I'm a longtime space fan, but it's only in about the last year and a half or so that I've really been paying attention to the decision processes that go into making it happen. (Hey, tying into the blog title! Let me just check that off in the little complementary manual...) Previously, I was more interested in cool ideas like lunar lava-tube habitats or reusable orbital tugs. But the FY 2011 NASA budget made me sit up, take notice, and dig into the process of actually turning dreams into hardware. I've spent a lot of time since then digging through PDFs of reports and the like, and I have to say that when the Senate passed their compromise bill, I actually thought I knew enough to say that compromise had produced a solution that was perhaps both politically feasible and technically possible, perhaps even desirable, which is more than I could say about the Ares I and Ares V after reading more about them than the performance numbers that were all I'd looked at when the designs were first released. Now, as the fiscal year drags to a close and the only things the seem to be coming out of the House of Representatives are...not great, I'm not feeling so optimistic.
There's mission targets and architectures both in and beyond low-Earth orbit that can be done with a booster like what I suspect the Senate bill's Space Launch System would resemble: probes to the moon, returning humans to the moon, expand/replace ISS, perhaps even a crewed Mars mission. There's architectures for doing a lot of that in more modest fashions with boosters like Atlas, Delta, Falcon, and Taurus. They're perhaps more technically challenging depending on the reports you read and not quite as grand in some ways (at least in my opinion), but it's also possible to do a lot of the same stuff if more slowly and smaller. What there isn't an architecture for is what you can do with no action, no direction, no idea of spaceflight as more than a money tube to key Congressional districts. Well, maybe Ares I, but other than that, not really. I'm worried that NASA could end up there if nothing happens, which is seeming more and more likely as the time in FY 2010 runs out with no further Congressional action. I don't think I'm the only one who feels this way, the NASAspaceflight.com forum sections about spaceflight's future have been getting...heated as of the last month or so, and I think much of that is simply the indecision gnawing at everyone. I know personally if I'm outside at night, like I was last Tuesday or this evening, I find myself staring at the moon. I want to see people go back there, I want to see it become the place it was when people from this planet stood on it and touched it and studied it up close and sent back images and data and videos that helped the whole world feel like they were there too. I want it so much that not being able to say "this is how we go back there" with any certainty makes me turn away and go back inside.
Okay, so here's the secret bonus material that I'm sure part of my future readership will find engrossing, because I'm about to mention some of the Magic Words. I figure this blog is/will be read by three kinds of people: myself in the future looking for links to stuff I referenced and then misplaced, friends and family I direct here, and future employers trying to see who I am and why they should hire me. I think the last group will possibly be interested when I say that I think that the reason this situation bugs me ties into My Biggest Flaw as a person and as an engineer. I like solving problems, I like working on projects, and I'm not terrible at doing so if I say so myself. But when things go wrong, or are stalled or behind schedule, I tend to proceed as though the solution is for me to throw more and more of my time and mental cycles at it until the issue is resolved. It's not great sometimes, but it can yield results with stuff like a coding project or Aerodesign where my work actually can be enough to help a little, even if at the expense of sleep and social obligations. That I might do so to the extent that it hurts myself and any wife and family I hope to someday have is one of my major fears. But in situations like the NASA budget debates here, there's not much I've found that I can do to really help. I've called the offices of every Ohio representative I could, and I read the latest developments on NSF and other space news sites, but...that's all I can do. They scratch the "I need to do something about this" itch in my mind, but I can't really do anything of meaning. I don't like being powerless. This is a field I want to work in, something I want to make my career in, but at a moment when this field is in a crisis that could shape its future for the next decade or more, I can't try and push towards a solid architecture and plan. I can't lobby for money. I can't even lobby to just get something other than the Schroedinger nightmare state that we're in right now. I just have to find ways to let myself turn off the computer, stop worrying in violation of everything my brain tells me, and keep going with my daily life. Like, for instance, writing all this here so I can get to bed right now and not go back outside and stare at the moon some more.