Guest article by Nina Lincoff
On Feb. 24, 2009, a quarter of a billion dollars fell into the Antarctic Ocean.
NASA’s recently completed Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), failed 12 and a half minutes into flight when its upper rocket stage didn’t separate.
The $270 million satellite never made it into space. It did make quite a splash though, filmed for the world to see.
In today’s economic climate, NASA does not need failures like OCO. On Feb. 26, the Obama administration allocated $18.7 billion to NASA in the 2010 budget. “Although that is only half a percent of the total U.S. budget,” says aerospace analyst and founder of the blog spacepolitics.com Dr. Jeff Foust, “to a person like you or me, it’s a lot of money to spend on an agency with problems.”
Also released on Feb. 26 was NASA’s projected outline for future space exploration. One of NASA’s goals is to get a man back on the moon by 2020. Another is a manned trip to Mars by 2030. However considering public negativity towards NASA, the hard question to ask is if the space agency should be focused on manned trips into space at all, or if the focus should shift towards Earth based experiments.
According to Dr. Ian O’Neill, founder of the blog astroengine.com, “This is where it starts getting tricky. Recently on twitter.com Ashton Kutcher put out a message in which he basically asked ‘What’s the point in going to Mars when there’s such economic crisis?’ Kutcher is obviously a huge celebrity and if that’s indicative of what people think, then NASA is in trouble.”
At a time when a celebrity feels the need to highlight economic climates, a push towards slowing expensive missions may be inevitable. For three-time space flight veteran Kathryn Thornton however, the benefits outweigh any conceivable costs.
“It’s a driver for a lot of things that we don’t always see the direct line benefit from. Would we have microminiaturized electronics in the 1960′s if we didn’t need them for space flight? I don’t think so,” says Thornton. For Thornton, the experience of manned space flight for both the astronauts and the public eclipse monetary cost.
Two major differences affecting the public’s current attitude towards manned-space flight versus the space race of the 1960′s is lack of international competition and no political need to go back into space. “What’s the point in having a space agency based on the Cold War? We need another political incentive even though the U.S. is truly the top when concerned with going into space. Right now there is no political incentive for going back to the moon,” says O’Neill. The race to the moon in the 1960′s was really spurred by the need to defeat Russia “without firing missiles at each other,” says Foust.
O’Neill strongly believes in putting men back into space. For O’Neill, the benefits of space exploration to humankind eclipse NASA’s problems. “The next big step in human development, in man’s evolution requires going into space,” says O’Neill. Unfortunately, advocates like O’Neill realize that in this current political and economic climate, men in space may be wishful thinking. “The Obama administration has inherited a program with a very tough timeline that relies on government support that may not be realistic,” says O’Neill.
With the U.S. economy in crisis and the world economy faltering, spending billions of dollars on nebulous future gains is hard to justify. Especially when the first step in manned exploration hinges on sending a man back to the moon. However, Foust says that the money will be well spent and will help set up beneficial goals for the space agency. “It will really give a strong purpose to a manned space flight program. For too long the goal of NASA was really going in a circle, and there is a real need to go beyond the Earth’s orbit. In that direction the moon is the right way to go,” says Foust.
Foust and O’Neill say that the future of NASA and getting men in space may rely on a different model than that of the past or even the present. One way to mitigate costs says Foust, is for there to be more international connectivity. Since NASA is the premier space agency, other agencies like the European Space Agency (ESA) are bidding to contribute to NASA’s projects like the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM).
“There are these capabilities that exist around the world and if we partner with them than we can do more of these complex missions and experiments on top of what we already want do,” says Foust. “By developing with a space program that is sophisticated enough and with enough potential helps to elevate you as a country. If you cooperate with NASA, you enhance your own prestige.”
O’Neill believes that NASA’s future also depends on cooperation from the private sector. The evolution of space flight may follow that of commercial aviation, which was at first government-supported, but eventually taken over by the private sector when it became obvious that huge profits could be made. “People need to realize that space exploration can be an economic stimulus,” says O’Neill. “The army and NASA both have used private contractors such as Boeing to build rockets for decades. NASA has recently begun providing contracts to companies like SpaceX, a private space-commercialization company. It doesn’t get much more stimulating than that.”
Foust and O’Neill agree that unmanned spacecraft are not a substitute for man exploring the mystery of space. Even though unmanned missions are more advanced today, they say robotics can still only complete a fraction of what a human can do. Says Foust, “You’re not going to send a robot to the Grand Canyon if you want to see it yourself.”
In a recent press release, NASA says that it will focus on both manned-space expeditions and on-Earth experiments in areas like climate control. Foust says it’s not the quantity of the budget, but how NASA divides up the funds that will determine the agency’s future. It also doesn’t have to be an either-or situation.
“There is room to do both. There are a lot of key questions like climate change that other organizations are addressing. Certainly the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a big interest in earth sciences and there may be more corporations out there,” says Foust.
“If you ask a question and two or more pop up then you’re placed in an extremely rich area. That says a lot for the fundamental benefits that the space agency and many of the programs it’s perusing,” says Foust. This can help ensure that NASA’s resources are focused towards doing more space-oriented things.
For NASA to do this, the space agency needs to shed its negative public image says O’Neill. “People don’t look at the positives, and then the economic funding that’s there gets wiped out. It’s always very sad when a rocket goes up in smoke. But we’re going to lose lives, we’re going to lose equipment but there is always risk. You come back at another time and things will get better,” says O’Neill.
For Foust, the important aspect the public needs to realize is that not all results are tangible. Even skeptics could hardly deny the wonder of a walk on Mars. Whether that dream is viable for NASA is still up in space.