The wisdom of manned space flight - Embedded.com

The wisdom of manned space flight

I travel to outer space. Often.

My 8 inch Celestron transports me to the birthplace of stars in Orion's belt, to the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and to galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away.

No human has been to these places. Surely eons will pass before our descendants set foot on many of these spots. But my little telescope is a vehicle that lets me explore the remotest places on any clear night.

I invite friends and passers-by to peer through the eyepiece. Most are disappointed. The splendor of the Andromeda galaxy is but a smudge of light. M57, the Ring Nebula, looks like a barely-discernable donut on the best of nights, and only after much practice with the instrument.

Possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen is Orion's Nebula on a cold clear winter's night (see photo). Yet through the scope it's merely a black and white swirl. It's glory is only revealed in a color photo obtained by an hour of downloading photons. Yet as I stare at the poorly-defined blob my mind explodes with thoughts of this stellar nursery a thousand light years away, whose prosaic hydrogen gasses are coalescing into new stars and solar systems.


Orion's Nebula, a one-hour exposure through Jack's telescope.

Astronomy is a voyage in one's mind. The Ring Nebula's vague donut shape is a planetary nebula, ejecta from a star much like ours but now in its death throes. Years of reading Sky and Telescope and stacks of books paints a blistering image in my mind of what this amazing system really looks like. The smudge in the eyepiece is the Braille encoding of the reality. The amateur astronomer's imagination transforms the raw photons to a thing of beauty and an object of wonder.

In the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy a Baltimore radio program targeted at young folks chortled at the futility of space exploration. DJs whose view of the cosmos seems limited to the brake lights on the car ahead of them suggested we “scuttle shuttle,” complaining they perceive no tangible benefits from the billions NASA has spent. Pleased with that clever turn of phrase, one ranted about “boring” launches and missions.

They're not alone. Much of the US is bored with the space program. I remember watching Apollo 17 blasting off — on an inset on the TV. Three quarters of the screen was devoted to a football game. Why is it that ennui rapidly sets in unless we're entertained with grisly scenes of murder and mayhem?

So today Columbia, which has spent 20 mostly unheralded years routinely traveling to space, now captures our attention. Explosions and debris raining from the sky rivals a Bruce Willis flick for drama and special effects. Space is momentarily interesting again.

Soon pundits will question the wisdom of manned space flight, their grave voices lending profundity to a jaded zeitgeist. And they are right: a wise electorate evaluates all decisions on a continuous basis. Though an enthusiastic space advocate, I too question the wisdom of a $100 billion space station whose scientific benefits remain dubious. And Shuttle never delivered its promise of cheap access to space; we taxpayers continue to fund an obsolete and overpriced delivery truck.

Our Federal budget is burdened with weary obligations, a few noble, many ill-advised, and some downright obscene. Only 0.2% goes to manned space exploration. No doubt some of that is misspent. But just as Portugal's Prince Henry sent mission after failed mission on his quest to find an ocean route to the Orient, we as a people must be willing to take on grand, though problem-plagued, ventures. We need Shuttle, despite its flaws, and we need a national effort to create an improved version.

NASA is faulted of late for not having daring enough missions, for not undertaking ventures that excite us. Wrong! Dropping a rover on Mars is breathtaking. A proposed mission to Europa blows my mind. And any launch that puts people into space, even just to low Earth orbit, is, well, if NASA invited me to go aboard a shuttle mission tomorrow I'd be packing my bags and not writing this.

NASA isn't delivering dull missions. We lack imagination.

The US remains the world's only superpower. Let's choose not to measure that solely in tanks, planes and nukes. A great superpower should be based on the triad of power, compassion, and a commitment to explore the unknown. For a lousy 0.2% of the budget we can let our imaginations run wild, dream big dreams, and make some of them come true.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is

Reader Feedback

There are I think many reasons why the shuttle has failed to capture the imagination of the American public (and taxpayer). The Apollo program was exciting because each mission leading up to Apollo 11 was always breaking new ground in technology or science. The mission was prmarily one of pure exploration and because of the mandate from President Kennedy, attention was focused on the program – we had to land a man on the moon by the end of 1969 to validate the president's dream.

The shuttle on the other hand goes where man had gone before. Low earth orbit has become a routine place to visit and work in. Going to the moon was always a little bit exciting and dangerous. Even without the Apollo 13 mishap, it was never routine.

I was fortunate to be at KSC for the launch of Apollo 16 & 17 and once the engines lit off, I was struck by the fact that the spacecraft and the astronauts were going to the moon – an awesome achievement. Watching Skylab lift off a few years later from the same place was exciting, but it didnt have the impact that the moonshots did.

The shuttle was sold on the basis of making many more trips than it actually did – the Challenger accident and the abandonment of the shuttle by the US military for its launches cut back many of its “customers”. Using a man-rated vehicle to boost spacecraft (satellites and exploration vehicles) was never a good idea – and the idea of using it as a space truck was not good either. Too much payload and fuel to lift the softies (astronauts) kills the performance of the vehicle. In rocketry, every kilogram of payload requires many kilos of fuel to get to orbit. It would have been better to have one shot launchers for the hardware, and a smaller, simpler vehicle to transport the astronauts to and from the workplace. What's been forgotten is that these decisions were primarily political in nature – not technolgy driven. Anyone who digs into this story will realize this. It was apparent in the 70's when shuttle was first proposed so it shouldn't be a surprise now.

