How I learned to stop worrying and love “the gap”

You hear a lot in the debates about US space policy about closing “the gap”. The gap is the lack of US manned launch capability between STS-135 wheel stop in July of last year and whatever comes next. This rhetoric is not restricted to politicians with an agenda. Actual space enthusiasts, professionals, and heroes can be found to be very upset about the fact that NASA may not be able to launch astronauts into space for a number of years. Watch the first 65 seconds of this video and you will see what I mean.

I have the utmost respect for Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 commanders Armstrong and Cernan – and I know the point they are trying to make. However, the rhetoric they are using makes it sound to the layman like we were flying people into space constantly from May 1961 until July 2011, and now the current politicians went and dorked it up. Way to go guys! If it was so easy for us to keep astronauts in space for the last 50 years, you must really be a bunch of idiots!

Well, hold on a second. Thanks to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, the following infographic might help us out (click to see full-size).

This wonderfully simple illustration is from MGMT Design and it basically tells the story for me. You don’t even need to look at the full version to get the point. 1961 is right there in the middle and it spirals out to present day. All those many many blue loops are Space Shuttle flights. The golden era from of the ’90s is the first thing that stood out to me. But that’s not what I want you to notice. Look at how patchy it is. There is no pretty progression of manned spaceflight capability, no steady march of progress from the early days to the 21st century.

What we remember

Instead, what you see is a microcosm of the American political system. The image of spaceflight in the 1960s as some shining bastion of heroism and patriotism is largely a myth. We only hear about the best stories of heroism and the greatest tragedies – later overcome – because that is the stuff worth remembering. JFK is on tape telling James Webb “I don’t care about space”; under LBJ, long before we landed on the moon, the NASA budget was getting slashed to pieces. These two men have the two most well known NASA centers named after them and yet I take great exception to a lot of their actual policies when it came to NASA.

The first 50 years of spaceflight were not perfect. We have had gaps. Big ones. The 7 years between Skylab 3 and STS-1 being the most glaring (okay, count ASTP if you must – makes it 5.5 years). In my opinion, the lost potential under previous administrations makes the current state of NASA and American spaceflight look practically rosy.

While writing this my girlfriend Leah – also a NASA flight controller – pointed out that people aren’t upset just because of a gap, but because it feels like there is no clear direction. I say, exactly! Some of our previous gaps were full of similar uncertainty. The approval of the Space Shuttle program in the ’70s was a botched policy – despite the eventual success of the program – that left us with a vehicle with no mission. Talk about uncertainty.

We’ve had previous gaps and made it through. It sucks to be without a US launched vehicle right now. But guess what? In none of our previous gaps did we have a permanent American presence in space! In all previous gaps there was only one solution: approve or get the Space Shuttle flying again. Today we have a handful of options looming on the horizon – programs developed by NASA or programs developed by industry. One or more of these is going to fly, at reasonably close to promised cost (reasonable for aerospace anyway), and America will be flying to space again probably before the end of this decade.

The funny thing is, I agree with the people who are upset that NASA hasn’t made more progress. Congress and the White House could have handled NASA better over the past 10 years, NASA could have advocated for itself more, and the general public could have cared more. But please don’t try to pretend that we are in some kind of downward spiral towards the death of NASA. That type of rhetoric plays right into the hands of people who want to skew the political discourse to their platform. Right now, as I type this, 6 people are in space – 2 Americans. Thousands of people are working every day to keep those people flying safely for another 10 years. At the same time, thousands of other Americans are working hard and passionately to develop half a dozen different space vehicles that will fly even more Americans again.

If you extend the spiral out past the current gap, eventually things will pick up, and I would bet money that this gap will fit in nicely with all the others. It’s always been a bumpy road, and today is no different, but we will get through it like we have after every previous gap. In the meantime, think about how cool it is that this website exists and go read some blogs from Don Pettit or Andre Kuipers. Spaceflight is happening every moment around you, there are online petitions to increase NASA funding, and you can attend conferences for anyone* (not just industry professionals) to collaborate with other enthusiasts on how to make space even better. If we have to have a gap, this is the right way to do it.

I leave you with Paris from space, taken from space, and tweeted today… from space. Gap this.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/astro_andre/status/184668370648576000″]

*I intend to address the popular “Space is BORING” talk from SpaceUp in a later post…

March 27, 2012 10:46 pm

6 Responses to “How I learned to stop worrying and love “the gap””

  • Claudiu says:

    Thank for this reinvigorating, balanced, optimistic and still realistic view!

  • Kim Curry says:

    Great post, thank you. I will probably link to this at some point.

    During the Columbia Return-to-Flight gap, we had a permanent presence on ISS.

    Overall, though, good points.

    • Ben H. says:

      Thanks for reading! I see how my post did focus on the current gap as the only one with an ongoing human program (ISS) at the same time, which is not true, as you say. Thanks for pointing that out!

      – Ben

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