Why I Riffed on Orion

If you really want a space mission to happen, you’ve got to do more than hope. You’ve got to sit down and seriously plan like they did in the ’60s.

I got a call from a distraught listener. “Why are you dissing NASA’s triumph?” He was talking about the recent successful test of the Orion space capsule and our discussion of it on Science Friday last week. “I was listening to the news with my kid. He was so excited. And then you and your guest trashed the triumph with his remarks. He was crushed.”

I’m not in the business of killing children’s dreams. When it comes to space, I’ve never grown up myself. With a kid’s enthusiasm, I’m always looking for new worlds to explore and get excited about every new discovery. As a child of the Space Race of the ’60s, I lived through those exciting times. They were very romantic. But as an adult, now I understand that those dreams only come through with hard work, planning, cooperation, and lots and lots of money. Not something kids want to hear—or their parents.

I get it. Give the kids something to hope for. Something to dream about. I’m all for that. But if you really want that dream to come true, you’ve got to do more than hope. You’ve got to sit down and seriously plan like they did in the ’60s. To begin, you need serious motivation, a real national will. We don’t have that right now. Back in the day, we had politics and national security. We had to “beat the Russians”—economically, socially, and technologically. Space permeated all discussions. We had to get to the moon first. The race was so mission-oriented that three presidents stood watch over the progress. It was an all-consuming goal (at least until the Vietnam War heated up). Getting three presidents to agree on anything, is, well…never mind.

From President Kennedy’s challenge to “land a man on the moon and return him safely” by the end of the decade to that very landing in July of 1969, each step, each milestone, was meticulously planned and executed. The effort was generously funded and progressed quickly. Think about it. If we worked at that rate today, two years from now we’d be landing a human on the moon.

But we don’t have the motivation, the politics, or the money. We have the know-how. Yet, until we can line up all those ducks in a row, then missions like Orion will be exciting but unsatisfying in the long run. It’s like winning the first game of the World Series and expecting to go home with the trophy. Well, actually, that’s a bad analogy. At least the World Series has a mission, goals, milestones, and players and is fully funded.

I feel bad for the listener and especially his son. I’d like to see a mission to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars as much as he would. But here’s the good news: I’m a firm believer that we will see humans on another celestial body. If not a NASA astronaut, then perhaps a Chinese or Indian or private industry space traveler. The bad news is that I’ll probably not live to see it. Yet I’m happy to have witnessed the “golden era” of space travel, when people and their robots toured the solar system.

The great popularity of the Philae landing on an asteroid last month confirmed the romance people still have with space, discovery, and the joy of human ingenuity and daring. My children as well as this listener’s could have the best days of space exploration ahead of them—if they want it badly enough.

Meet the Writer

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.