Finally, NASA has never done a good job of “selling” the program. Those who question the spending of money on NASA should realize that without the communications satellites, our society would be without the instant communication that we take for granted. Without the weather satellites, we would lose billions of dollars every year when hurricanes hit coastlines with no warning. Much of the technology we use in PC's today had its start in the space program. The amount of money NASA has spent (here on Earth by the way) has come back to taxpayers many times over.

The whole approach to space exploration needs to be revisited. Unfortunately, this will be done by politicians who will have the same tendencies that the politicians who drafted the shuttle program had – making sure that pork winds up in their districts rather than making an informed technical decision.

Perhaps space exploration will end here in the US – but I wouldn't worry. I'm sure the chinese will be more than happy to carry on the work in the future.

Tom Mazowiesky
Director, Product Development
Global Payment Technologies, Inc.


Even that lousy 0.2% is someones' hard earned tax money. Look at the Egyptian pyramids, who did they really help or for that matter Prince Henry's explorations? And look at the loss of lives, we lost a group of highly competent and motivated fellow beings for what benefit?

Kalpak Dabir
Proprietor
Polar Systems and Devices


In reference to your article on space exploration:

Amen to that!

My favorite remark was on the “triad of power.” If we're a super power we have to act like one.

Borna Ghavam
Electrical Engineering Undergraduate
University of Maryland at College Park


The downside of democracy is that funding of projects is done according to interests of majority of the people of a country. If people are interested in sports, naturally the politicians will make sure they keep the voters happy.

This is also true for every business. If NASA needs funds, then the astronomers should bring “outer Space” into every home (Eg. Carl Sagan's Cosmos)Once they get the attention of people, money will follow.

Also, the shuttles need to be developed over time. The US army does not fight with “swords” and “revolvers” anymore. The shuttles should be retired and something new should be developed which is safer and again should have a limited life.

Reuse is not always the safest bet. Especially when exposed to such harsh and unpredictable conditions.

Hopefully we will see the next generation of much improved space shuttles soon (instead of sending so many fancy fighting gadgets from so many countries to fight a country crippled by war for about 20 years).

Ani Phatak


Bingo, Jack,

Lke so many times before you sure hit the nail straight on the headwith this one!

The human race surely has many failings, but perhaps THE sorriest oneis lack of perspective and no sense of proportions (hmm… seems weactually have two failings here).

A shortsighted electorate and even more shortsighted politicians, doesnot bode well for the future. Humanity has always needed frontiers, andprobably always will need them. And there are none left on this planet,the only visible one is “out there” (and a whopping big one it is). Butwe seem to have lost that pioneering spirit upon which for example theU.S. of A was largely founded.

If the present trend continues for a couple of hundred years we'llnever have starships, and our decline will be inevitable. On the other hand,anything could happen, some major environmental disaster, a big andugly war, REALLY serious terrorist action, even aliens arriving from “outerspace”. That would galvanize humanity, whose perhaps bestcharacteristic is the wonderful creativity and courage when survival is at stake.

Keep up the good work, always enjoyed reading your books and columns!

Best regards,

Krister Wikstrom, a fellow engineer
Now working as a senior lecturer at a local university
Vantaa, Finland


Engineers and Managers should not be lulled into a false sense of lack of risk in modern designs. As it stands the shuttle has a 1 in 44 chance of malfunction. Could some of these risks be avoided if more money was spent up front in the design and construction? Based on my 24 years of experience in engineering, I would say yes. The boosters were re-designed to a more expensive, but more robust configuration. I speculate that the breach in the shuttles skin might not have been destructive if it had been skinned in more expensive titanium like the SR-71. We should have the courage to spend the money to do it right — the first time write your congress person and tell them to spend the money to do the job of space exploration well!

All to often I encounter no watchdog timers in embedded systems. No memory estimates, and a product that must be shipped with 5 bytes of flash left. Memory tests commented out of power up code and other types of bad judgement due to lack of time and resources. Just ask for more time to do the job right.

I've heard that management should allocate a programmer for every 1,000 lines of assembler, 5,000 lines of C and 10,000 lines of C++

I think that shuttle software is one area where Nasa has done better than the industry average.

How does your organization stack up?

Bill Murray


NASA seems to be a luxury item in the minds of the public – a nice science show as long as it doesn't cost very much. And now that there has been a problem, the talk is completely focused on cost and risk. I am frustrated that we don't hear more about what we provide to this country and to the world.

The reason that everyone is so upset about the shuttle disaster is not because NASA has failed to convince the public that their manned missions are safe enough, but because they have failed to convince the public that their manned missions are important.

I think that some of the problem is that the science we do does not always translate into very understandable dialogs. Few people understand (including myself) what the gravity probe mission will accomplish (it deals with proving parts of Einstein's theory of relativity) or why a mission to map the surface of Mercury is relevant in today's world with our economic and political fears.

We need to create a dialog about the future this country wants to live in. Will it be filled with next generation tanks, nuclear bombs able to demolish small countries, and war planes that are undetectable, or do we want a future where text books teach the theory of relativity as fact, where men and women will have homes on different planets (or more likely moons), and where our understanding of our own earth is able prevent natural disasters. All of this won't come about for decades upon decades, but every year we delay, this reality is a year farther away. Manned shuttles, deep space probes, earth orbiting satellites – beyond the science they provide (which is enormous), they are necessary steps to take if we are ever going to have the kind of future all of us dream about having.

For this reason, I wanted to thank you for your column. Examination and critique are healthy activities for any program to go through, and I welcome it. But we all still need to keep in focus what our goal is.

J-P Swinski

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