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Does NASA Own Space?
American millionaire Dennis Tito got the joy ride of a lifetime, and a safe return this Sunday after his capsule landed upon the steppes of Kazakstan. People around the world are happy for him and those outside of NASA see this as an important step forward in the commercialization of space. However, NASA came off looking like a jealous bully who sees space as being its own private domain. Wounded by its own stupidity and total regard for public sentiment, even the efforts of astronaut hero John Glen to deflect NASA's self-injury did the agency little or no good.
A Golden Opportunity Lost
There was a time when NASA was in tune with the public. Now, they've become another bunch of well-intentioned geeks lined up at the funding trough of the congressional coffers.
Out of touch with America, they lost sight of the fact that Dennis Tito did something that sparked with Americans.
Rather than seize hold of that public interest, NASA dug their heels in with the Russians who called their bluff, and left them looking like a winded and pouting bully.
Meanwhile, people around the world found a renewed interest in space thanks to Tito. He shoed us that the day will soon come, when people will be able to visit the paradise of space, without the years of training and culling machinations one must endure to become an astronaut.
CNN.COM, May 6, 2001
Tito exulted that his space experience was "10 times better" than what he had expected, but said he did not want to make the trip again.
"I want other people to make it instead," he said.
The crew flew to the airport in Astana for a welcome by Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Women in folk costume presented the three with bouquets of red roses.
"In the past, it was only in science fiction novels that you could read about ordinary people being able to go to space," Nazarbayev told Tito. "But you laid the foundation for space tourism."
Before departing for Star City, the cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow where he underwent months of preparation, Tito said: "The personal experience went well beyond my dreams."
Unfortunately, this was not music to NASA's ears.
John Glenn Comes To NASA's Rescue
Somewhere along the way, NASA finally got wind of how their anti-Tito publicity was being received, and pulled its trusty Space Tourist Incident7-step Emergency PR Recovery Checklist.
Like a dependable old war horse, former U.S. senator and ex-astronaut John Glenn stood in front of the cameras after Tito's safe return and called his adventure a misuse of the basic research mission of space exploration, which was a considerably gentler viewpoint than the one expressed by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin.
CNN.COM, May 6, 2001
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former astronaut John Glenn called space tourist Dennis Tito's flight to the international space station a "misuse" of the multibillion-dollar facility.
He said Tito's trip did no real harm, "But I think he took a slot away from somebody who should have been up there on basic research ... I just think it takes a slot away from what the purpose of the mission is."
NASA had reservations about Tito's flight, urging him to wait until more work had been done to the station. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin criticized Tito before a congressional subcommittee on Wednesday, telling lawmakers his flight has put "incredible stress on the men and women of NASA."
Glenn's 1998 flight was meant to compare the effects of space flight on the elderly with its impact on younger astronauts. It also faced criticism from some observers who considered it more a publicity stunt for NASA than scientific research.
Fair is fair, and if NASA is going to trot out former Senator John Glenn let's take a brief look back in time.
Glen was mission payload specialist on the 1998 shuttle flight, and his purpose for being there was to help NASA learn what happens to a 77-year old man in space, which left everyone wondering why it was important for NASA to explore the exciting new world of space geriatrics at that time.
Or, was the fact that Glenn also happened to be a Senior Senator with a lot of political juice more to the point?
Astronomy Now, October 13 1998
NASA managers meeting at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday cleared the space shuttle Discovery for liftoff later this month with Senator John Glenn and six crewmates aboard.
Glenn, the first American to orbit earth, persuaded NASA to let him fly in space a second time to conduct geriatric research. The 77-year-old Senator from Ohio will be the oldest person to fly in space.
Despite all the hero worship that accompanied Glenn's return to space, e-mail lists across the country were flooded with jokes and cruel age-based jibes. But in the final analysis, many people just figured that he had used his pull with NASA to get in one last joy ride before his golden years. He had the juice to pull it off, so why begrudge him. Heck, anyone with that kind of juice would have done the same most thought.
Hero worship aside, there is no real difference between Glenn's use of political leverage and Tito's use of financial leverage. Still, Glenn's argument was that Tito's trip was essentially bad science. If that was so, why didn't Glenn give his seat to a younger more capable mission payload specialist who could have performed hard science experiments of immediate value.
Scientific hypocrisy aside, both men have done the cause of commercial space travel a great service and they have both helped the space effort.
This Is A Big Win For The Little Guy
Glenn has proved that Senior Citizens can thrive in space and Tito has broken the through NASA's glass ceiling and paid his way into space. Thanks to these two fellows, baby boomers can begin looking forward to the prospect of retiring in a low-gravity environment such as an orbiting space station or even a retirement community on the moon.
Even more importantly, we have the chance to think big again and this could provide us with the greatest economic boom this country has ever seen.
Think of it. We're presently reeling is disarray now that our dot-com craze has dot-bombed, and praying for a soft landing. As our 401K plans make big sucking sounds, those fanciful economic phrases like "mind-share" that once wooed us are quietly biting the dust along with our savings.
So what do we do? Do we go back into the business of building hair dryers and plastic shoes? Not if it means that Americans will have to be happy be making fifty cents an hour. Who needs this?
What we need is something that will galvanize our technical abilities in computers and aerospace, and the best way to do that is to open the door to space. The economic boom this would create could be beyond imagination. Yet we can imagine it because we would not have the Internet, computerized fuel injection systems in our cars, and our ubiquitous home computers without the Mercury and Apollo space programs.
There is an old saying in Russia. "When you have only one door and only one Russian, you create a bureaucracy." In a similar manner, NASA is fighting the commercialization of space, and that is why this whole public relations fiasco has backfired on them so badly.
Thanks to Dennis Tito and some obstinate Russians, space tourism is no longer controlled by the arbitrary whims of some NASA bureaucrat. Consequently, the dream of visiting space is something many of us can now hope to achieve within our own lifetimes.
NASA needs to get into step with this new reality, by going back to its Mercury/Apollo roots. There it may find magic it needs to rekindle public interest in the agency, and by genuinely supporting the commercialization of space.