18 January 2004
Lost in Space
A Book Review by Julie Mayeda of:
The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age
By Greg Klerkx

San Francisco Chronicle


The forgotten frontier
Whatever happened to the United States' space program?
There seems to be a roadblock, and surprisingly enough, its name is NASA

NASA's enjoying a comeback of sorts, what with the rover's successful docking on Mars followed by President Bush's declared intentions to pump NASA up. In return, Bush is calling for NASA to cowboy up and hightail us to the moon and beyond. But if you were to ask Greg Klerkx, author of "Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age," what he thought about these recent developments, likely his enthusiasm toward NASA would remain curbed. "Any effort to reengage the public by revitalizing NASA is a red herring," Klerkx stated in a November 2003 space.com interview.

As a longtime space buff and the first director of development for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), Klerkx is a keen observer of whatever humans launch into space. He's also worked for, with and around NASA, so he knows something about the sprawling government agency that has a monopoly on space travel, and it doesn't impress him much. NASA's failures, according to Klerkx and amply supported by his research, are not due merely to dwindling funds as NASA would argue, but for a dearth of vision and direction and moreover, NASA's refusal to work with the private sector.

If all went according to NASA's original, unabridged prime directive, we humans would have been space inhabitants by now, or at the very least we'd have been frequent space travelers. But after that first giant leap was taken, it was back to Earth with a resounding thud for the astronauts and for the rest of us. Thereafter, the multibillion-dollar shebang called NASA hardly affected our daily existence and rarely entered our awareness, excepting the horrific demise of the Challenger and more recently, the Columbia.

While NASA failed to maintain our nation's fixation on space travel, it did succeed in keeping itself intact and funded. Heralded as the next steps toward making space travel routine, the space shuttle program and the International Space Station (ISS) have not come close to realizing that promise, and indeed, look to be duds. Klerkx states, "With the space shuttle in danger of becoming the Edsel of space transportation and the International Space Station little more than an orbital trailer home, there is a large segment of the population that would willingly risk money and life for space travel."

Klerkx introduces us to several such enthusiasts who are deeply invested in the pursuit of space travel. Some of them are even knowledgeable about rocket boosters and the atmospheric conditions of Mars and whatnot and have ideas on how to get there. However, "NASA has demonstrated a talent not only for strangling nascent competition in its cradle, but also for using subsidies to bring more mature entrepreneurial ventures close enough to kill them as subtly as possible." Klerkx gives lively accounts of two independent Americans trying to fund their own space travel by way of Russia's space program. In both cases the Russians were cooperative while NASA was not. In fact, NASA successfully, subversively, thwarted the first endeavor by helping to bring the curtain down on the Mir space station just ahead of its launch date. NASA failed to derail the second trip, but not for lack of trying. It was an alliance set up between the strapped Soyuz program and Dennis Tito, a former NASA jet propulsion engineer-turned-financier who'd never given up his dream of space travel (Tito put out enough of his own money to fund his trip and the next). When it came time for the two Russian cosmonauts and Tito to get trained at the Johnson Space Center for the American section of the ISS, NASA's manager, Robert Cabana, refused to train Tito. Crewmate Talgat Musabayev retorted that either the entire crew would be trained or none of them would. Cabana replied, "In that case, we will not be able to begin training, because we are not willing to train with Dennis Tito." Unbeknownst to Cabana, a Newsweek reporter was traveling with Tito and his crewmates. The reporter's article that ran the following week "was the first of many that would leave NASA looking less like a government agency trying to exercise caution and more like an intractable bully." In the end, Tito got his Soyuz flight to the ISS, and instantly became "the poster boy for a new era in human space travel: the man who had knocked down the gates for the rest of us who might like to someday visit the final frontier."

A journalist now, Klerkx, who divides his time between London and San Francisco, is at his best when reporting from the field, for he registers the kind of detail that readily imprints on one's imagination. For example, Klerkx traveled to Baikinour, Kazakhstan, to witness Tito's liftoff in April 2001. Coming across what appeared to be an equipment scrap yard, he writes, "It had the odd symmetry of a modern-art exhibit, all protruding edges and lumpy totemic mounds. Amidst the tangle of twisted iron sat two gigantic half- cylinders that looked like do-it-yourself Quonset huts reportedly used for some kind of storage . . . this was the bisected upper stage of the last N-1 rocket . . . the Götterdämmerung of the space race for the Soviet Union, the failed nemesis of the Saturn V. It's arguable which rocket had the more ignominious fate: the Saturns, which ended up as museum pieces, or the N-1, which became a storage shed."

Whether NASA can save its space shuttles from a similar fate, and whether NASA can remake itself into the right stuff, that all remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the space mavericks aren't likely to wait out their lifetime while NASA regroups; they want to explore space, too, and all they want from NASA is to quit running interference. "Lost in Space" is partly a harangue at NASA and partly a battle cry for the alternative space program -- and it certainly offers an engaging counterpoint to the can-do rhetoric headed our way via Bush and NASA officials.

Julie Mayeda is an Oregon writer.


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