Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rise of the Internet Rocketeer Club

Practically since the first leaks about the ESAS study were made public in Summer 2005, there has been a small but vocal group of NASA critics who have used the internet to "snipe" at the plan for replacing the shuttle and moving onto the moon. Mark Whittington chides these net-based space critics as the "Internet Rocketeer Club." The implication, amongst NASA supporters, is that the "Internet Rocketeer Club" is a bunch of Sunday Drivers who are distracting NASA from implementing its "excellent" plan.

Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm just a Sunday Driver. After all, what do I know? All I have is a bachelors' degree in engineering, zero practical experience, and a massive chip on my shoulder against Big Government. But I certainly don't speak for the entirety of the "Internet Rocketeer Club," many of whom have tremendous industry experience and the educational credentials to back up their criticism. Regardless of experience or lack thereof, I believe that the Internet Rocketeer Club serves as an important check on a space agency that, for all intents and purposes, is withering on the vine.

Looking back on the history of NASA, it's clear that there have really been two NASA's. The first NASA began in 1958 and died in 1975, when Project Apollo ended. The second NASA started in 1975 and continues to the present. The first NASA embodied the "can-do" spirit of America. It Put the first American in space, first American in orbit, beat the Soviet duration record, achieved the dream of lunar flight, brought Apollo 13 home safely, and fixed Skylab. After Apollo ended, NASA became mired in the shuttle program, an uneconomical and dangerous vehicle that was undersold and has under-delivered on its promises. Proposed replacements for the shuttle, like NASP, X-33 and OSP, have died by fading into obscurity after bring propped up with bold claims when the projects were initiated. The original Space Exploration Initiative couldn't even get the support of the administrator at the time it was proposed. The agency has achieved few "firsts" since Apollo ended, and has lost much of its ability to inspire America.

There was another change at NASA between the end of Apollo and now. When the agency was established, it was decided to conduct its mission in full view of the public, which stood in stark contrast to the Soviet approach of silence, followed by selected release of information (some of it downright fabricated) which portrayed the mission in the best possible light. Today's NASA has drifted far from the openness of the Apollo 13 days. The agency stalls on air traffic safety reports and erects a wall of silence when faced with rumors of thrust oscillations on Ares I and abandoning the capability to land Orion on the ground. The agency still hasn't justified its crew size, mission duration, or crew volume requirements for lunar missions. There's a good reason why NASA has a reputation for meaning "Never A Straight Answer."

If not for people like Keith Cowing at, continually pressuring the agency with tough questions, it would never admit to the problems that currently exist. It's in the vacuum of silence that the "Internet Rocketeer Club" is able to speculate and criticize. Some of it is justified and some of it is the ramblings of true "space cadets." But rational debate shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing. Indeed, it is usually healthy (especially in the case when the underdog idea of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was debated in 1960-62.)

So who's afraid of the Internet Rocketeer Club? Nobody should be. NASA should give good rationales for the ways it spends taxpayer dollars. And the Internet Rocketeer Club should be asking the tough questions, and pressuring the agency to act like the NASA of the Apollo days.