NASA and space exploration

On the first of this month, the proposed budget for NASA in fiscal year (FY) 2011 was released. In short, it reflects a $6 billion increase over the next five years.  And half of that money is for science!  That’s fantastic!  It also ensures that the remaining Space Shuttles will launch, and it extends the International Space Station into at least 2020 while increasing its science capabilities.  A-OK.

The budget also cuts the Constellation program, which was supposed to be the Shuttle’s replacement.  In effect, we can say goodbye to any hopes of having people back on the moon, and much less on their way to Mars, by 2020.  This tidbit is what I wish to address.

I wasn’t even alive when we sent human beings to the moon.  But I have seen technology advance during my lifetime, and extrapolating backwards isn’t too difficult: sending men to the moon and bringing them home again in the 60s and 70s was damn near impossible.  Yet, somehow, we pulled it off.  What gives?  Where is that enterprising spirit now?  Does our country really need an ever-present threat of not being number one in order to accomplish anything?  While I have no doubt that the Constellation program was far from perfect, it symbolized something.  It was a step in the direction that we should have been headed 30 years ago.  Maybe it was a baby step, or even just a stumble.  But the fact remains: human beings set foot on another world nearly 40 years ago, and ever since we’ve been content to hang out here on Earth.  It’s as if Lewis & Clark returned from their exploration of the western US and then everybody just decided to stay put back east.  Huh?

That said, I would be negligent to not point out a few quotes, straight from NASA:

“Most important, we are not ending our ambitions to explore space. In order to explore new frontiers, we are launching a vigorous new technology development and test program that will pursue game-changing technology development that can take us further and faster and more affordably into space.”  –NASA FY 2011 Budget Overview Slideshow

“NASA’s new strategic approach will spawn exciting developments in research and technology that will make future spaceflight more affordable and sustainable, inspire a new generation of Americans, and increase our knowledge of the solar system and the universe of which we are a part.” -NASA FY 2011 Budget Overview Slideshow

“Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of ‘firsts;’ and imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world. That is what the President’s plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality.” –NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, 2/1/10 Statement

So to be fair, it sounds like this is part of a larger, long-term plan.  We need to improve our technologies and not just dust off Apollo and fire it back to the moon for the hell of it.  I can respect that.  In fact, I applaud any government organization that even begins to piece together something resembling a long-term plan.  I also really like Charles Bolden’s vision of internationally collaborative human space exploration.  And as I said before, I’m ecstatic that funding for scientific research across the board has increased.  I just can’t help but feel like something is missing.  Something like a visible and tangible component of our nation’s commitment to human space exploration.

To be perfectly honest, part of this is personal.  One of my long-term life goals is to someday, somehow become an astronaut.  I strongly believe that manned space exploration is essential to our future, but not just because it’d be a fun ride.  What I really want to do is science in space, and ideally astronomy-related science in space.  So when NASA’s budget apparently axes the astronaut program for the foreseeable future, I get a little miffed.

Not so fast, you may say.  Part of the NASA budget calls for encouraging private industries to launch people into space.  Great!  But.  A multimillion dollar slingshot joyride above the atmosphere a la SpaceX is a far cry from a team of scientists and engineers working together in orbit to do groundbreaking research.  Now, I’ve heard tempting analogies that compare 1900s aviation with 2000s spaceflight.  It wasn’t as if the Wright brothers made an airplane on Monday and by Friday you could book a commercial overseas flight.  It took decades, and if you stop to think about it, flying has become amazingly routine.  I’d like to hope that spaceflight has similar prospects.  The timeline just doesn’t look to be in sync with my personal aspirations.

Another argument that always crops up goes something like this: “We don’t need manned space exploration, because: (a) it’s too risky, (b) we can send robots instead, (c) we have problems on Earth that need solving first.”  To spare myself the typing, please have a look at this collection of responses.  Other good responses are here, here, and here.  We can’t afford to not fund human space exploration.

