Book Review: The Gravity Well - Make NASA Great Again?

Here’s my book review of The Gravity Well: America’s Next, Greatest Mission by Stephen Sandford.

Stephen Sandford was trained as a research engineer and spent almost three decades as a NASA employee. When he left the agency recently to work for a contract engineering firm, he was Director for Space Technology and Exploration at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Langley, which is located in Hampton Roads, VA about three hours southeast of our nation’s capital, is close enough for exploration by the politicians who seem so skeptical of the agency’s future -- and has garnered much attention as the setting of the compelling movie "Hidden Figures" released in 2016.

The Gravity Well: America's Next, Greatest Mission by Stephen Sandford (Gavia Books)

The gravity well refers to the huge physical effort required to overcome the Earth’s pull and climb into space. It is the first and most significant challenge of space travel. Having attained escape velocity from our planet and venturing far enough up and out, a space vehicle will have the option to park in one of several fixed locations called Lagrange points. At these distances, gravitational forces are balanced such that orbit can be maintained indefinitely with little further expenditure of energy. This is the logical place to build space stations – some being closer to us than the Moon and taking a lot less time and fuel to reach than Mars (which is a voyage that would take about a year with current technology). The massive James Webb Space Telescope will soon be placed at a Lagrange point.

Former NASA research director Sandford

The Gravity Well is, in effect, Sandford’s heartfelt, elaborately reasoned letter to U.S. taxpayers and members of Congress: The single most beneficial thing we can do to stimulate the economy and reset national priorities would be to augment the relatively modest NASA budget by a third. The current authorization is about $19 billion. Sandford argues persuasively for $30 billion. And he doesn’t even propose we take the hit all at once. His proposal is for Congress to increase that budget by $1.2 billion per year, for eight years.

His proposal is precise, achievable, and modest. Its diminutive fiscal size becomes apparent when you compare it with the voracious requirements of the Department of Defense, which exceed a half-trillion dollars per year. And that’s not counting the supplemental allocations for various wars.

Lagrange points, or parking orbits, near Earth

Sandford’s argument is also straightforward. No single expenditure by the federal government holds the prospect of producing such generous returns. For example, he points out:

A single asteroid, no wider than your living room, can contain $10 billion worth of gold, along with platinum, tungsten, and the rare earth metals we desperately need here, where supplies are running low. (And you don’t have to conquer a third-world nation or fight a war with some other superpower to grab this stuff – my inference, not his explicit point.)

Sandford's premise

Your tight-fisted representative might well ask, “Why can’t private industry do this?” Well, it can and it will. But the history of all major technological advances is marked by government taking the early steps, reducing risk, and forging a path of entry for private investment. Computers, microelectronics, the Internet, and the telecom backbone all have their origins in broadly funded government initiatives. Bold, brash, and ambitious as are Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, none would have dared invest in advanced rocketry if the basic engineering were not already mature. Sandford cites the little-known example that aviation itself might have taken much longer to evolve if at the end of World War I the U.S. Postal Service hadn’t gambled the then-colossal sum of $5 million to fund transcontinental airmail service.

Image from the Hubble telescope, a milestone NASA success, soon to be surpassed by the James Webb telescope

Let’s start by making every member of Congress aware of The Gravity Well. Let’s also make it required reading in high school and our manifesto for a grass-roots political movement. Let’s inspire America to a new vision of world leadership that emphasizes international cooperation for mutual benefit and – dare we hope? – not just survival but a grander destiny.

However, I’m not predicting immediate success. I hope I’m wrong, but Sandford’s proposals seem too well reasoned and too eminently logical to have any effect on public policy in the near term. If national pride drove the swelling of the defense establishment, reallocating money to space would be easy. But it’s widespread fear that motivates the building of redundant piles of weaponry.  Congress today is full of unscrupulous, self-interested politicians who, despite their patrician educations, find that sneering at science and leveraging the public’s fears gets them votes. Can we seriously believe that an Ivy-League lawyer has so little understanding of science as to scoff at evolution, climatology, and the obvious need for population control?

Findings of astrophysics feed into technological advancement

For Sandford’s plan to work, the likes of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Laura Sinclair (January 2017 Woman Physicist of the Month) need to run for office – and win. And, sooner rather than later, we need a better educated electorate that reveres learning more than celebrity.

Gerald Everett Jones is author of Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and the host of GetPublished! Radio.

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