.  -And I think I’m all for it.

Allow me to explain.

Dr. Schmitt testing NASA Apollo program field logistics. (Uncredited)

In a sweeping and devastatingly logical essay published on the “americasuncommonsense” blog, Dr. Schmitt makes a compelling case that NASA as a force for exploration and national growth has lost its way.  Irrecoverably.

Being the only scientist-astronaut to ever walk on another world, Dr. Schmitt possesses a unique credibility and vantage from which to make this sort of assessment.  He proposes that NASA and its administrative shortcomings be scrapped in favor of a new agency, which he calls the National Space Exploration Administration, or NSEA.

There is a precedent for this sort of rebirth or evolution, which Schmitt is quick to point out.  NASA itself was created as a combination of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics and Werner Von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency, (which was reponsible for one of the most ambitious space exploration initiatives, Project Horizon.)  Likewise, the U.S. Air Force was formed out of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

According to Schmitt, NASA’s climate activities could be cleanly adoped by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA’s space science activities could be neatly rolled into the National Science Foundation, and NASA’s aeronautics research and technology would go back to the coalition of national research centers from which they were originally derived, a recreated National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

This, he argues, frees the new NSEA to do what NASA should have been doing all along – driving the human exploration of deep space and reestablishing American space superiority.  The straightforward mission of this new agency, as Schmitt envisions it, is as follows:

“Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, scientifically explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Finally,  this represents a clear-cut national space agency mission that (I believe) everyone who supports space exploration can wholeheartedly endorse.  -And, perhaps more importantly, having such a clear agency objective would end the space exploration/terrestrial science/space science budgetary tug-of-war that has chronically crippled NASA.

Check out the essay and decide for yourself.  I think it’s time to send our governmental representatives a phone call or an email and make them aware of this concept as well, so they will begin to ask the question, “is a NSEA the future of NASA?”





China’s space lab rising

5 11 2010

Chinese National Space Administration. (Credit: CNSA)

As arguably the third most powerful space agency in the world, the China National Space Administration, which already has successful manned launches and a confirmed spacewalk under its belt, continues its determined drive starward.  In early October, the CNSA signed a cooperative space plan with Russia for the 2010-2012 timeframe, the contents of which are being held close to the vest but no doubt include the joint Russian-Chinese exploration and sample-return mission (Fobos-Grunt) to the Martian moon Phobos next year.

Now, as reported last week, China recently announced (confirmed) plans for a series of orbital space stations, beginning with the launch of an unmanned test module within the next five years and a fully-crewed, Mir-style station by the year 2020.

This places proposed CNSA activities right in the thick of NewSpace (e.g., U.S., U.K., Russian,) commercial space station and launch vehicle flight tests.  Now, it’s no secret that advanced space technology has dual military applications, and China’s military made everyone nervous with their anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.  So, what are their intentions?  I’d like to believe the olive branches on CNSA’s logo are sincere.

-And, I should mention, if U.S.-Soviet space relations during the height of the Cold War are any precedent (Apollo-Soyuz), China’s space laboratory ambitions are sincerely peaceful.  Some of the most meaningful international olive branches have been traded in space.  Take the International Space Station, for example, which is the largest international cooperative effort in human history.  So, in that light, Godspeed CNSA.  The more permanent presences we have in orbit, the better it is for our space infrastructure in general.

And perhaps, working shoulder-to-shoulder off-world, the most effective Far-East/West bridges yet may be built in orbit.

Plaque commemmorating international coorperation assembled in orbit by astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975 as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (Credit: NASA)





Buzz “Lightspeed” Aldrin: Rocket Hero

19 09 2010

Buzz Aldrin's commercial brand. (Credit: Buzz Aldrin/StarBuzz, LLC)

If there’s one guy that isn’t slowing down with age, it’s legendary Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin.  Shortly after I returned to town last weekend, my wife discovered that he was doing a book signing at the Luxor Hotel here for his new memoir/autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.

And let me tell you, a new book only scratches the surface of what the Second Man on the Moon has been doing with his spare time in recent years.  Aside from starting a new company (StarBuzz, LLC), a secondary non-profit, and a new licensing brand of “Rocket Hero” merchandise, he is now one of the most vocal champions of the private space initiative.

At 80, that ain’t bad.

Me meeting Buzz Aldrin at a signing at the Luxor Hotel. (Credit: Jordan McGee -my awesome wife!)

So, as soon as my wife tracked down the details (she’s awesome!), we headed downtown.  To our great fortune, word hadn’t yet gotten out and we were amongst the first in line.  Now, I know there aren’t ordinarily opportunities for conversations at book-signings – it’s a cattle herding ordeal.

As a long-shot, I decided to wear my UND Aerospace t-shirt, (where I’m currently attending grad school,) knowing that Buzz was instrumental in creating the program.  It paid off, triggering a brief but lively exchange about the program, including a rivalry with Embry-Riddle I wasn’t aware of(!).

The man actually stood on another world.  Meeting him in person makes my ambitions feel all the more real, and consequently, all the more attainable.

So, here’s to Buzz, Rocket Hero, an inspiration to all of us starry-eyed NewSpace hopefuls and an example that age doesn’t have to mean slowing down!








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