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Argument for Human Spaceflight April 12, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
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A recent correspondent to Aerospace America magazine (April 2012 issue) argued that human spaceflight was, at core, a joy ride for privileged astronauts, and that robot explorers could do better and more science exploration than any human space mission. The writer further asked that advocates of human space exploration help him make sense of the cost of NASA’s current human spaceflight programs in light of the nation’s deficit troubles. I volunteered to assist, and my reply also appeared in the April 2012 issue:

Plainly, Americans wish to see a continued U.S. presence in space, and politicians, however imperfectly, reflect that priority in the budget because of the real and perceived value of human spaceflight. Our elected representatives attach enough importance to U.S. human spaceflight that they have consistently funded such a program for over fifty years.

NASA’s budget of approximately $8 billion annually for human spaceflight (about 0.2% of the federal budget) is hardly the cause of our deficit woes. Zeroing out human spaceflight will make only an imperceptible dent in the $1.3 trillion deficit the president proposes to run this year.

Mt. St. Helens, Washington, seen in a radar image generated by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in 2000. (NASA JPL, PIA 06668)

Those funds protect our current initiatives in space and set the stage for future exploration. We have just completed an International Space Station for a cost approaching $100B. Research aboard should deliver a future return on our investment, but we do need to maintain a crew there to conduct research and get the pay-off. Likewise, investing in our current commercial crew transport program will restore U.S. domestic access to the ISS, and lower the long-term cost of reaching the Station.

As NASA develops the means to reach beyond low Earth orbit, we solve engineering and scientific problems that serve to maintain a vigorous and healthy industrial base. This delivers to the nation a managerial and technical competitive edge that transfers directly to national defense and related technology leadership. There is no better way to stimulate our high-tech sector — other than with a war — than with a challenging program of human spaceflight.

Certainly, human spaceflight attracts human talent to our aerospace sector in a way that defense work or robotic exploration does not. Our high-tech industrial base plainly benefited from the human team forged in the Apollo years, followed by the shuttle and Space Station. Challenging our best students with tough, yet exciting problems at the frontiers of engineering and science plainly attracts talent in a way that developing better windmills or bullet trains does not. I was personally inspired in the 1960s to study science and math not so I could grow up to build better transistor radios than the Japanese, but so I might have the chance to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts. Our nation’s determination to lead in space attracted tens of thousands like me to a technical education, and we have gone on to give our country another generation of leadership in civil aircraft manufacturing and defense technology.

The nation also benefits, as we have since Apollo, from a global perception that we are leaders in the most challenging, visible, and peaceful application of high-tech: space exploration achievement. Putting human explorers on the space frontier is the most visible expression of that leadership.

Why not just use robots to maintain this technical edge? First, other nations like China and Russia understand the prestige that flows from putting their explorers into space. Second, humans play a decisive role in solving the problems of space science and ensuring mission success. As I wrote in my March 2012 “View from Here” column, planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who supervised the missions of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and is now chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, strongly backs human exploration. In 2009 he told a Space.com interviewer:

You know, I’m a robot guy, that’s what I have spent most of my career doing, but I’m actually a very strong supporter of human spaceflight. I believe that the most successful exploration is going to be carried out by humans, not by robots.

What Spirit and Opportunity have done in five and a half [now eight] years on Mars, you and I could have done in a good week. Humans have a way to deal with surprises, to improvise, to change their plans on the spot. All you’ve got to do is look at the latest Hubble mission to see that.

And one of the most important points I think: humans have a key ability to inspire, that robots do not.

This exploration partnership between people and machines is the only way we will be able to tap the energy and raw materials available at the Moon and on nearby asteroids, resources that are the key to building a thriving industrial economy in space.

We can ensure these benefits continue to flow to our nation with a prudent investment in the future of human exploration. The Augustine Committee in 2009 estimated we will need about another $3B annually to return Americans to deep space – perhaps $10B instead of the $8B we now budget. The payoff from that investment compares favorably to the $3B spent on the worthless 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program, or the $10B our citizens wagered on last month’s Super Bowl. The president’s 2009 stimulus bill cost $787B and delivered little but added debt to our economy; it would have funded NASA’s current human spaceflight budget for 98 years.

America has the resources, even as we borrow $1.3 trillion per year, to invest a small fraction of its wealth on insuring its competitive technological and educational edge. Our elected representatives and our policy makers must choose national priorities, cut where necessary, and fund those areas that truly deliver benefits now and into the future. Human space exploration is one of those priorities where a modest investment will yield new discoveries, new wealth, and a secure future for our citizens.

