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Chapter 1:
Where is Captain Kirk
When We Need Him?

When I was a kid I watched Captain Kirk every afternoon when I’d get home from school. On weekends we pretended to be Captain Kirk; there was always an argument on who got to be who. I always wanted to be Kirk or Spock but everybody else did too. Every now and then I pretended to be Mr. Scott, but James T. Kirk was the one we all truly wanted to be.

In our backyard there was this huge pine tree. That thing had to be at least a hundred and twenty feet tall and was so big that my older brother and I culd not reach around and touch each other’s hands on the other side. We built a platform up in the top of that tree and we would climb up that thing all the time. We didn’t build that platform just to make our parents nervous or just to have a treehouse way away from everybody. No, that wasn’t it at all. You see we were just outside the Rocket City—Huntsville, Alabama. When we climbed up the tree we could see everything in north Alabama, including across the river where the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center was. It was right there on the Redstone Arsenal where Wernher Von Braun started the whole space thing. When they would do engine tests across the river, we could see the smoke plumes. We could hear the roaring thunderous sound of the rocket engines pouring out exhaust and thrust, and it would rattle the windows of our house.

Man I miss those days. I miss that excitement. That roar into the unknown. I miss that feeling that we were going to go out there to the unknown and get to know it, tame it, and make it ours! That is what America is missing right now.

I remember being thrilled, just absolutely thrilled, to get to watch the rocket testing. It made me really feel like Captain Kirk. At one point, when I was about ten or twelve or so, NASA flew the new Space Shuttle Enterprise test vehicle into Huntsville, Alabama. It was parked out at the Space Center and I went and took pictures of that thing.

There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to get to retire on the moon. And our kids no doubt would be able to live up there or at least vacation there. And their kids were going to get to vacation on Mars. There was always the hope that somebody in those big government research programs was going to end up with a warp drive and we would soon be exploring Rigel 7, or Tau Ceti 8, or even Vulcan.

Kids growing up today have no clue how absolutely thrilling and exciting it was to watch Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock on the TV in the afternoons. And to feel it and see it. See it—in the form of the current space program—on the news in the afternoons. And just to know, by God, that America was first in space, would always be first in space, and that one day all of us would have the opportunity to go to space. That final frontier was ripe for the picking and it was America’s choice to pick. We were all going to be Captain Kirk!

So what the crap happened!?

When I was in high school everybody wanted to be a scientist, an engineer, or a fighter pilot so they could become an astronaut. If they didn’t actually fly in the things, they at least wanted to work on ’em. Spaceships that America was building to take us to the final frontier were going to be a reality very soon, seemed like. When I was in graduate school there were one hundred and twenty students in the physics department at our local university. There were hundreds of kids and we had all the engineering curriculums. Now twenty years later there’s about eight kids in the physics department. But at least the engineering department is still alive and kicking. Mechanical and aerospace do okay because of the big need for UAVs nowadays. But there is almost zero work being done on space vehicles.

I was peripherally on a program that NASA tried to do for about two or three years called “Breakthrough Propulsion Physics.” One bright guy at NASA named Mark Millishoped that he could use enthusiasts, tenured professors, and graybeards across the country to, on their own dime mostly, work on concepts like warp drives and teleporters. It didn’t last long because there was no money in there. I think throughout the total length of the program there were a few million dollars to be had for government, academia, and industry. Think about that. After overhead and taxes, a single person, whether he makes $50,000 or $100,000 per year, still costs the company, government, or university about $250,000 per year. So, the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program had enough money to keep about five people employed per year. Two of them were at NASA, Mark Millis and his assistant. So, that left enough money to keep about three more people thinking about how to build a warp drive. The most difficult breakthrough physics in the history of mankind is not going to be accomplished by hiring three people.

But Mark was hopeful that we’d all jump in there and start to work on these problems together even if there was no money. The thought was that if enough enthusiasm picked up maybe we could lobby for more money from Congress. The reality of the situation was that the only people who ended up able to work on the effort were the tenured professors, a few enthusiasts like myself, and that’s about it. With no real money to keep people interested, the program died out. There was not enough enthusiasm from the general public to bolster and shore up the next generation in our American space program.

We had had a good start. Back when I was a kid, everybody knew the names of the Mercury Seven, the New Nine—who were the Gemini team—and every Apollo astronaut. Then there was a long hiatus of almost ten years before the Space Shuttle ever launched, and once it had, some of the enthusiasm came back. Most of the kids my age knew who John Young and Robert Crippen, Jr. were. They weren’t quite as strong as Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, let alone Neil Armstrong, but they were the new generation of astronauts. Of course John Young was famous from the previous era and we all knew that he was perfect to be the first commander of the International Space Station. After all, he flew on the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3, with Gus Grissom; he was the first man to orbit the Moon alone in Apollo 10; he commanded Apollo 16, walked on the Moon, drove the lunar rover, and still commanded STS-1—the first manned Shuttle mission—and STS-9, which carried the first Spacelab payload. First, first, first.

Who could ever forget about John Young’s corned beef sandwich? How on earth he ever smuggled it onto Gemini 3 I can’t figure. It got him in trouble—he got reprimanded for it—but it was still another space first to add to an impressive list.

What do we do now? How do we get the fire back in our collective national gut? I don’t know what we can do to bring that enthusiasm back. When Steve Jobs looked into where the new iPhone would be constructed, the study showed that it would take ten years or more for Americans to train enough engineers and scientists and technicians to manufacture his cool gadgets. But China could do it right now. Guess where he went?

NASA hasn’t been able to hire new folks for a while, ever since the Constellation program went away. The current presidential administration has killed tens of thousands of jobs in the space industry and we’ve lost those scientists and engineers and their capabilities. I mean lost. They had to pay the bills so they went—and took jobs elsewhere, doing other things, and the space program has lost that legacy knowledge. And lost that enthusiasm for what could be done next. With all the starts and stops in the space program since Shuttle, NASA morale is like that of an abused child—continuously battered and then praised from the same people, and then battered again. NASA has become overly cautious to do anything and that includes being enthusiastic about any new program because you never know when that program will be yanked out from under you.

But it didn’t start with this administration. I may or may not agree with anything that the current administration has done, but I can’t blame it completely for what is happening to our space program. So who’s to blame? Why have we let our lead in space slip away? Why is it that our once solid grasp on space is now almost all but gone? What happened?


The way it works is that our space program tends to change in flavor, style, shape, fashion, and mission plans based on every election. If a previous administration had a bold plan and it was moving forward, typically the next administration kills it just for political spite. They want to put their own stamp on things. The hiatus between Apollo and Shuttle was clearly politics because President Nixon wasn’t about to allow one of the most successful efforts in his administration’s tenure in office to be the brainchild of the Kennedy administration. The change occurred when a different political party came into the White House . . . right after the Apollo-Soyuz detente flight. Politics. Then we didn’t fly for a decade or so. It took that long to recover from politics.

I was about to start into junior high school and Star Trek had been in reruns for almost a decade. Our childhood hopes of space were slowed but not dead. The Apollo era wasn’t too far behind us and we all still believed we were destined for space. Captain Kirk was still out there somewhere with rumors of there being a new Star Trek Movie about to happen. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia were getting our attention. Space hadn’t been killed completely. Not yet. But, in reality, we had stopped going to the Moon and hopes for Mars were so far away as to be almost laughable when seriously talked about. The thought was typically, “Mars, hah! Not in my lifetime.”

Captain Kirk, we truly, truly, need you now.

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