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NASA's Future (And Yours)

by Josh Zeisel

As we wind down for the holidays, The Inclusive will feature the best pieces from 2011. This gives you an opportunity to read some pieces you might not have otherwise seen, and it allows our staff to, y'know, hang out for a bit.

This piece was originally published September 19th. Everyone takes the discontinuing of NASA's shuttle program as a bad thing, as Josh sees it as a necessary and hopeful step towards the future. 


One would hope that most people in this country could at least say, “Yeah, NASA. I know them! They are the astronauts.” Well this isn’t exactly incorrect, but it’s not accurate either. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has been around as "NASA" since July 29, 1958. NASA is not just the astronauts, but they have many different programs ranging from the manned space flights to putting up weather satellites for our meteorologists so that they can better predict where Hurricane Irene was headed. Before NASA was NASA they were known as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). NACA will be discussed a little later, but more importantly there recently has been a major change with regards to NASA. The space shuttle program just landed its final mission on May 16 of this year.

It’s important to first understand what NASA actually does. NACA, the aforementioned group that preceded NASA, formed in 1915 basically as a way for the government to fund the advancement in aeronautics, powered atmospheric flight (what we now understand today as being airplanes). The first powered flight by the Wright brothers occurred in 1903 in North Carolina. Twelve years later, the government decided to fund research into building better aircraft. Coincidentally, this was also right smack in the middle of World War I. So, fine, the government put aside funding for a group of scientists and engineers to advance flight so that we could dominate the Germans with our new and improved fighter planes. Yet, eventually NACA would be known for something else, something more important to society. NACA helped create the technology so that the commercial airline industry didn’t have to. They advanced the technology so that you and I could fly and go on vacation to the Canary Islands and hang out on nude beaches without having to take an excruciatingly long boat trip.

I actually had no idea that this was NACA’s legacy until one Tuesday afternoon this past August when I attended a logistics meeting for a NASA event in New York City called, “What’s Your Favorite Space?” (Yeah, I know, us engineers aren’t very creative with our names. I really want to name my first-born son “Jash”). The event was to showcase NASA’s past, present, and future and was geared towards children. One person asked what we should tell people the event is about and the lead organizer said and I paraphrase, “Well, NACA launched the commercial airline industry so we want to let people know that NASA wants to launch the commercial space flight industry.”

It took NACA about 50 years to make commercial flying viable with yesterday’s technology. Well, technology advances much quicker now, so why can’t NASA make commercial space flight viable in about 50 years from now? Governments fund programs because they have the resources to do so. And yes, that last statement fuels arguments for many, but look beyond the arguments and understand that NASA as a government entity already has technologies that the public probably doesn’t know about. Technologies that, if advanced, can lead to you getting on a space ship one day and spending your summer vacations on a nude beach on the moon instead of the boring Canary Islands. Imagine the tans you can get in that direct sunlight.

It’s upsetting that the decision to cut the space shuttle program was made, but realize the circumstances. It’s important to understand that everything has a cost, even in the science world. PhDs would like to tell you that price doesn’t matter, that research and understanding is more important. WAs someone who works in industry I’ll tell you right now that that is a load of bull excrement. We want to believe that we can be beyond fiscal responsibilities, but it’s just not true. The average cost of one space shuttle launch is around $450 million. That’s $1875 per pound (at max gross takeoff weight, of course). To put how important this is into perspective, the engineers at NASA decided to save weight and money by not painting the space shuttle’s external fuel tank. There must be a better, more fiscally responsible way to put humans, satellites, and research materials into space. Plus, let’s face it; the space shuttle is outdated technology. The iPad you’re reading this on probably has more computing power than what’s on the space shuttle.

NASA’s new mission is to advance commercial spaceflight, but NASA continues to perform experiments and deep space missions. The International Space Station takes care of the first half, but deep space missions require human-carrying vessels. The space shuttle was just the first step in understanding what it takes to send a large crew of people into space. It was a great ship that did its job well, but with a large payload it only went into Low Earth Orbit. It needed to be retired to make way for new advanced rockets.

These rockets, the Aries class of rockets, are capsule based, like the first rockets NASA sent to space (and like our Russian counterparts). They are more powerful; on par with the Saturn V rocket which sent our astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. They are cheaper to maintain and have aspects of reusability like that of the space shuttle. With the advancements in rocketry and remote operations, payloads like GPS satellites don’t need people to place them in space from something like the shuttle anymore. Why risk human life? Astronauts are much better used to perform experiments and coordinate large missions in space than to place a satellite in orbit. Missions like going back to the moon or to a nearby asteroid or to Mars.

Please understand that this takes time. The Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket that will be used to carry people to the moon is scheduled to have its first mission launch in 2017. The engineering, math, and science involved in designing rockets need to be dead-on for everything to work right. Vibrations can easily fatigue an under designed structural member to failure. High pressure can easily cause a fuel pump to malfunction or fuel lines to burst. High-energy radiation can easily degrade a transistor passed its specified life. It’s not easy stuff to figure out and it’s not cheap.

Yet, that’s why funding NASA is one of the most important programs you can spend the taxpayers’ hard earned dollars on. If you think 2017 is still a long time to wait even with the accurate designing needed, know that NASA will probably move the schedule forward with the events occurring this month with the Russian programs. One of their unmanned supply rockets to the International Space Station failed and crashed in Eastern Russia. It’s not easy to tolerate failure of launches when the price is so high, but NASA probably does not want to rely on rocketry that they have no say over any aspect of.

I leave you with something interesting and really cool to think about. The next Mars rover, called Curiosity, is scheduled to launch on November 25. You may ask, “What’s so cool about that? We’ve done that before.” Well, yes, we have. But no matter what pictures Curiosity takes, what trace of water it may find, what is most exciting before any of that happening is how it lands on Mars. In the past you may remember the rovers being encompassed in a huge bouncy ball. The ball would bounce around on the surface until it came to a stop and then let the rover out.

Curiosity does it in a much more advanced and elegant way. The capsule the rover resides in falls into the atmosphere and gets slowed, first by the thin Martian atmosphere and then even more so by super-sonic parachutes. After the high speed parachutes have done their job, lower velocity parachutes take over to slow the craft even more. Then the capsule breaks away from the landing ship, which consists of the carrier and the rover. The carrier then utilizes thrusters to slow it and the rover down eventually coming to a hover above the Martian surface. The rover is then lowered by tether down from the hovering carrier to the surface for a nice slow, safe, pleasant landing on its own 6 wheels.

Tell me you don’t have a great picture in your head right now. And tell me you don’t believe that thruster technology won’t somehow show up in the next 20 years in our everyday lives.

(Photo courtesy of SkinheadSportBiker1)

Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]