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Commentary: NASA has a vision, the American nation needs glasses

 We need a clear vision of the future delivered by our elected leaders in Congress and the White House. This is not a partisan business. Democrats and Republicans alike from the Oval Office down have done very little to guide the country after the innovation and achievement of the Apollo program

 
All requested by Jim Bank, manager of the Space.com office in Cape Canaveral 
 
Most of the interpretations in the American media after the publication of the investigative committee's report were made by people whose knowledge of the history of NASA is minimal. Most of the columns were written by people who watched CNN or Fox News for five minutes. Most of the analyses, quoting members of Congress or outside experts seem as if the experts were spreading misinformation and their main desire was to appear on television and not to contribute productive advice.
Their vision for the future is for the US to stay at home, with its feet planted on the ground, hoping to avoid any risk or harm. For them, risk is a four-letter word (RISK in English).
In this world, the space shuttle could never be made safe, it would also be expensive to operate and therefore would never fly again. Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor are death traps waiting to make more families miserable with the loss of their loved ones. Some suggest abandoning the International Space Station and sinking it in the ocean before we spend another billion dollars on it.
And to solve NASA's culture problem, they say, let's get rid of all the senior managers. This also includes Sean O'Keefe who himself admitted that he is responsible for all of NASA's financial and operational misfortunes - and he did not inherit any of his predecessors.
They say NASA lacks a clear vision of what it should do in space. I tend to agree with this, but with two important caveats. First, it's not NASA that doesn't have a clear vision. This is the nation that needs glasses. We need a clear vision of the future delivered by our elected leaders in Congress and the White House. This is not a partisan business. Democrats and Republicans alike from the Oval Office down have done very little to guide the country after the innovation and achievement of the Apollo program. Second, NASA actually has a vision to expand our presence beyond low Earth orbit. The space agency has known exactly where it's headed for some time.
Warner von Braun knew what he wanted long before he developed the Saturn 5 moon rocket. Von Braun's colleagues knew when the plan was presented to Congress in 1970, but the only part of the overall plan that was developed was the shuttle program. During the years of Dan Goldin's administration at NASA, NASA employees were forbidden to say a word, and only recently, under O'Keefe's administration, did NASA officially begin wanting to return to deep space.

The destination is Mars
In the last week, Mars was the closest to Earth as it has been in all of recorded history - and the world was aware of it. The peak day of this meeting happened to be one day after the publication of the Commission of Inquiry report, which renewed the space debate. Whether it was divine intervention or not, no one denied that the bright red "star" was a sign from heaven that could tell us something.
So let's not waste too much time arguing about whether we should go. Choose one or more of the following answers: the spirit of discovery, national pride, adding jobs in the aeronautics and space industry, scientific profit or as the next step to ensure the survival of the human race before our planet is saved in 5 billion years.

For now, for me, these reasons are enough. In any case, it is inevitable that one day humans will walk on Mars. Whether it will be our competitors from other countries, or our children or grandchildren who will make the journey, it is going to happen. And I am one of the impatient ones. What you need to know is that NASA is already preparing for the trip, even though it has no national mandate or announced schedule.
First, there is the International Space Station. It was designed so that we would learn how to build and operate a large facility in space, coordinate with international partners and survive in weightlessness for months on end. No one can seriously think that it is really just about growing protein crystals. Second, there is an active fleet of spacecraft in orbit around or on their way to the Red Planet. And while the debate for and against manned flights will continue for some time, spacecraft such as Spirit and Opportunity scheduled to land on Mars in January will help our scientists choose the most suitable first landing site for astronauts. Third, in NASA offices across the US, offices with names like 'Prometheus' there are people working on the details as to the best way to get to Mars. Even the Kennedy Space Center has master plans in a drawer discussing how the launch site could house some of the new types of rockets that might be needed for the big mission to Mars.
To do this, it will take a president with courage to deliver a speech. After that, some members of Congress must act or be silent. So a renewed NASA will be required to take the ball and run with it without over-wasting billions and without losing a soul in the process.

Back to the flight
Meanwhile, the correct vision of the space program in the immediate post-Columbian period should be consistent with the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry and be as follows:
"All the components of the space station that still need to be put into orbit should be launched by the shuttles as planned - assuming that the demands of the investigative committee regarding the necessary details before returning to flight will be fulfilled. While it is clear that this is not the dream machine that was meant 30 years ago, the investigative committee was right in stating that "the ferries are not inherently unsafe".
While some reasonable upgrades to the shuttle fleet need to be made to make the system safer for astronauts, NASA needs to adapt the shuttles to fly unmanned as soon as possible.
A new tool for flying humans into low earth orbit should be developed as quickly as possible, and no longer wait for any new technology to be invented. This new vehicle should be similar in design to the Orbital Space Plane (OSP). The sooner we get these things flying, the sooner we can get the humans off the shuttles. It wouldn't be a step backwards if the OSP looked like an Apollo cabin.
Once the new crew compartment is available, all shuttle missions will have to be unmanned. This will continue until all the systems designed for the space station are in orbit, and then it will be possible to retire the shuttles, and launch future payloads using rockets such as Delta 4 and Atlas 5.
The nation also needs some type of reusable Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (OMV) to dock with the space station. The spacecraft will be used to collect cargo that is launched into orbit and bring it near the International Space Station, to a place where the robotic arm can collect the cargo (and if the OMV can also go into geosynchronous orbit, it will be able to refuel the communication satellites and this will be a net profit).
When all this infrastructure is in place, components of the Mars spacecraft will be launched by unmanned rockets, connected in space near the International Space Station by astronauts who will arrive there in the space plane. In fact, anything we want to promote - a lunar base or a spacecraft to survey the asteroids - could be carried out using the same method.
Whether or not this vision comes true, as we recover from the Columbia disaster and return to flight, the most important thing to remember is that spaceflight is inherently a dangerous activity and will remain so for many years to come. No matter what NASA or any other organization tries to do, we will lose more lives one day. There is no way to escape it. The fact has to decide if she has the stomach for such an activity - and a large enough notebook.

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