A sad footnote to Explorer Day
On January 31, 1958, the U.S. Army and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched the first American Earth satellite. A 2008 commemorative blog bemoaned the subsequent politicization of our space program. But in fact, the incomprehension and interference of bureaucrats was a problem from the beginning. The political decision to rely on the Vanguard program, instead of using an already-developed military vehicle, allowed the Soviets to beat us into space, much to our national embarrassment.
On a few occasions, the disparity between science and bureaucracy was hilarious. Shortly after Explorer 1 was launched, JPL received a letter from the Smithsonian, requesting the spacecraft. The reply, by JPL’s Leonard Jaffe, was that JPL did in fact have an exact duplicate, the so-called proof test model that was used for system tests and as a possible backup. The Smithsonian responded with stiffly formal letter that they did not accept copies or duplicates – they wanted the original! Being a gentle and tactful man, but with a puckish sense of humor, Len sent a deadpan reply that, pending approval from the Army, JPL could let the Smithsonian have the Explorer. Whenever they were ready to get it, JPL would give them the orbital coordinates where they could pick it up. A week later, Len received a reply that the Smithsonian “had not appreciated the unique character of the space program and, for the first time in its history, would gratefully accept the duplicate.”
The duplicate was ultimately transferred to the Smithsonian but had an unfortunate subsequent history. Apparently, its empty shell now lies moldering in storage.
The space program has fared better. Despite the meddling of politicians, NASA and JPL have achieved fantastic successes, such as the Curiosity rover that is now exploring the surface of Mars. But these have been triumphs of professional dedication and integrity in perpetual locked-horns conflict with political interference.
Earlier this year, Mr. Obama announced the scrapping of the moon program in favor of an aspiration to visit Mars, cancelling the Constellation program for manned space flight, the successor to the Space Shuttle. It means NASA would not be able to travel beyond the Earth's lower orbit without international assistance and [would] need the help of allies to make it to Mars.
This decision was made in despite of protests, from former NASA history-makers such as Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell, that it would "destine our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature." Ultimately, the decision was partly reversed, and the Orion program was authorized, hopefully enabling lunar orbit missions by 2018. But the dream almost died, and its fate is still unsure. Apparently, NASA has no current plans for an independent capability for lunar or planetary manned landings.
But that’s not the worst. As NASA director Charles Bolden stated in 2010:
When I became the NASA Administrator – before I became the NASA Administrator – [Obama] charged me with three things: One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.
Notice that no mention was made of accomplishments or goals in space. Aside from adding credence to James Longstreet’s assessment of Obama’s obsessive devotion to Islam, this statement flagrantly confirms that, under the current administration, space exploration is nothing but a means to political ends. As Byron York said, it’s been a shift "from moon landings to promoting self-esteem."