Thomas D. Jones, PhD

Planetary Scientist, veteran NASA astronaut






Passing of a Hell Hawk April 12, 2012

Posted by skywalking1 in History.

On April 1, 2012, George J. Wagasky, Jr. — “Ed” — passed away in Las Vegas, NV. Ed Wagasky was a fighter pilot during WWII, one of the men Bob Dorr and I chronicled in our book, “Hell Hawks!” He served in 1944 with the 386th Fighter Squadron of the 365th Fighter Group, the “Hell Hawks.” As a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, Ed flew combat on D-Day, through the breakout from the beachheads, the rapid advance across France, and into the Battle of the Bulge. Later he served as a photo-recce pilot and forward air controller. I compiled the following record on Ed through an interview conducted earlier this year. We will miss him…and his many contributions to our freedom. It’s up to us today to preserve the freedom that he handed on to us.

From Charles Johnson's "History of the Hell Hawks". Photo by Bill Ward.

George J. Wagasky, Jr. was born June 2, 1922, in Duquesne, Penn. After initial flying training in the southeast U.S., he achieved his dream of becoming a fighter pilot and was assigned to P-47 Thunderbolts. On arrival in Europe, he was sent as a replacement pilot to the 365th FG, the Hell Hawks, in March 1944.

On D-Day, his unit, the 386th Fighter Squadron, was assigned to cut road and transportation links behind the German beach defenses in Normandy. Assigned to fly on Lt. Robert L. Shipe’s wing, he carried three 500-lb. bombs slung under his P-47, with one on the centerline in place of the drop tank. Wagasky was chagrined when, upon takeoff, the left bomb fell off on the runway at Beaulieu.

Over Normandy, he followed his leader, Lt. Shipe, on the target, an embankment at St. Sauveur de Pierre Pont. Faulty fuses on the bombs caused fatal damage to his leader’s Thunderbolt; Shipe went down in flames from his low-level run and was killed. Determined to hit the target, Wagasky dove in turn and released only his right bomb. The same fuse problem caused the 500-pounder to detonate on impact, and shrapnel from the blast shredded the right wing and fuselage of Wagasky’s P-47.

Pulling out, he could hear the slipstream whistling through the many holes perforating the Jug’s skin just behind his seat. Still, the engine ran on, and Wagasky set about nursing the plane home back across the Channel. First order of business was to climb above 1,000 feet, because aircraft below that height were considered intruders by the naval armada below.

Wagasky managed to stay above that threshold until he arrived over Beaulieu, where he shook the damaged landing gear down by rocking the wings and porpoising the airplane. Anticipating a blown tire on the right side, he made a straight-in approach with the left wing low. Upon touchdown, the damaged gear folded up and slammed the right wingtip onto the runway. Wagasky’s -47 spun to the right and almost stood on its nose before falling back on its left main and tail wheel. Despite the exciting landing, the ruggedness of the P-47’s construction protected the pilot from any injury.

With a new plane assigned, “Ed” was soon back in the air over Normandy.

On a later mission, he tangled with a long-nosed Fw 190D in a dogfight. The Focke Wulfs bounced his flight of P-47s; someone yelled “Break!” over the radio, and Wagasky pulled and rolled right. He “had a hell of a time” getting way from the enemy in his heavy Jug, nearly “nailed to a cloud” by Herman the German. His Thunderbolt shuddered as the Luftwaffe pilot put three rounds into him as he dove for the shelter of the clouds. One strike hit the tail, a second slug hit just behind the cockpit, and the third slammed into the engine cowling. After landing, Wagasky’s crew chief found an unexploded 20mm round inside the lower cowling, where it had come to rest after ricocheting from a pair of engine mount struts. He kept the “dud” slug as a souvenir, wondering since if some prisoner on a German ammo assembly line purposely sabotaged the round, later saving his life.

In the fall of 1944, Ed was assigned as a forward air controller with the 3rd and 4th Armored Divisions, flying a Piper L-4 Grasshopper observation plane. He was flying in this role at the start of the Germans’ Ardennes offensive on December 16, 1944. Shortly after the Bulge fighting, Wagasky was assigned as a “Sweepstakes” forward controller, involved in vectoring Hell Hawk and other P-47 strikes to their targets.

He later went on to fly F-6 (P-51) photoreconnaissance ships with the 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. At war’s end, he supervised the ferrying of an F-6 squadron to a field near Kassel, Germany. With the Air National Guard, Wagasky served in Korea as a forward air controller. He retired with the rank of Major, U.S. Air Force.

Clear skies and smooth air to you, George. God bless your family with great memories and His comforting grace.

— Based on an interview on Jan. 3, 2012, with Tom Jones. (www.AstronautTomJones.com)