I guess what really kills me is that if the federal government decided to make sending humans to other worlds a priority, we could be there within a decade.  Easy.  We have the technological know-how and the ingenuity to come up with the small bits we may be lacking on that kind of a time scale.  It’s really only a question of money, and thus of priorities.  Instead, we have chosen to bail out banks and wage wars to the tune of trillions of dollars.  Can you begin to imagine what the moon and Mars could look like today if we had chosen differently?  To be fair, I know that nothing is ever this simple.  But still: it kills me.

I sincerely hope that the folks at NASA have the ability to pull off what this budget claims they are aiming for in the long term.

Now, I’m going to go watch the last night shuttle launch ever, if the weather cooperates.  [UPDATE: it didn’t.  Take 2 is probably tomorrow night.]

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3 thoughts on “NASA and space exploration

  1. While I don’t disagree with your general sentiment (for the most part), I really think that given our national situation right now, this was exactly the right decision to make. Here’s why:

    1) “Does our country really need an ever-present threat of not being number one in order to accomplish anything?”

    Right now we’re *not* number one, and we’re still not accomplishing anything. We’re in pretty severe danger of being overtaken by other countries in the world by just about everything, and our only response is to let Wall St. kick us in the balls and take our money.

    2) “One of my long-term life goals is to someday, somehow become an astronaut.” “A multimillion dollar slingshot joyride above the atmosphere a la SpaceX is a far cry from a team of scientists and engineers working together in orbit to do groundbreaking research.”

    Whoa, there, holy cow strawman argument! The whole point of privatizing space exploration is to make it *more* scientific and ground-breaking. If NASA started offering rides in space to the general public, would you start complaining? The government is notoriously bad at actually doing things like this — if you were to actually try to be an astronaut at NASA, I bet you’d run away before you got hired, because of all the bureaucratic absurdity you’d have to go through. Trust me, I’ve worked for the government. It’s absurd, and you would hate it.

    However, what the government *is* good at is giving money to private companies to do things like this. And private companies are very good at innovation, because it’s in their best interest. And, I bet if you called up Bert Rutan and said, “Hey, I’ve got a in astronomy, and I really want to go into space, do you need the help?”, he would probably say something to the effect of “Absolutely! We need a team of really qualified scientists and engineers to accomplish our goals!”

    But you can bet your bottom dollar that privatizing space exploration isn’t just about joyride slingshots around the earth. I mean, heck, Lewis and Clark and Columbus weren’t members of a government agency! They just had substantial government support, just like our private companies.

    3) It’s not really NASA’s fault that we’re at war with everybody and our banks suck. Certainly if we were in a better financial situation right now, I can see giving money to NASA to do these things. But we *really* can’t afford it right now. And as much as it sucks, it’s the truth. Space is a long-term financial investment, *definitely* not a short-term one. And if we were to start pumping tons and tons and tons of government money into space right now, we might not even be around in 25 years to see the results of our investment, because our government and economy would have collapsed by that time.

    • Oops, that should read “I’ve got an MS/PhD in astronomy…”

      Stupid HTML formatting thingy.

    • As usual, all your points are good ones.

      Obviously it matters how one ranks countries to determine if we’re number one or not. My point was more that we’re not perceiving a threat (real or not) of communist world domination that kicks our butts into high gear at the moment. Your remark that “Right now we’re *not* number one, and we’re still not accomplishing anything” seems pretty much on the mark.

      I do hope that companies like SpaceX are headed toward doing science in space with actual human beings. It just sucks that NASA already has the ability to do it and isn’t, while private companies are still years away. On a personal level, I always envisioned myself working for NASA down the road, so it’s an uncomfortable paradigm shift. I may despise bureaucracy and red tape, but I can handle it when necessary – I survived a semester in Russia, remember. :)

      It’s also true that at present, our country’s finances suck somewhat more than usual. But in what fiscal year would you say “Hey, we have tons of extra money sitting around, so clearly now is the time to throw tons of money at NASA?” It’s too easy to fall into the “We can’t afford that now because we’re too busy fixing our economy” trap, which is why I emphasize setting priorities. Maybe not having the money is a more legitimate argument now than it was/will be in +/-5 years. But I don’t have to like it.

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