Space…The Silly Frontier

And so it begins

And so it begins

Tuesday, September 8th 2015 marks the day Congress returns to session after an August recess. It is an event which officially starts the timer on a countdown to an annual budget battle, with this year’s episode, FY 2016, taking center stage. As usual, Spacepolicyonline has a good summary of what is (or is not) to come. Rather than obsessing over all the potentially dire consequences to NASA and DoD space programs however, it might be more informative to take a step back and consider two related news stories of a more “uplifting” nature which began in 1966, a year in which NASA’s budget peaked at a now incomprehensible 4.41% of the U.S. budget.

September 8th, 1966 saw the first broadcast of Star Trek, the beginning of a cultural phenomenon which has resonated throughout the ensuing decades and has probably done more to influence global perceptions of what the future of space travel could hold than anything else. The episode aired was “The Man Trap,” and not the more famously titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before” which took its name from the series’ opening voice-over and would go on to become synonymous not just with Star Trek, but with human space travel in general. Gender quibbles aside, “To boldly go..” captured the essence of Apollo, and of NASA in that era as succinctly as perhaps anything might have hoped to.

And then there’s the present era.

On Friday, Boeing took the cover off its new processing facility at Cape Canaveral and unveiled the new name for the CST-100 spacecraft which will be built there. While the Starliner is certainly no star ship, and is not even the most sci-fi looking vessel in a Commercial Crew program which also includes the SpaceX Dragon, it, and even more-so Dragon, at least represents a return to both U.S. domestic spaceflight capability and more importantly, a path to sustainability which just might extend to the 23rd century.

Almost inexplicably, Starliner and Dragon face a threat which comes not from marauding pre- skull ridge Klingons or even a time traveling Borg vessel, but from something far more insidious; the ghosts of 1966.

The immediate future comes down to the question of whether or not the returning Congress manages to overcome resistance from space state representatives who are declining to fully fund Commercial Crew in deference to the Space Launch System and an Apollo-like vision of space exploration which is missing both four budget percentage points and more than a few pieces. What makes the dilemma so frustrating however, is the fact that as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden points out in this widely read Wired op/ed, the conflict is entirely artificial. Even at current budget levels, NASA can pursue both visions and the only party which stands to lose is Russia, which will no longer be able to cash the space agency’s stream of checks for taxi service.

The return of Congress, the beginning of the silly season and challenge of overcoming imaginary problems somehow make the second of today’s Star Trek related stories seem oddly appropriate.

Thankfully, Congress is not the only venerable American institution to make a September return. Football is back, bringing with it half-time shows and marching bands. And while highly paid coaches have spent the off season putting together game plans, the not-so-highly paid band directors have been just as busy putting together their own equally complex formations intended to momentarily distract the gathered masses if the former’s plans go awry.

In this case however, it was the Kansas State Marching Band director’s elaborate scheme to depict a Starship Enterprise fighting an alien entity which was somehow more misunderstood than Gary Seven’s attempt to prevent nuclear Armageddon by sabotaging an American rocket in Star Trek TOS.

The “alien” being fought by marching Enterprise assumed a form not entirely dissimilar to the mascot for Kansas State’s hapless rival, the Kansas Jayhawks. To some however, the image represented a different sort of threat entirely, and social media had a field day.


Perhaps confirming the growing suspicion that we really don’t have “the right stuff” anymore, the K State directory actually apologized, going as far as to release charts showing innocent intentions.

So this, apparently, is what a space-faring nation comes to when it’s no longer exploring. No guts, no glory, no budget, no domestic crew launch capability and way to many people on social media.



Posted in: Congress, NASA

About the Author:

Post a Comment