By Gian Ellis-Gannell
Editor in Chief
“In December 2019 it will be 47 years, almost half a century, since the human last stepped on the lunar surface. It will have been eight years this July since the space shuttle program was brought to a close and the United States last carried its astronauts to orbit. We have yet to again fly a spacecraft successfully carrying Americans to orbit, let alone back to the moon.” – George Abbey
With Australia’s National Science Week, ‘Destination Moon: more missions, more science’, having just passed, and Loreto’s Science Week now well under way, I sat down with ex-NASA Director George Abbey to discuss current international space goals, and whether or not we can actually make the dates that have been set.
An Air Force Captain in charge of the Apollo missions, and subsequently; the person behind man’s first landing on the moon, George Abbey has been named one of the most influential people in the history of NASA. He has received numerous awards, including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and three NASA Distinguished Service Medals; most impressively being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Nixon in 1970, the nation’s highest civilian honour.
To this day, Abbey continues to be a major voice in Space Policy, and releases internationally acclaimed papers on the topic. He is therefore extremely qualified to present opinions on NASA’s current goals and has expressed concerns around the unrealistic expectations that have been set by the famous space agency to return to the moon by 2024, and then go on to Mars.
It was only in a 1961 speech to Congress that President Kennedy challenged the United States of America to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It is said that the room was silent at the near-impossibility of accomplishing this— but also at the implications of success. The Apollo program and all of its precursors were born from this speech.
Later, on September 2, 1962, President Kennedy would famously say to a large crowd at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas- "We choose to go to the Moon", inspiring the American people with a new dream and purpose, solidifying the beginning of the space race. The entire nation rallied behind a single goal, and Abbey notes, “Subsequently, the U.S. successfully completed the Mercury and Gemini programs and worked relentlessly and tirelessly to enable astronaut Neil Armstrong to step on the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, eight years after Kennedy’s speech”.
The goal was met with half a year to spare. Therefore, the question remains, if so many doubted that a landing on the moon could happen so quickly, yet it occurred well and truly before the deadline, what makes Abbey so sure that we can’t make it
back to the Moon with more resources and more time available than ever?
Abbey’s conviction was clear when he responded, “There’s a lack of good leadership- and cooperation”. He went on to describe the large collective effort that was needed to assemble one of the last major accomplishments in human spaceflight - the International Space Station. The United States, Russia, Japan and Europe all contributed laboratory modules for this station. Each country provided astronauts, resources and funding to put it together piece by piece. The first piece; the Zarya control module, was launched in November 1998 by a Russian rocket. About two weeks later, the American space shuttle Endeavour met Zarya in orbit, from where astronauts attached the Unity node. Such coordination between two nations, engaged in a Cold War that ended just 7 years earlier, was unheard of, but exactly what was needed.
Of NASA’s plans to return to the moon in just 5 years, Abbey emphasises, “It will require the commitment of the necessary funds and resources and a major redirection of NASA’s ongoing activities. … And it should be a cooperative effort, building on the foundation of the International Space Station partnerships, in order to achieve success.”
It is Abbey’s opinion that without similar cooperation between the US and other resource-rich countries, NASA is not likely to achieve their goals so soon.
On the topic of suitable partners for this monumental project, despite their intense conflict, Abbey suggested the Peoples Republic of China and the United States as an untapped, possible powerhouse of not just funding, but scientifically literature manpower*. It is well known that the country has long desired to become involved in Space Exploration, and a mutually beneficial agreement to achieve common goals may even help smooth over the nations’ current conflicts.
*This opinion was provided by Abbey before the announcement of a Trade War between the Peoples Republic of China and the United States of America, and so the author cannot be comment on what Abbey’s professional opinion may have changed in this circumstance.
After covering the need for cooperation between countries, Abbey’s focus shifted to the necessity of strong, fair leadership that is focused on the welfare of those who are being overseen- “Good leadership results in diversity, greater equality and a positive environment which encourages all involved.” To such leadership he credits NASA’s most outstanding achievements. Abbey noted that of course, each individual played an extremely important part in successful Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. However, he concluded on NASA’s success that what makes or breaks the team at Mission Control is the person in charge, and how well they “prepare their troops for battle”.
In a cautionary tale, Abbey warned that just as good leadership is the key to success, and crucial if the USA wishes to reach beyond the moon, in the field of space exploration bad leadership leads to costly errors of judgement. Explicitly using the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) disasters as examples, the costs are too often fatalities. Between the two failed missions, more than a dozen lives were lost.
Particularly, the deaths of the Challenger’s crew was devastating for Abbey, who had personally selected and trained the five NASA astronauts throughout the entire process. He even designated his most trusted friends on the team the responsibility of supporting who would have been the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.
Although malfunctions caused both tragedies, the situations were labelled as avoidable by official enquiries. After the Challenger disaster, “The Rogers Commission found NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors”. Abbey himself testified at this commission, stressing that human error was truly to blame.
Mission Control Manager Paul Sean Hill also recognised that NASA’s leadership was not conducive to honest dialogue, and created an environment that only encouraged mistakes- "The motto was 'don't ripple the pond [there]." He held the same perspective as Abbey, that this negative culture, which spawned from bad leadership, played a role in the space programme's major historical accidents: "Each one of those wasn't principally a technical failure or a rocket science mistake; it was a failure in leadership."
NASA managers had known since 1977 that there were potentially catastrophic flaws in the Challenger Shuttle’s O-rings yet did not address the issue properly. They additionally disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching in the low temperatures of that fateful morning in January, failing to report these hazards to superiors. Abbey called it “appalling lapses in judgement and communication that allowed the launch to occur that day”. A large stress had been collectively felt to meet Kennedy’s deadline, and so what should have been the top priority; welfare; was pushed aside for glory.
To make matters worse, Abbey stressed that the true concern lay in the fact that people forgot their mistakes, and the same issue in negative cultures created by bad leadership occurred to “make a repeat of the Challenger disaster- the Columbia”. NASA therefore cannot afford to allow the same pressured, glory focused culture to continue if they wish their future astronauts safe travel.
Overall, from speaking with George Abbey, the main takeaway was that leadership and cooperation are the key tools necessary for success. In theory, they seem like obvious ideals. And yet, the USA’s political climate does not lend itself to any version of these. Without a swift shift in direction, it is not likely that NASA will achieve their goals by 2024 according to the trajectory outlined by Abbey. Hopefully tensions can be put aside for the greater good, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath.