May 15 2008

Is the Navy Sinking the U.S. Space Program?

Published by at 6:02 am under Wave Guide 7: NASA Programs

The New York Times reports (4/27/08) that, for apparently the first time, the Navy is restricting the number of applicants — only 50 this year — for NASA Astronaut positions. For a service that nominated 1000+ Navy personnel to astronaut candidacy since 1984, and annually nominates between 105 and 211 (in last 15 years), fifty isn’t very many. Interestingly it’s not Navy pilots who are getting the ax, although there’ll be less American space piloting to do when the Shuttle retires in 2010, instead it’s the mission specialist-types such as Navy Seals, engineers, and military professors. And some of these folks openly admit that they joined the Navy for a good shot at NASA.

The Navy claims it has no choice. It still supports the space program but we are fighting the global war on terror and certain skill sets are in big demand. This is a very interesting position and not everyone’s buying it. For example, the Times quotes former astronaut and retired Navy Captain William M. Shepherd who fears this could be a profound shift away from supporting NASA, “This is the first tick of the needle…Our committment to doing this might be changing.”

If Captain Shepherd is right then this seemingly tiny news story buried at the bottom of page 17 of the Sunday Times might have real significance, especially to those who are sensitized to the potential meaning of long-term trends. For example, the scariest wildcard imaginable (see Global Conflict, Wave Guide 9)) might occur in the 2020s when a major war is expected, because if the war is early (pre-2025) it could eliminate human trips to Mars or other large-scale space operations, much like Vietnam in 1968 led to the cancellation of Apollo 18 through 20. What’s surprising is that we are far (17 years) from the culmination of the next Maslow Window (2015-2025) and yet ongoing military operations are apparently already starting to gently effect the space program!

On the other hand, it’s probable that the Navy is just prudently reacting to the somewhat nebulous state of the plans for human spaceflight in the 2015+ timeframe.

Today has parallels with the situation in 1952 (56 years ago). Imagine a world where: the Today Show just debuted on NBC-TV with Dave Garroway (who?), the first-ever commercial passenger jet started operations, President Eisenhower was elected, and “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves was the rage on TV. Now imagine going back to those folks and explaining that in only 17 years Neil Armstrong would land on the Moon! And yet it happened!

The point is that similar economic, technological, and political forces are at work in today’s world. They are gently drawing us toward the 2015 Maslow Window, but are just as hard to see now as they were in 1952, unless you’re armed with a perspective that spans generations, budget cycles, and most human memories.

One response so far

One Response to “Is the Navy Sinking the U.S. Space Program?”

  1. Mike Zornon 19 May 2008 at 8:07 pm

    One shuttle flight carries 6 – 8 astronauts. With 2 or 3 flights a year – and the shuttle retiring – that would leave about about 900 well-trained but unemployable astronaut-qualified people.

    The Navy is acting rationally, and the need for combat officers is not the main concern. In terms of the astronaut corps, 900 is a huge number, but in terms of the officer corps, not so big.

    Long-range planning is not the forte of those in government (or in NASA, it seems), but if we don’t plan for the future, we plan to fail (according to some old proverb).

    On the other hand, how long did it take for us to get from the V-2 to the Moon? Did we do that without long-range planning? (That was the program that gave rise to the cultural saying, “They can put a man on the Moon, so why can’t they do ……?”.)

    There’s a need for long-range thinkers, Big Picture thinkers, and this may be the place.

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