So, Your Dad's a Rocket Scientist

When the New York Times phoned my father's office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1993, the reporter had hopes of a gotcha moment. The article featured a short biography of my dad but focused on the age-old question, "So you're a rocket scientist, but can you program your VCR?" My father said yes, and his kids could too.


When I saw the article in the Times, I was the mature age of eight and assumed thousands -- maybe millions -- of my peers could also call their fathers rocket scientists. One of eleven NASA centers, Marshall Space Flight Center neighbors the town of Huntsville in Alabama. Most of my childhood friends' families had transferred to Huntsville to engineer the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle or one of NASA's science missions like the Hubble Space Telescope. My own grandfather had moved from the Midwest in the 1960s to work on the Army's missile projects, also developed at the arsenal in Alabama. When I graduated high school, Huntsville had the highest number of Ph.D.s per capita in the entire United States. It seemed like everyone's parents were rocket scientists.

The Space Shuttle fleet retires this year and I have doubts that the next generation of eight-year-olds in Huntsville will also identify with rocket science or human spaceflight. The rocketry business is not booming. American efforts in space will rely upon Russian transport to and from the International Space Station. There is not yet a replacement for the Shuttle, as efforts to develop new vehicles throughout the 1990s and 2000s were overly ambitious, underfunded or full of political risk.

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The story of government-funded efforts in space is a timeline of highs and lows. Eight years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter space in 1961, an elated American public cheered as Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon. The Apollo 13 mission, which did not reach the moon's surface after an explosion crippled its craft, was a "successful failure" as its crew returned safely to Earth. The next transportation project was the Space Shuttle, designed in the 1970s to provide ready and reusable access to low Earth orbit. By design, the Shuttle made access to space more routine than any previous effort with its reusability and room for cargo. The achievements in science and engineering en route to and aboard the Shuttle were not at all boring, yet human spaceflight became routine and its risks diminished. NASA met its goal of exploring low Earth orbit with minimal drama.

The images of harrowing tragedies like the Apollo 1 fire and the Challenger and Columbia disasters still remind Americans of the risks. Most of my peers do not think of government as a driver of technological advancement -- that is Silicon Valley's job. Few know how the early computer industry learned from Apollo or about experiments aboard the Shuttle to refine cancer treatments. Among NASA's goals is to produce "practical breakthroughs," according to Marshall Space Flight Center's Director Robert Lightfoot. If you are thinking about using liquid hydrogen to power, say, a hybrid car, you might call him.

The end of the Space Shuttle program means NASA centers around the U.S. will change drastically the scale and scope of their work. In a revised exploration strategy, NASA will develop far-reaching and heavy-lift capabilities more similar to Apollo than Shuttle, while supporting small, private firms' development to enter low Earth orbit. Space tourism alone does not yet offer sufficient demand for firms like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

A month before the Times reporter phoned my father, a Gallup poll surveyed American support for NASA. The lowest percentage in the poll's history said NASA's funds should increase -- 46 percent -- leading Gallup to conclude that in times of economic anxiety, Americans are less willing to spend on space exploration. Today, NASA remains in the middle of strategy and budget battles between the White House and Congress, without a clear, celestial destination. In the Washington policy debate of economic growth and innovation, human spaceflight seems an afterthought. As Congress cuts costs, NASA will have to motivate both policymakers and its staff to achieve a more complex set of human spaceflight missions that are equally ambitious and practical. In 2000, the respected Apollo flight director Gene Kranz wrote, "lacking a clear goal ... [NASA] has become just another federal bureaucracy beset by competing agendas." After fifty years, the challenges to human spaceflight are more managerial than technical.