More NASA Letters

"Go Somewhere" produced a large volume of mail and vigorous online debate about the future and cost of NASA. Here are more highlights.
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin gazes at Apollo 11's Eagle Lunar Module, as photographed by Neil Armstrong. Photo courtesy of NASA

The memorial to the World Trade Center–two beams of light shining into space–points the way. We need to undertake another great adventure.

I began my career in mechanical engineering in the early 1970’s at the Marshall Space Flight Center as a cooperative education student. At NASA, I worked in the Preliminary Design Group for the space shuttle. In my mind, there is no better way to show the world what America is really made of than to send a mission to Mars. We need a mission that will tell the world that we’re still here and greater than ever. In fact, our vision should not be limited to Mars, but rather the encompass the entire Universe.

Our World has never truly understood NASA’s benefits to our daily lives. NASA should promote their accomplishments and take a well-deserved slap on the back. Our space shuttle fleet has served with distinction for many years. It is, however, time to build a next generation shuttle. Finally, NASA needs to focus on larger scale problems like global warming and space based warning systems for Earth-bound asteroids.

James K. Killett
Baton Rouge, LA

While I agree that the space program needs a new goal, it is not the time to send a man to Mars. When we embark on a manned Mars mission, it should be when we are prepared to establish a manned base. As such, it makes sense to set a near term goal to construct a base on the moon. The practical side of this mission would include: (1) An opportunity to develop the technology of sustainable underground living; (2) safe low gravity research facilities; (3) mining and manufacturing techniques to support the settlement of Mars; (4) health care facilities for patients who could benefit from low gravity environments; (5) tourism. All of these goals make good economic sense as man expands into the solar system. Plus, America needs to be there first.

Jules Delambre
Frankfort, KY

In “Go Somewhere” it was suggested that NASA turn over the oldest of the space shuttles, Columbia, to a quasi-governmental agency. The problem with this suggestion is that Columbia has just received two years’ worth of upgrades, rendering it the safest, most advanced, most capable shuttle in the fleet. The only other shuttle to receive such improvements is Atlantis. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to suggest turning Endeavor or Discovery over to a quasi-governmental agency, as these shuttles still use obsolete technology.

Kirby Runyon
Spring Arbor, MI

I was a young man when Neil Armstrong took that “one small step for man.” Now I am 81 and marking time. I want to see more NASA activity before I pass their rocket on my way to heaven. I suggest the IRS put a contribution block on our Income Tax forms, like they have for political campaigns, so those who are interested can contribute to NASA.

Onan Hill
McMinnville, OR

To answer the question posed in “Go Somewhere,” all you have to do is look at history. At the end of Alan Shepard’s sub orbital flight in 1961, John F. Kennedy said “we will land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” Kennedy didn’t have the backing of anyone in the scientific world when he made that statement, but it nevertheless led the country for the next ten years. He had the public’s support, and congress seemed to have no limit to how much they spent on the “race for the moon.”

Not since the Apollo projects has NASA had the support of the general public. And after seeing the budget NASA worked with to accomplish their Mars landings, I have to ask “How the hell do they ever get anything off the ground?” I don’t think a manned Mars landing can be started unless NASA somehow motivates the public to commit their pocketbooks. We still have a troublesome economy, 9-11 and cancer to worry about.

Don Spitzmiller
Caldwell, NJ

Mankind is roughly divided into two kind of people: “astronomers” who watch things happen and “astronauts” who make things happen. In the dictionary the separation between these words is quite small, but in reality the separation is enormous. It is time for NASA to once again catch the “vision” that made it great agency.

Stanley L. Klemetson

The only contribution I would make in regards to “Go Somewhere” would be to encourage NASA to “take us with them.” With today’s technology, the cameras needed to provide the public with state-of the-art real-time images of a Mars mission would not occupy much space or add much physical weight, but the “PR” would be tremendous in terms of igniting worldwide interest and support.

I’m old enough to remember the lunar landing, and the worldwide focus on that mission. It was the only time in my life I witnessed the world united in harmony on any one thing. I actually felt like a member of the human race, instead of a citizen of one country.

