Editor Marcia Smith Joins Aviation Week's IdeaXchange Editor Marcia Smith Joins Aviation Week's IdeaXchange

Editor’s note:   I have joined Aviation Week & Space Technology’s IdeaXchange, a section of its website that fosters the exchange of ideas.  I will be writing op-ed pieces for it from time to time and will include links here.

Pubished January 8, 2015, it offers my perspective on that topic from the vantage point of 30 years after the creation of the National Commission on Space (NCOS), for which I served as Executive Director.

Published February 23, 2015, it says ARM is two good ideas kluged together into one bewildering idea and the two — sending humans to Mars and developing technologies to defend Earth from hazardous asteroids — need to be separated to be pursued effectively.


Rediscovering Discovery: A Commentary–Photos Added

Rediscovering Discovery: A Commentary–Photos Added

Editorial Commentary by Laura M. Delgado after visiting the Discovery space shuttle orbiter at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center.  This story has been updated adding photos of the visit.

Having never visited the National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in the few years I have been living in DC is akin to going only sporadically to the beach when I was growing up in Puerto Rico.  Embarrassing, yes, but so easy to do.  That’s why this past Saturday when a friend (with a car) suggested venturing out to Chantilly, VA, I simply could not refuse.

We did not get to see Space Shuttle Discovery right away.  After a persistent rain had cleared away, we took the opportunity to go up to the observation tower and see planes coming in and out of Dulles International Airport just a few miles away. As we picked up new facts about flying, we heard the real-time talk of flight controllers and saw blips of planes in the vicinity of the Newark airport in New Jersey on a radar screen.

Back in the main building, we went to the Boeing Aviation Hangar first and were just awestruck at the many kinds of engines, models and planes that are packed up in that one space. We picked our favorites (based on color, symbols on the wings, size or shape) and got up for a closer look: a World War II German plane, the French Concord, and a couple of colorful aerobatic aircraft made the cut. The sampling was enough for us to comment often on the bravado of those who had braved the skies for the first time in such fantastic-looking vehicles.

Eventually, of course, the pull of the Space Shuttle, sitting silently in the middle of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, was just too strong.

I had seen Discovery once before. Back in April, before it moved into its new location, it sat on top of what seemed a gigantic plane that flew over the city, drawing the gaze of thousands.  I was one of so many who clambered up to the rooftop of their buildings, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. And we did — on its way from Dulles and into the city, Discovery flew over us in Arlington, Va., not once but three times, giving us different perspectives and making us clap and scream with inexplicable joy.

At the museum, of course, the experience was quieter.

I gazed at the vehicle with an interesting mixture of disbelief – at both how small and how big it looked, at how seemingly fragile – and of certainty, as I recalled what several years of being in the space policy field have taught me about the program. The many successes, the failures, and the history of its conception and its closure, were all remembered in that one moment as I tried to angle my camera just right to capture it in its entirety. The scuff marks, the dust and grit, the instructions to astronauts written in bold letters, the thermal tiles – those tiles, that featured so prominently for the Nation in 2003 – all of this caught my attention as I circled Discovery.


Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery at the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, August 2012.  Photo Credit:  Laura M. Delgado correspondent Laura M. Delgado poses next to the space shuttle Discovery orbiter at the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, August 2012.  Photo Credit:  Laura M. Delgado

While my connection to space is policy not technical, I have to admit that in this one moment, I felt the shuttle to be quite real. Everything about it, what I know, what I will keep learning and what I don’t yet understand, was evidence to me that I was looking not at a symbol but a real component of the space program.

I saw many things on Saturday that surprised me, made me wonder, but the privilege of seeing Discovery up close for the first time definitely stayed with me. Yes, Discovery, like the other shuttles, is not flying any more. But for those of us who venture out to see them, it’s like getting a flavor of space and our history in it in a very personal way while inviting an opportunity to ponder over and hope for what comes next.

Space Junk 3D: A Space Movie Review

Space Junk 3D: A Space Movie Review

Whirling space trash and panoramic views of Arizona’s Meteor Crater are only two of the reasons to see a new 3D movie — Space Junk 3D.

Shown last night at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s IMAX theater as part of the Environmental Film Festival, the Melrae Pictures film tells the story of Don Kessler, the “father of space junk,” and raises public awareness about the issue that has defined his career.

Using the natural collisions of the universe as an analogy, the film has great computer-generated 3D imagery of asteroids colliding with each other and breaking into pieces that impact the Earth — hence the inclusion of Meteor Crater — and galaxies crashing into each other to form new galaxies.    It is a useful technique to then explain the thousands of objects in Earth orbit that may collide with each other and form yet more debris that imperils operating spacecraft.

An arcane and complicated subject– how many people even know the difference between LEO and MEO or MEO and GEO — the film uses storytelling to capture the public’s interest and 3D animation to provide a visual reference.   Lively questions from the audience of perhaps 150 people after the film was over suggested that they got the point that there’s a problem even if the details and solutions were not apparent.

Experts may quibble with a few of the facts (weather satellites are not in MEO), the sequencing is odd in places (one moment talking about GEO, the next about the Chinese ASAT test in 2007), the ending verges on silliness (depicting a giant orbiting recycling station that would dwarf ISS), and it does have a Carl Sagan-ish quality in almost gloryifying Kessler, but overall it is a useful and fun method to raise public awareness about the need for space sustainability.   Kudos to Melissa Butts and Kimberly Rowe who produced and directed the film.  Visit the Melrae Pictures website for information on where to see it.

New York Times Calls $2.5 Billion Mars Curiosity Rover a "Tidbit"

New York Times Calls $2.5 Billion Mars Curiosity Rover a "Tidbit" Editorial Commentary

In a news story today, the New York Times bemoans the cut to robotic Mars exploration plans, adding that “There are still a few tidbits left.”   It identifies the “tidbits” as the Mars Curiosity rover currently enroute to Mars and the MAVEN mission scheduled for launch next year.

Curiosity hopefully will make a successful landing on Mars in August, though the novel “sky crane” landing system will have everyone biting their nails during descent.  Twice as long and five times as heavy as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers already on Mars, Curiosity is the size of a mini Cooper and designed to roll over obstacles up to two feet high. Its scientific equipment is 10 times more massive than the earlier rovers. Not to mention — and the New York Times does not — that its life cycle cost is $2.5 billion, a 56 percent overrun according to NASA’s Inspector General.  That’s quite a tidbit.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission is indeed a less ambitious mission.  An orbiter rather than a lander, it will try to determine what caused “the Martian atmosphere — and water — to be lost to space.”   GAO reports that MAVEN will cost $671 million.  That may be a tidbit in comparison to Curiosity, but certainly not to the average American taxpayer.

Across the land, everyone wants to cut the deficit — as long as it’s not THEIR program that suffers as a result.   It is certainly fair for the Mars community to fight for their program; that’s how the game is played.  One would hope, however, that the news media would refrain from picking favorites except on their editorial pages.   For that matter, what program(s) would the New York Times prefer to have cut instead, or does it believe that NASA should be exempt from cuts?  That is a weighty question on which the esteemed newspaper probably should comment. 

In the meantime, with all due respect, calling a $2.5 billion Mars rover a “tidbit” is laughable. 

Falling Back to Earth: Mark Albrecht's Memoir of the National Space Council 1989-1992–A Book Review

Falling Back to Earth: Mark Albrecht's Memoir of the National Space Council 1989-1992–A Book Review

Many human spaceflight advocates consider the imminent termination of the space shuttle and the lack of commitment to a future human space exploration program as U.S. abdication of its leadership in space. Mark Albrecht, former Executive Director of the White House’s National Space Council under President George H. W. Bush, is one of them.

In his new book, Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War, Albrecht provides a very personal account of his years in the Bush Administration – that’s the first Bush Administration, not the more recent George W. Bush presidency – working with Vice President Dan Quayle as they tried their hand at getting American astronauts out of Earth orbit.

A fixture in Washington space policy circles, Albrecht has shared many of these stories verbally throughout the years, but now they are in print. It is a valuable addition to the historical record.

The book is an insider’s view of the domestic and international politics that shaped the civil space program during the years Albrecht ran the National Space Council (1989-1992). He also has several chapters about his later tenure as President of International Launch Services (ILS), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Russia’s Khrunichev to commercialize Russia’s Proton rocket. At the end, he offers an assessment of the challenges facing NASA today and his prescription for fixing them.

The book is not an academic treatise. Only 45 endnotes underpin the over 200 page book. Albrecht says in his introduction that he relied on his “personal notes and records of meetings and conversations” and public documents from the George H.W. Bush presidential library. He quotes high ranking Administration officials at length throughout the book. Indicating which quotes came from his personal notes and which from public documents would have substantially added to the gravitas of the book.

Instead, it is an entertaining, fast-paced recounting of a White House staffer’s view of that period in U.S. space policy. Most of the book deals with the decision early in the Bush presidency to put America on the road to returning humans to the Moon and someday sending them to Mars, and why, in Albrecht’s opinion, the effort collapsed over the ensuing years. It also recounts the Bush Administration’s aspirations to increase U.S.-Russian space cooperation as the Cold War ended. Albrecht was center stage in those deliberations, which started the ball rolling for the Shuttle-Mir missions in the mid-1990s that led to the International Space Station (ISS) cooperation of today. Scholars researching the history of U.S.-Russian space cooperation will find interesting tales of why it took as long as it did to open those floodgates.

Albrecht displays his loyalty to Vice President Quayle throughout the book, portraying him as a strong leader completely unlike the image painted by the media. As much as he tries to make the reader admire Quayle, he pulls no punches in his withering assessment of Richard Truly, then NASA Administrator. Truly is a constant presence in the book starting with the Introduction where Albrecht details a December 1991 White House meeting where three of the four living former NASA Administrators tell the White House what it clearly wanted to hear – that Truly needed to be replaced.

Albrecht puts the blame for the collapse of the Moon/Mars initiative squarely on Truly’s shoulders. From resisting the idea in the first place, to undermining it with Congress thereafter, Dick Truly is portrayed as an entrenched defender of NASA’s status quo – the space shuttle and space station programs – who refused to follow White House direction. Not everyone will agree NASA is entirely to blame, of course, but they will have to write their own memoirs.

Albrecht’s opinion of NASA as an agency is no higher than his assessment of Truly. In his last chapter, he drives home that he believes now as he did 20 years ago that NASA needs to be completely restructured. He specifically calls for closing NASA field centers through a BRAC-like process, transferring some NASA programs (like aeronautics, education, and earth science – anything that isn’t “exploration”) to other agencies, and expanding its commercial partnerships.

In fact, it is eerie to read many passages in the book about the 1989-1992 period – a trip back in time only to discover that you are where you started. One exception is that, from outside appearances at least, Truly’s successors have carefully hewed to White House direction, but in many other cases there are close similarities to what Albrecht had in mind in 1989 and what has developed more recently and also turned to dust.

Albrecht wanted to replace the shuttle and space station programs with a new human space exploration program, not overlay exploration on top of the existing programs (other than using the space station for requisite life sciences research). That was the path George W. Bush took, calling for termination of the shuttle in 2010 and ISS in 2015. Albrecht wanted to take a long term view of human exploration – no crash program – and invest in new technologies to make it more affordable. That was President Obama’s proposal in his FY2011 NASA budget request, although he simultaneously cancelled Bush’s Moon/Mars program and gave the ISS a reprieve. The Obama Administration’s dreadful roll-out of its NASA proposal doomed robust technology investment once again and left the human spaceflight program adrift. One can’t help but wonder if Obama had created a National Space Council as he promised during his campaign, headed by an experienced and effective insider like Albrecht (albeit Democrat instead of Republican), whether that episode in U.S. space policy would have turned out better.

The misgivings Albrecht expresses about the future of today’s human spaceflight program are widely shared in the space community. NASA may insist that the U.S. human spaceflight program is doing just fine with flights of U.S. astronauts to the ISS via Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the indefinite future, but most of us are uneasy at best. One can agree or not with Albrecht’s prescription for fixing today’s problems – overhauling NASA and incentivizing private industry – but his cautionary final paragraph rings all too true. Human exploration of space will continue, the only question is what role we will have in it: “The United States may well lead that venture, or participate in it, or, most sadly of all, simply watch it. It’s up to all of us.”

Albrecht is donating the proceeds from book sales to the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS). Buying a copy will not only offer insights into the inner workings of the George H.W. Bush Administration and its National Space Council, but through its sales will also help get younger kids engaged in science and math.

Breathing New Life into the Debate Over Human Spaceflight

Breathing New Life into the Debate Over Human Spaceflight’s correspondent Laura Delgado comments on the need to reconsider the paradigms that have shaped the U.S. human spaceflight program over the past 50 years in this commentary, dated May 4, 2011.

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The Policy Side of Things: A Student's View of AIAA's Space 2010 Conference

The Policy Side of Things: A Student's View of AIAA's Space 2010 Conference correspondent Laura M. Delgado, a graduate student at GWU’s Space Policy Institute, attended her first AIAA conference last week — Space2010 — and presented her first conference paper. Read about her impressions of the conference, highlights of the sessions she attended, and a synopsis of her paper.

Witnessing the STS-130 Launch and the Ending of an Era

Witnessing the STS-130 Launch and the Ending of an Era correspondent Laura M. Delgado was in Florida to watch the STS-130 launch — her first. Read her commentary on her impressions of the launch and of the end of the space shuttle era.