U.S. Space Initiatives Fall Short on Ambition

Article excerpt

For a perspective on the nation's science and technology status, one need look no further than President Bush's initiative to send Americans back to the moon by 2015.

The plan is to have astronauts spend extended periods of time on the lunar surface gathering data to help develop technologies that will sustain humans there and at other inhospitable locales in the solar system.

While it's a logical idea to use the Earth's natural satellite as a way station to ignite research for space exploration, it falls short of challenging scientists and spurring breakthrough innovations, critics say.

"The moon's not interesting for humans just to go back and plant flags," says Burr Rutan, aerospace engineer and chief executive officer of Scaled Composites, which produced SpaceShipOne, the world's first privately funded spacecraft to fly in sub-orbital space. "We ought to be contemplating how to get to the moons of Saturn."

He suggests the same limiting paradigm is occurring across all science and engineering disciplines, in part because the notion of research itself has changed.

Research is what scientists did in the 1960s, he says. Today, the majority of the nation's scientists are doing mostly development, finding ways to improve existing technologies and methods.

Many times, people view research and development as a single process. But Rutan points out that research is entirely different than development. "Research is defined by a goal you're trying to achieve," he says. "Ask people what they think about what you're trying to do. If half of them think it's impossible, then it's probably research."

Take the space race of 1961 to 1973, for example. The United States was competing against the Soviet Union to put the first man on the moon. In a span of only seven years, the nation successfully sent crews into space on five different launch systems: Redstone, Atlas, Titan, Saturn I and Saturn V. While the Soviets succeeded in landing the first unmanned aircraft on the moon, the Americans made history with the Apollo 11 astronauts imprinting their boots into the lunar soil.

"If a Third World-like adversary had not beaten us, we wouldn't have gone to the moon," says Rutan. "We are creative when we're scared."

With the goal attained and the nation's space status secured, Americans lost the initiative to advance aerospace technologies with the same verve. …