If NASA is reluctant to carry the mission live for fear of something going wrong, they should remember how the world reacted to Apollo 13. I have always felt that our success in the “moon race” was because our program was open to the world while Russia’s was held in secret. There is a lot of “power” in six billion people focused on the same thing.

Keith McElvain
Tyler, TX

I am a physics/chemistry instructor in Wisconsin. After reading your comments and the article by Dawn Stover, I have to say but one thing – “Hallelujah!” It is about time that someone discusses the future of NASA and gives them a long needed push. I too grew up during the dawn of the space age, and was awe struck by that magical period. As a matter of fact, those “small steps” forged a generation of engineers and problems solvers. Regretfully, those inspiring days have gone by the wayside.

As a science instructor, I feel it is my duty to inspire our nation’s future, and in my own small way help to revive the space program. With this motivation in mind, I wrote a series of workbooks on orbital mechanics called “Spaceflight Fundamentals.” These books are written at a high school / college level to allow students of various backgrounds to enjoy and understand the elegance of space travel from a mathematical, scientific, and simulated angle. I hope to inspire students to surpass their goals and find the universe to have limitless possibilities. My work was developed over a span of eight years. While researching this material, I completed my masters in physics and worked as an educational facilitator for NASA at one of their research centers. Since completing this workbook series, I have taught workshops and seminars on this material to “get the
word out.”

Brad Staats
New London, WI

As deputy executive officer of the American Astronomical Society, I have to say I disagree with the fundamental premise that NASA as a whole is off track. I am further disappointed that the article did not point out NASA’s fantastic successes in the areas of astronomy and space science.

NASA is much more than just Human Space Flight. Much of what we have learned about the Universe and our own small corner of it stems from the efforts of NASA’s Office of Space Science. NASA’s Office of Space Science has reduced costs for missions, increased the number of mission launches and supported the scientific research community. The office of Space Science supports astronomers and space scientists who are trying to answer such fundamental questions as “How did the universe begin and evolve?” “How did we get here?” ” Where are we going?” “Are we alone?”

Human presence in space is not the only reason NASA exists. I hope that Popular Science will in the future highlight what I feel is most exciting about NASA’s work: the study of the Universe in which we live.

Kevin B. Marvel
Washington DC

Forty years ago I asked uncle, who worked on rocket engines for the Hercules Corporation, what benefit common folks received from the space program. He replied with about 15 different technologies ranging from clothing dye to high-tech fiberglass. I think NASA needs to do a better job informing people about the technological spin-offs of the space program, such as fuel cells, GPS systems, and carbon fiber materials. If they explain how each of us benefits from an active space industry, the money will pour in to support it.

Dave Thompson
Albany, OR

“Go Somewhere” represents an attempt by a few people to get taxpayers to fund a grand scientific adventure for the 21st century. NASA’s “midlife crisis” began when its goals lost their relationship to the responsibilities of the US government, which are courts, the police and national defense. Even a much expanded view of the government’s role would fail to include trips to Mars.

A mission to Mars cannot be justified on any level to any reasonable person (I hope this includes Sean O’Keefe, the new NASA Administrator.) The United States has an obligation to complete the International Space Station, build a new generation shuttle for the space station, and promote national security, but in no way should we send astronauts to Mars.

Ralph C. Edwards
Portland, OR

Discovering another galaxy accomplishes nothing in the overall scheme of things on Earth. Nor will understanding the birth of the stars and planets. While pursuing these endeavors, we have poisoned our rivers, ravaged our sea life, demolished our forests, caused the extinction of countless species, contaminated our atmosphere and allowed unknown millions die of starvation.

It is true that NASA produces advanced technologies, but I for one can live without Velcro. What’s more, I can do without my tax dollars supporting a gigantic intellectual hobby while our one and only Earth is ruined.

Nine hundred eighty six million people here on Earth are without adequate and/or clean water, 2.3 billion people live without proper sanitation, and 2 of every 3 children are malnourished. Let’s put Earth first and worry about the Big Bang later. That information is not going to degenerate, but our planet will.

