Taylor and Osborn’s “A New American Space Plan” is Interesting, Ambitious

 Travis Taylor and Stephanie Osborn’s A NEW AMERICAN SPACE PLAN is one of the more ambitious pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.  Taylor, the self-described ringleader of the Rocket City Rednecks (a TV show on NatGeo), is a writer and scientist with multiple degrees who enjoys doing more with less, while Osborn is a scientist and writer whose books have been previously reviewed here at SBR (go here and here for further details).  The two between them have created an entertaining and thought-provoking book that asks the question, “What would NASA be like if it were fully funded?”  (And, for that matter, if NASA’s priorities didn’t shift with every different presidential administration.)

Taylor is known for his folksy style, and the book’s style is exactly the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen him on his TV show.  There’s a breadth and depth of knowledge here that’s startling to behold, but for the most part the narrative never lost me.   The details are enough for most scientists without confusing the intelligent layman most of the time, which is a neat trick to pull off.   And the arguments for a much bigger budget and a solid mission focus that doesn’t depend on what President happens to be occupying the Oval Office at the time are compelling and well thought-out.

The main problem with NASA right now, according to Taylor and Osborn, is that there’s not enough money to do what’s necessary.  The space shuttle program has been dissolved, and there seems to be no real focus aside from the information gleaned by the Mars Rover.  The International Space Station has some real implementation problems (including the wiring being different in various aspects of the station), and is not funded equally by every country that has sent astronauts into space — in fact, the United States has paid far more money for the International Space Station over time than every other country combined, according to Taylor and Osborn’s math.

Yet rather than the US keeping its “first among equals” status when it comes to the knowledge of space and space exploration, for whatever reason the US has backed off giving NASA enough money to figure out a new mission — a new way forward.  Both Taylor and Osborn have worked for NASA in one form or another (perhaps not directly, but as contractors), and are cognizant of all the problems that derailed more consistent applications of American ingenuity and drive when it comes to space.

Taylor and Osborn also point out the many economic benefits, both past and present, that are accorded by the US being the leader in aerospace engineering.  And it worries them, significantly, that the US currently has no simple and well-funded way forward, especially considering the ominous symbolism of the space shuttles being grounded.

Put bluntly, most Americans no longer see astronauts as “rock stars.”  At least, they don’t see contemporary ones as such — Buzz Aldrin, the late Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, now those guys still have that rock star quality, but the new astronauts are mostly devoid of that.  Yet these are people who risk their lives to go into space, whether it’s at low-earth orbit like in the space shuttles, or in a higher orbit as with past programs, or in going to the Moon.  Astronauts have died in attaining their goals to go into space, and their bravery in continuing to go despite the “Challenger” disaster, despite the destruction of the “Columbia,” and of course the destruction of “Apollo 1” back in 1967, should be celebrated.

This lamentation for simpler and better days, when astronauts were celebrated for their bravery — along with the arguments for more money and a consistent mission for NASA (perhaps set up along nonpartisan lines) — shows that above and beyond the United States’ need for a new space plan, we also need to figure out our priorities.  It’s obvious that both Taylor and Osborn do not appreciate what’s going on today, politically.  They view the way the US Congress and current Obama Administration treats NASA as a type of political football, and they believe that must end.

They also think that Americans should regain our trust in the space program, something that is hard to argue with.  And they wish that Americans could recapture at least some of our lost optimism, because with that we could create many jobs (the space program has always created solid jobs that pay a living wage for ordinary Americans without multiple PhDs), regain our foothold in space and show that the United States can again be first in innovation.

All of this is a powerful message, and it’s delivered in an easy-to-understand way.

There are a few drawbacks here, though.  Every great once in a while, things descend into formulas, ratios, or lists.  The lists are comprehensible to intelligent laymen, but the other two may not be.  And it is a bit odd to see this in a book that’s not meant for other specialists — but perhaps this was the only way the authors could come up with to describe what they meant.

Still.  It may as well be “technobabble” to anyone outside the authors’ specialties, and is the one and only one thing I found to criticize here (aside from a possible math quibble that was brought up already over at The Space Review).

Look.  This is a book that everyone should read regardless of politics.  The authors are both literate and entertaining writers, and their collaboration has resulted in a book that will teach people why the United States still needs  a space program.  Much less why that program should be fully and consistently funded on a non-partisan basis.

Bottom line?  If you love science fiction or good, solidly researched non-fiction, you really owe it to yourself to read A NEW AMERICAN SPACE PLAN.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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  1. #1 by Ed Powell (@EdwardTPowell) on February 21, 2013 - 9:44 pm

    Look, I grew up as a great admirer of NASA, and a strong supporter of space exploration, but the time has come to eliminate this agency and put it out of its misery. We spend $18B/year on NASA and we get about $2B worth of actual space exploration from it: Cassini, The Mars rovers, the Hubble telescope, and a few others. The rest of the money is spent on a vast, towering bureaucracy, whose one goal is to gold plate everything to the point of unaffordability, while continuing to draw generous government pay and extravagant pensions.

    The time has come to for the government to leave the space business entirely, and turn it over to the private sector (except to complete the missions of the afore-mentioned successes). Private industry can do the job 10 times better at 1/10th the cost. President Obama’s first halting attempts to do this should be appauded, but it should be taken to a new level. NASA should be abolished, everyone laid off, then a new super-lean agency formed to just focus on the most important few missions that the private sector won’t do–basically the JPL missions. The rest should be left to the private sector.

    • #2 by Barb Caffrey on February 22, 2013 - 12:34 am

      Hi, Ed. Thanks for coming to SBR.

      The main reason we need an agency like NASA is that it takes a long time to gather information. It also takes a long time to build a spaceworthy vessel, to make voyages into the solar system will take years, decades, or more — meaning spaceworthy vessels are absolutely essential — and the amount of money required is so great that private companies can’t do it.

      This particular book explains why the government should stay in the space race, for lack of a better term.

      I agree with you that the bureaucracy of NASA, like many other governmental agencies, seems bloated, for lack of a better term. I also agree that NASA’s overall mission does not seem as essential to American life as it once was.

      Again, this particular book discusses how and why this is — every President comes in and has a different vision. Each President wants to put his particular stamp on things. And yet these missions take a lot longer than four years or eight years to plan, sometimes. This means that NASA is forced to take the short view when they really need to be taking the long view.

      And that’s again why it’s very unlikely that any private company can take on this particular type of responsibility, because most companies have to make shareholders happy. They’ve become incredibly short-term, short-sighted entities, especially in the last fifteen years — the long view need not apply to most corporations. And even one that’s privately held by a very few people who all have the same vision is going to run into budget concerns . . . unless that company decides to work internationally, which causes different problems because of issues as simple as AC/DC current, engineering standards from one country to the next don’t match, etc.

      That doesn’t make international cooperation — more than what we have at the “international” space station (paid for mostly by US dollars) — impossible, mind you. But it is incredibly difficult.

      Anyway, I agree we need actual, live space exploration. If a private company can do this, I’d be for it. But I tend to think that these two scientists — because that’s what they both are — understand the amount of money required and how much various private corporations can actually *do*. (They discuss the various $10 million prizes and how they’re not going to be sufficient to do much. It’s just not enough money. It’s a drop in the bucket. They’re a good first step, and that’s all. And they’re really not sure, these two scientists, that any private corporation in the world is likely to take a second step.)

  1. Just Reviewed “A New American Space Plan” at SBR | Barb Caffrey's Blog
  2. Interview — Stephanie Osborn | Shiny Book Review

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