"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Praise for Japan's "Hayabusa" and a Reply to a Critic

The photo below is not of a meteor. It is a human-made spacecraft intentionally reentering the Earth's atmosphere after a seven-year round trip journey.

Image Credit: NASA/Ed Schilling


"Hayabusa", as the Japanese probe is called, landed on an Earth-crossing asteroid and attempted to retrieve samples. It endured damaging solar flares, crippled engines, and a rough landing on the target asteroid. Hayabusa's adventure reads like an unmanned sendup of Apollo 13. Every time something went wrong, resilient engineers employed fixes and the mission continued. Hayabusa's last act was safely depositing a sample capsule, perhaps empty, on the Australian desert.

Though humankind is getting better at flying probes to asteroids, we still have a lot of work to do before humans make the trip. In the meantime, these science-based missions inspire me a great deal. Every day, probes and rovers continue exploring our solar system, bringing us closer to the moment when humans are ready to make the trip. For a wonderful account of this probe's tumultuous odyssey, and how it fits proudly into the bigger picture of space exploration, I recommend Louis D. Friedman's account entitled "The Hayabusa Adventure." It's a quick read.

A Reply

Not long ago, I was accused of being a sucker. It came anonymously in response to my blog post lauding President Obama’s plans for NASA. In part, the President’s strategy calls for increased reliance on private industry to build the powerful rockets needed for human spaceflight. Though not without risk, NASA's new direction has the potential to spur innovation and lower mission costs. After I blogged in praise of this approach, a comment was posted saying I’d been “suckered in!”

At the time, I did not reply. Frankly, I assumed “Anonymous” was just another Internet troll—a random visitor throwing a hotheaded and hasty jab and then running away. I was mistaken. It turns out my unnamed critic is someone I know personally, someone I respect. More importantly, he is a veteran employee of a major aerospace company (and heretofore NASA contractor). His job, and many others like it, are threatened by this retooling of our nation's space program.

Given this reality, I have finally posted a reply. I invite you to read it here. It is neither an apology nor a change of my position. Based on a great deal of reading, I remain optimistic about NASA's new direction. Still, it is important to acknowledge the upheaval being experienced by some of NASA's current contractors.

Suffice it to say that NASA remains at the fiscal mercy of Congress--a Congress that has now spent decades underfunding space exploration. Provided NASA receives the increased funding President Obama has called for, our nation's aerospace companies can expect continued opportunities to competitively bid for lucrative contracts.

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