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.

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Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

25 01 2012

Human explorers discover an alien vista over an extraterrestrial-designed pyramid in the movie "Stargate." (Credit: MGM)

Clashing Pioneers of Xenoarchaeological Thought

The idea of alien archaeology, or more appropriately, “Xenoarchaeology,” is a mainstay of current science-fiction.  Hopefully, it may soon graduate to the realm of science-fact.  In this light, it is fruitful to consider a couple of prime examples of cultural influences and to discuss which amongst them leans more toward fiction or fact.

For many, the idea of xenoarchaeology practiced here on Earth is best exemplified by the works of Erich von Däniken, who in the 1960s and 1970s popularized the idea that many ancient human beliefs, artifacts, technology, and structures could be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials in the distant or even prehistoric past, (known generally as the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis.) 

His landmark non-fiction work, “Chariots of the Gods?“, has inspired numerous popular stories, including the prominent films Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the History Channel television series, Ancient Aliens.   

Ironically, while admittedly fun to consider, von Däniken’s work to me strays far afield of the work any reasonable xenoarchaeologist might pursue.  In my opinion, as a non-fiction book the content fails to rise above anything other than science-fiction.  This is due to the fact that 1) the concepts presented are entirely speculative and/or circumstantial, 2) the work willingly ignores conventional archaeology and anthropology, 3) the work trivializes the achievements of ancient human cultures (i.e., implying that they “needed” extraterrestrial assistance and did not simply create vast works on their own,) and 4) because to my knowledge no adherents have yet to supply a sensical tapestry of evidence ruling out more conventional explanations to support their claims. 

Frankly, it seems the ancient astronaut proposal is simply a pop-cultural rather than scientific phenomenon.  However, in a fitting twist, it is from pioneering science-fiction nearly a half-century earlier that we find what I believe is a fitting xenoarchaeology archtype.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who may have served as an example for Lovecraft's protagonist geologist William Dyer, preps for a scientific measurement during his 1911 antarctic expedition. (Credit: Corbis)

H.P. Lovecraft and the Prototype Xenoarchaeologist

I must admit – I had H.P. Lovecraft all wrong.  

Before reading Lovecraft’s staggering 1931 antarctic research science-fiction novella, “At the Mountains of Madness,” last fall, I assumed he was a horror writer in the same vein as Edgar Allen Poe, with whom he is commonly referenced. 

This is a gross and possibly criminal mis-classification.

The story, written with shocking adeptness from the perspective of a research geologist leading an antarctic research expedition, was amongst the most grounded, compelling adventure science-fiction tales I’ve ever experienced.  It is certainly the most realistc terrestrial xenoarchaeology story I’ve ever encountered, which is doubly shocking given that it was penned nearly a century ago. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Whereas von Däniken’s work centers on objects of human history, Lovecraft reaches much, much farther back – demonstrating a unnervingly clear understanding of geologic deep time.  In “Mountains,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers, who are deploying drills to collect exploratory geological core samples, discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata. 

This to me is a realistic xenoarchaeology scenario, as opposed to identifying surviving artifacts in historical human cultures that betray extraterrestrial influence. 

Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins protruding from an ancient, uplifted antarctic range.  Deciphering the petroglyphs found there, Dyer reconstructs aspects of the ancient alien culture and history, leading him to attempt to ward off all future deep antarctic exploration.

What Lovecraft Got Right:

  • Age of artifacts.  To me, considering the potential distances and times involved with and available to interstellar travel, the odds of encountering evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence across a broad range of cosmic and geologic time is much more likely than something practically contemporary, (say, of ancient Egypt).
  • Scientific approach.  The research team in the story was composed of an array of scientists and technicians of different specialities.  Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.
  • Bizarre/Incomprehensible technology.  While some of the petroglyphs are physically intelligible to Dyer, the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)  Advanced bioengineering is also alluded to, something completely foreign to human understanding.  Again, it seems true that artifacts of a truly alien culture would not be readily intelligible to ours.
  • Non-terrestrial biology.  Bipedal humanoid morphology is all-too-often invoked in science-fiction as well as ancient astronaut lore, which to me is nothing more than an anthropomorphological conceit.  The mummified beings in Lovecraft’s story are radially symmetric, vaguely vegetable in form, with a myriad of appendages and sensory organs.  -A wonderful exmaple of truly alien but biologically-sensible morphology.

So, there you have it.  A clash of the titans, as it were, in popular culture from a xenoarchaeological context.

I would venture, in sum, that from von Däniken those seriously considering xenoarchaeology might learn what not to do; From Lovecraft’s speculative “At the Mountains of Madness,” however, those considering xenoarchaeology can explore how pioneering xenoarchaeology might actually be achieved – with a healthy dose of pop thrill to help the concepts go down.





Leaving Hydrology, back to Spectroscopy

31 03 2010

On my way out of the central Nevada project area for the last time. 03.30.10

Well, this is again a tactical time of transition for me.  I’ve worked the last two years as a geohydrologist with Parsons in the deep Neavda wilderness performing hydrologic and meteorological measurements and analyses for the Southern Neavda Water Authority.  Tomorrow, due to budget cuts, is my last day.

I’ve been lucky enough to use this unfortunate (and terrifying) turn of events as an opportunity to shift back to the Nevada Test Site, this time leaning on my gamma spectroscopy experience.  I think a foray into Health Physics can only be beneficial to someone interested in working in an environment where high-energy radiation is one of the greatest threats:  Orbit. 

We’ll see.  I’m thinking of also taking this opportunity to engage in masters work, specifically using resourced-asteroid material as radiation shielding, which seems like a clever health physics/planetary geology crossover…

In any event, one can’t help but be retrospective at a time like this, and I’m hoping time will prove that having worked on the East-Central Nevada Groundwater Development Project, a project both so unbelievably vast (can swallow Rhode Island) and remote (far fewer than one person per square mile,) can only been seen as uniquely advantageous experience for a hopeful future field planetary scientist.

Wheeler Peak from Bastian Creek during a fairly substantial dust storm, 03.30.10.

Thus closes one chapter, and thus another begins.








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