John Pierce
Rochester Hills, MI

In order to re-vamp Americans’ interest in the space program, NASA needs to re-focus their primary objectives towards sending a man to Mars, creating a new and improved space shuttle, and focusing more intently on national security. At the moment it seems like they have too many eggs in one basket. They’re also burdened by the job of running a taxi service to the space station. Why not let private companies take care of so they can get going with a manned Mars mission?

Sarah Bacon

I am finishing up my Master’s in education technology. Much of my graduate work centers on bringing space studies back to the K-12 school curriculum. Our children have little interest in science and space studies, and this has translated into a fall in high school standardized test scores for science. What’s more, about forty percent of graduate degree programs earned in the United States in science and engineering are awarded to non-US citizens.

The failure of NASA to bring a vision to our nation is a double edge sword. First, this lack of vision inhibits future adults from developing a vested interest in space. Second, if the next generation of adults has little interest in space, they will not support, financially and morally, organizations such as NASA. If this trend continues NASA could someday find itself closed and out of business.

Anyone with common sense knows that part of the future of our species lies in space. The depletion of natural resources and the overpopulation of our planet demands we move beyond Earth and find new resources. It is also clear that other countries such as China have not taken space exploration for granted. Americans may one day watch a man land on Mars and see a flag other than their own planted on Martian soil.

A manned mission to Mars will cost money and perhaps lives, but this will be a fraction of what our Nation spends on such things as sports and entertainment. Surely our future in space is more important that a few Monday night football games.

Jeffrey W. Scott
Ramstein Air Base, Germany

I was a kid when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and uttered that famous phrase. To me it gave hope in a time of turmoil. But NASA put the reins on their vision as fast as they organized a trip to the moon. If Columbus had worried about the challenges of crossing the Atlantic, where would we be today? If we are willing to reach for the stars, then we as a society have to be willing to except the sacrifices.

Charles Hargrave
Moapa, NV

I am glad to see Popular Science still promotes a dynamic and visionary space program. I have a treasured scrapbook full of Wernher von Braun’s wonderful Popular Science articles from the 1960’s and 1970’s in which he outlined a step-by-step program for building a “stairway to the stars.” Unfortunately, the imperatives of the Cold War called for a quick moon landing and sacrificed his wise plan.

It is apparent that space exploration cannot thrive without space exploitation. Apollo took us to just six small landing sites on the moon, which has a surface area roughly equivalent to Africa. Potential lunar resources include Helium 3 reserves that could end our dependence on fossil fuels, and ice deposits that could foster a prototype Martian station. It might also be possible to build a lunar space observatory on the moon’s far side to pinpoint asteroids and comets that pose a threat to Earth. Such valuable lunar opportunities beg that we return!

Jim McDade
Vestavia Hills, AL

I have been a supporter of NASA ever since I watched the first moon landing. I still am but I find my interest lagging because of a lack of information. Here are a few ideas to rectify the situation:

1. A monthly show to inform people about the importance and benefits of the shuttle experiment, discoveries from the Hubble telescope, and the like. To this day I do not know what we found out about the moon.
2. Explore deep space with both manned and unmanned missions
3. Spend money on marketing and publicity. I can best illustrate this by the following question: If you couldn’t watch a single baseball game all summer long, how interested would you be in the World Series?
4. Create a webcam for the space station and Hubble Telescope.
5. Designate landing sights on the moon as historic sights.

To maintain public support, NASA must keep people interested, and to keep people interested, NASA must keep the space program in their face as much as possible.

Aron Olof Adler
Falmouth, ME

If NASA ever doubted they had the power to inspire, I’d suggest they look at the documentary sequence played during the Academy Awards. A very good portion of the footage was from one source: the space program. Yet little of the footage was from recent programs. How sad.

Joseph Romagnano
Charlton, MA

I have an 8th idea for how to get NASA back on track. This year marks the 16th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster “Mission 51-L.” The highest honor we can give the fallen Challenger astronauts and “teachernaut” Christa McAuliffe is for NASA to press forward with the “Teacher In Space” mission. Sending one of America’s finest-a teacher-into space would restore national pride and bring purpose to our manned space program.

