The Risk of Political Egos to Space Exploration

On a cold January morning in 1986, the nation watched in disbelief as Space Shuttle Challenger disappeared into smoke 73 seconds after lift off from Cape Canaveral. As many know, the low temperatures cracked the O-ring seal of the right side solid rocket booster (SRB). This allowed pressured fuel to leak from the solid rocket motor and eventually lead to the explosion of the external tank.

Explosion
The tragic Challenger explosion

Several of the engineers who designed the SRBs adamantly advised NASA to delay the shuttle’s launch because of the cold temperatures. NASA, however, faced political pressure to get the Challenger into outer space. The shuttle program had a tight schedule to maintain as defined by congress. Plus it would have put the first school teacher in space just in time for the president’s State of the Union address that evening.

A milestone achievement in space exploration is a guaranteed way for a president to improve their approval ratings and cement their legacy . John F Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech will forever be echoed in the mythos of American history. It is no surprise that the current US president ,Donald Trump, is looking to space exploration to help establish his own lore.

President Kennedy Gives His 'Race for Space' Speech
John F Kennedy’s address at Rice University on the nation’s space effort

Trump’s NASA transition team met with the space agency earlier this year to discuss potential accomplishments that could happen during the president’s first term. They suggested  manning the first flight  of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) with an astronaut crew. The SLS is slated as the successor to the shuttle program with intentions of sending astronauts to deep space instead of low earth orbit. Its first flight ,EM-1, will complete a retrograde orbit around the moon sometime in 2019.

SLS
Ground Testing of the SLS booster

Fortunately, NASA decided to keep EM-1 unmanned as originally planed. A manned SLS flight would, without a doubt, be a great accomplishment for our space program. No human being has left low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. However putting humans on the maiden flight of a very new and very large rocket presents multiple risks. Research scientists and backyard tinkerers alike are all too familiar with how the first tests of a project are often riddled with unforeseen issues. With space and rockets those issues could easily  be fatal.

Trump has already shown interest in one-upping Kennedy in the history books. In late March, he signed a law which gave funding to NASA for a manned mission to Mars. NASA estimates that they will leave for the red planet sometime in the early 2030’s

S442
President Trump signing the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017

During a recent phone call with astronaut Peggy Whitson, the president asked for a timeline of when humanity will be ready to launch for Mars.  After Whitson reminded the president that space travel takes time and money, he responded  “Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

Given Trump’s extensive history of boastfulness it is unclear whether  he was actually serious. Even if he was joking,  a few tweets could easily ignite frantic scurry to put humans on Mars before the end of the Trump administration. Pressure from the Trump administration could force NASA to leave for Mars before they are ready.

Bully

Rushing the launch of the Challenger Shuttle lead to a catastrophe. As a result the shuttle program was grounded for three years, the public’s opinion of space exploration was permanently scarred, and most tragically seven brave astronauts lost their lives. Submitting to political pressure can mean grave costs to the advancement of human space exploration. Hopefully with that knowledge in mind we can develop space systems on appropriate timelines despite the agendas and egos in Washington.

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