Rick Schreiner
Pasadena, CA

I was confused by your article “Go Somewhere.” When did Americans stop loving the space program? I’m only 17, but I’ve been infatuated with NASA for most of my life, and everyone I know revels in each breakthrough they make. Americans may not show the enthusiasm they did in the 1960’s, but we never stopped loving NASA-the passion just died down a little.

Richard Schneeman
Montgomery, AL

Your article, “Go Somewhere,” contained a thoughtful set of recommendations for NASA to consider. But just as NASA has done over the last two decades, you have ignored our Nation’s first space station-Skylab.

When it was built, some viewed Skylab as the tail end of the Herculean effort to go to moon. Others viewed Skylab as an opportunity to initiate mankind’s expansion into space. As our Nation’s first laboratory in Earth orbit, Skylab not only experimented across a wide range of scientific disciplines, it began preparation for long-duration manned missions, enabling us to reach farther and explore longer.

The Skylab data and experience contributed significantly to our understanding of problems encountered in our quest for Mars (your recommended change #1) and operating a space station at a reasonable price (your recommended change #2). In addition, Skylab produced its share of drama and celebration of human achievement (your recommendation #5). Lastly, with a price tag of only $2.5 billion, Skylab was done faster, better, and cheaper-a concept later to be discovered.

Past decisions cannot be reversed nor history rewritten, but we can still recognize and utilize the Skylab experience.

Ed Gibson
Skylab III

Some of my most lasting memories are of debates with my father over the future of NASA. But I’ve recently grown disillusioned with the promises of “faster, better, cheaper,” and found myself turning from NASA with disappointment. In 1969 we sent a man to the moon. Why 33 years later does the prospect of revisiting the moon or landing on Mars seem ludicrous? The failing is in those who believe that playing it safe on Earth is more cost effective than taking a chance in space. I say that unless NASA once again points itself towards the stars, all children will know of Mars is what they see on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Christopher Beisler
Puyallup, WA

A mission to Mars is a waste of our precious resources and money. There is little, if any, scientific research worth conducting there. Instead, the government should put larger funds into a sea program. Like the previous article stated, the moon is mapped more than our oceans. We send costly missions to look for worthless microbes on Mars when we should be spending money on large manned submarines to research the billions of aquatic organisms not yet discovered. Why not create a deep-sea habitat rather than one an empty Mars? We should wait for physics to catch up with space exploration so that space travel will be safer and cheaper.

Timothy Lau
San Francisco, CA

In “Go Somewhere,” Dawn Stover criticizes the Space Station’s cost overruns, but claims the most valuable mission for the station is to get us to Mars, a highly expensive venture with no physical return except, maybe, in the long term. I disagree: People like Mark Shuttleworth have demonstrated that the station’s real value is to carry out research that would be inefficient on the ground or in an atmosphere. Dawn Stover should have suggested handing the station over to private industry, and have them perform the advanced research that will improve our quality of life.

Steve Jordan

I was ll in 1969, but the moon landing, along with Popular Science, nevertheless inspired me to obtain a BS in physics at Duke University. I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that we return to space with a vengeance. I believe the best argument is case number 7 for national security. Isn’t that what started the space race in the first place?

The Shuttle is a toy when it comes to payload. If we are serious about space, we must revive the Saturn V. It remains the most powerful rocket of all time, capable of launching a space station in a single mission. This effort would also be an excellent economic stimulus project, creating opportunities for both for military and academia. Lets bring back the Saturn V and put some useful hardware and military personnel in space!

Dennis Dumas
Chatham, NJ

Having read “Go Somewhere,” I must say bravo! It’s about time someone told NASA they’re using tax payer money for repetitive missions and unoriginal ideas. It seems that fewer and fewer children are interested in becoming astronauts, something that should scare NASA. NASA has also forgotten that unless research improves a person’s life, whether by pandering to their patriotism (a trip to Mars) or their wallets (a cheap new fuel), they couldn’t care less about it. After all, as the movie Contact put it so well, “What’s wrong with science being profitable?”

Henry Westerman
West Chester, OH

In the mid-1960’s I asked my grandfather what he thought of the space program. He replied that it was a terrible waste of money, and that they could better use their resources to control the Mississippi river. At the time I thought he was old and didn’t understand. But all we’ve received from 40 years of space exploration are fancy sound systems and faster computers. Fun but quite needless. Turns out it is we who don’t understand.

Ron Hylen
Needham, MA

There are several reasons why NASA is off track:

1. It got so involved in safety that it feared to take any risks whatsoever.
2. NASA talks about going to Mars, but such an endeavor without an experimental colony on the moon is not very smart.
3. The US turned inward, partly because Russia quit, partly because politics turned radically conservative. Our government could have set aside money for science and space but turned instead towards accumulation of individual and corporate wealth. This is evidenced by the make-up of Congress, the bias in the tax laws, and the separation of our population into the “haves” and “have-nots.”

Lawrence Schafer
Newton, MA

I agree that NASA needs a mission, something more exciting and longer reaching than the mundane International Space Station. However, I do not believe that bureaucrats will universally accept any mission NASA proposes. NASA’s quest for the moon was a direct result of the perceived challenge by the Russian space program. In other words, it came from outside NASA and it was taken up by this country as a challenge to beat our competitors.

You cannot convince somebody with other spending priorities that Mars isn’t a boondoggle with no clear benefit. We can say that NASA will protect our civilization from being destroyed by an asteroid, but the artists will say that without funding art programs, our civilization is not worth saving.

Perhaps we need to find that asteroid before going before congress.

Eric Lopaty
Wanaque, NJ

I agree with the seven steps outlined in “Go Somewhere.” I would add that our great American free enterprise system should step in as a partner, and provide the manpower to explore the last frontier. It worked for our forefathers in the discovery of America. Back then, however, no one knew what was beyond the distant horizon. Today we know what’s out there, and little by little we’re coming to grips with the many obstacles that threaten our quest. We’ll get there, and Dawn Stover’s seven ideas should keep us on track.

Fred Williams
Frederick, MD

Every couple of years someone comes up with the bright idea that NASA will be great again if it goes to Mars. Look what happened after we landed on the moon: we abandoned it. Then we built the space shuttle-an unsafe vehicle that costs more than the Saturn V-and a space station that is years behind schedule and billions over budget. NASA is without a single vision. I agree that NASA should participate in national security, but I think there is a better way to get the agency going again. Here are some suggestions:

1. A 100% reusable and reliable space plane to carry 6-8 astronauts to and from the space station.
2. Bring back the shuttle-C-an unmanned cargo vehicle to launch heavy payloads into low Earth orbit.
3. Develop a “Shuttle Applications Program” similar to the Apollo Program. For example, the space shuttle’s external tank is a great resource that is simply thrown away and could be utilized for many projects.
4. A lunar north-pole base. The location provides resources such as continuous solar power and ice. This base would also have many varied programs such as mining, and helium3 sources. Sample return missions could be built, controlled and returned safely from all over the solar system and for less money. The list is endless for moon-based research.

These ideas can be done now with today’s technology and within NASA’s budget, but we will go nowhere if NASA continues to spend billions on new technologies hoping it will somehow rescue itself. The technology to do all these things and go to mars is there, but the leadership is not. I still support NASA and feel it is vital to our nations’ survival.

Dennis J. O’Neill
Pembroke, MA

It’s sad to see a once trailblazing agency run by an accountant. Why is the Department of Defense, whose budget dwarfs NASA’s, not run by a bean counter as well? For some reason space expenditures are scrutinized differently from other government expenses. People think that the space program is a waste of money, but they lose sight of the fact that money spent on space is also money spent on Earth in the way of salaries and products. What’s more, work in this area promotes technological advancement that directly influences people’s lives.

NASA is the only federal agency responsible for exploring the final frontier. It may never have the budget it enjoyed in the ’60’s, but in a country where defense approaches 50% of the national expenditure, we should be able to do more.

Finally, NASA needs a place to go. It needs a long-term plan that will help it develop technology that will ease our journey into space with minimal cost. Once the cost is brought down “the sky would (no longer) be the limit” and the true golden age of space can begin.

Greg Benham

I read your article “Go Somewhere” with interest, but I have a problem with a few of your recommendations.

First of all, NASA needs a more comprehensive plan regarding where they plan to go in the near and long term. I agree that we should go to Mars with the goal of extensive exploration and a permanent base. In order to do so, however, we need to think about what experiences we need to get us there. A good start would be to complete the space station and establish a permanent moon base.

There are other points in your article that need serious consideration, such as the need for an effective and cost efficient launch vehicle and a more comprehensive approach to national security. But if Mars is our ultimate goal, we need a step by step plan to get there.

Patrick McCaffrey
Rochester, MN

Returning to the Moon and building a giant radio telescope can be done much sooner and cheaper than going to Mars. The thousand or so tons of frozen water at the lunar pole where the temperature remains a constant and manageable -50F is another reason to get a program going. Mars is one thousand times as far away from Earth as the Moon. We certainly need to reconsider the benefits that a large astronomy facility on the protected lunar far-side could produce.

Ron Sirull

I believe that there are important steps to be taken by the space program that are currently being ignored. That is assuming, of course, that NASA’s primary goal is to explore space and not to simply continue existing.

First, NASA should put a permanent station on the moon. With 1/10th the gravity of Earth, it would take far less energy to launch ships for deep space missions; a space station is basically worthless, since ships will be launched from Earth, regardless of where they are going. The moon must also have useful ores that could be mined from its crust and used to make ship parts directly from there.

It’s foolish to continue to launch directly from Earth until we can have a device that takes off and lands like a plane which needs only the fuel it can carry on its own to get into orbit. Even then, it would still be less expensive to launch from the moon.

I see designs for the space station and other space vessels in Popular Science and in other resources. I also regularly read about the devastating effect of long term space missions on the human body. But never do I see designs for a station or for ships that have spinning modules to create artificial gravity. The space station should have been designed from the beginning as a spinning habitat to allow people to be stationed there long term without damage.

To choose to build things the way the space station was built gives the impression that NASA is only seeking to continue being budgeted for its own survival, with no serious thought whatsoever to our future in space.

Dave Andrews
Orlando, FL

Popular Science rightly advocates sending humans to Mars. But I feel that NASA is “stuck in a box” that dramatically increases the difficulty. Why should people endure two years of travel for two weeks of science? And why send tons of return-flight fuel so many millions of miles?

In line with ‘faster, better, cheaper’, my own mantra is “one person, one way”. Make it a one-way colonizing trip. Without all that fuel, there’d surely be room for useful equipment (for building, traveling, and producing air and fuel). Instead of days of study, there would be years.

Who would want to go? Only about a million intrepid individuals! The explorer’s name would live in thousands of scientific discoveries, and they would experience the ultimate in gratifying lives-every broadcast or email breathlessly attended to, countless scientists eager to get their observations, and the entire population eager to help them solve the problems they email home.

It would be a mega-boost for public interest in space programs, vastly increase the scientific yield, and who knows, maybe a decade later there would be companions or a return trip after all.

Jim Papadopoulos

I am a retired aerospace engineer, with several books on the subject under my belt. Here are a few suggestions for NASA:

1. Either eliminate all planetary programs or conduct them in cooperation with other nations. If scientists want to learn more about our solar system or universe, let them do it via universities or private research agencies.
2. Place more emphasis on next generation civil and military aircraft programs through the combined power plant concept: turbojet, ramjet, and rocket. We are flying decades old aircraft. We need supersonic and hypersonic terrestrial and orbital transportation as the next quantum step.
3. NASA should get rid of a lot of real estate by reducing agencies and staff by one half.
4. Cooperate with the Air Force on the next generation of launch vehicles, all of which should be reusable to reduce costs.
5. Drastically cut back on astronaut training. We should have a regular cadre of astronaut pilots that are only replaced as they age.
6. Space tourism and space rides should be the domain of private enterprise. Tax dollars should not be used for these purposes.

Alfred J. Zaehringer
Troy, WI

A Selection from the NASA Forum

According to “The Universe in a Nutshell,” by Stephen Hawking, “The Earth’s population is growing at a rate of 1.9% a year, which means Earth’s population doubles every 40 years.”

We need to spread out, and there’s re