NASA’s Asteroid Mission: Scary but Useful

Things have been moving fast for NASA in recent weeks, culminating in President Obama’s inspiring speech at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. I haven’t commented on the new direction for the US space agency’s direction thus far as I’ve needed some time to digest the ramifications of these plans. But generally, I’m positive about the scrapping of the moon goal in favor of a manned asteroid mission (by 2025) and Mars some time around 2035.

But it hasn’t been easy, especially after the Ares I-X test launch in October 2009.

The Ares I-X was the first new NASA manned vehicle my generation has seen take to the skies (I was only one year old when the first of the shuttle fleet launched, beginning nearly 30 years of low-Earth orbit operations, so that doesn’t count). Despite criticism that this test flight was nothing more than old tech dressed up as a sleek “new” rocket, I was thrilled to see it launch.

The end product didn’t matter on that day. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon before, but it just seemed like the best plan on the table. I was inspired, I felt excited about our future in space. Seeing how astronauts live and work on the lunar surface, using it as a stepping stone for further planetary exploration (i.e. Mars) seemed… sensible. Expensive, but sensible

But the overriding sentiment behind Obama’s new plans was that we’ve been there before, why waste billions on going back? Continuing with the bloated Constellation Program would have used up funds it didn’t have. Cost overruns and missed deadlines were already compiling.

So, the White House took on the recommendations of experts and decided to go for something far riskier than a “simple” moon hop. Things going to plan and on schedule, in the year 2025 we’ll see a team of astronauts launch for a much smaller and far more distant target than the moon.

The asteroid plan has many benefits, the key being that we need to study these potentially devastating chunks of rock up close. Should one be heading in the direction of Earth, it would be really nice to have the technological ability to deal with it. A manned mission may be necessary to send to a hazardous near-Earth asteroid. Think Armageddon but with less nukes, no Bruce Willis, but more science and planning. Besides, if a rock the size of a city is out there, heading right at us, I’m hopeful we’ll have more than 18 days to deal with the thing.

My Discovery News colleague Ray Villard agrees:

“A several month-long human round trip to an asteroid will test the sea legs of astronauts for interplanetary journeys. And, asteroids are something we have to take very seriously in coming up with an Earth defense strategy, so that we don’t wind up going extinct like the dinosaurs.”

Possibly even more exciting than the asteroid plan is what — according to Obama — will happen ten years after that: a manned mission to Mars. I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for a mission to the Red Planet; that will be a leap for mankind like no other. Granted, there is plenty of criticism flying around that we need to live on the moon first before we attempt to land on Mars, but looking at the new plan, we won’t be actually landing on Mars any time soon. A 2030’s mission to Mars will most likely be a flyby, or if we’re really lucky, an orbital manned mission.

And that’s why going to an asteroid will be a good first step. Spending months cramped inside a spaceship with a handful of crewmates will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing man in space, so popping over to a near-Earth asteroid first is a good idea. A Mars trip could take over a year (depending on the mission). Now, this is where technological development sure would help.

If NASA can plough dedicated funds into new technologies, new life support and propulsion systems can be developed. Those two things will really help astronauts get places quicker (avoiding boredom) and live longer (avoiding… death). For the “living longer” part, there appears to be genuine drive to increase the life of the space station and do more impressive science on it. As it’s our only manned outpost, perhaps we’ll be able to use it for what it’s designed for.

There are a lot of unknowns still, and Obama’s Thursday speech certainly wasn’t NASA’s silver bullet, but it’s a start. Allocating serious funding for space technology development whilst setting the space program’s sights on going where no human has been before will surely boost enthusiasm for space exploration. In fact, I’d argue that this is exactly what NASA should be doing.

Although I was dazzled by the Ares I-X, I can see that continuing with Constellation would have been a flawed decision. Launching a manned mission to explore an interplanetary threat sounds risky, but considering that asteroids are the single biggest cosmic threat to civilization, it sure would be useful to know we have the technology to send astronauts to asteroids, perhaps even dealing with a potential threat in the near future.

Actually, Obama Hasn’t Decided on the Future of NASA

You may be forgiven for thinking that President Obama had decided on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans yesterday, but in an official (note: official) statement from the White House today, Obama says that he has made no such decision.

Quoting “knowledgeable” (yet anonymous) sources, Science Magazine’s ScienceInsider blog said:

The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

In a nutshell, NASA would get an additional $1 billion in funding and start work on a new (yet undetermined) heavy-lift launch system. Good news for NASA, but not-so-good news for the Ares I (and possibly Ares V, although the larger rocket wasn’t mentioned). Also, this magical silver bullet of a “new” launch vehicle would be ready for blast-off in 2018.

However, Space Flight Now has just reported that the White House hasn’t made a decision yet:

NASA and White House officials claim such reports are mere speculation, but they are providing no information on when a decision could be announced. The administration will file its fiscal year 2011 budget request in February.

Still mulling over the findings from the Augustine Commission report, Obama and Bolden have yet to arrive at an agreement as to how to progress with NASA’s human spaceflight plans. It’s now very clear that ex-President Bush’s bold “Vision for Space Exploration” was lacking a little thing called money, and the commission’s findings indicated that NASA needs an extra $3 billion in funding to keep the agency’s human spaceflight plans alive.

Although these anonymous sources are no doubt credible, it’s wise to wait until the final word from the White House is known before saying “bye-bye” to Ares.

Via: @SpaceFlightNow

The White House Astronomy Night: Change, Delivered

In agreement with Phil Plait, this video made me smile too. A lot.

President Obama (now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient) hosted an astronomical party on the White House lawn on October 7th for an audience of 150 middle school students from the Washington area and some guests of honour (including Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo legend). It looked like a really exciting event for all the school kids involved.

This was my favourite bit:

So, there are a lot of mysteries left, and there are a lot of problems for you students to solve, and I want to be a president who makes sure you have the teachers and the tools that you need to solve them. That’s why we’re working to reinvigorate math and science in your schools and attract new and qualified science teachers in your classrooms, some with lifetimes of experience […] That’s how we’ll move American students to the top of the pack in math and in science over the next decade to guarantee that America will lead the world in discovery in this new century.” –President Barack Obama, Oct. 3rd.

Was there ever an astronomy party on the White House lawn during the previous administration?

Space Enthusiasm, NSS Style: “NASA Isn’t Important to the President”

The National Space Society has done great work in the realms of space science outreach and project funding, and to be honest, I’m behind any non-profit that whips up enthusiasm and furthers mankind’s efforts in space. They are outspoken critics of space policy and NASA, which is usually pretty fair.

However, the NSS blog has dropped a few clangers of late, making me question whether they are on the right track.

Previously on the NSS blog, described in a misguided (yet well-made and undoubtedly enthusiastic) video, that by magically revisiting the Apollo era, the US can begin re-industrializing and build rockets. What happens then? A million jobs are created! Wow, why didn’t the NSS think of this years ago? Actually, as Greg Fish points out of Weird Things, snazzy videos and a triumphant call for factories to build stuff is a little naive at best.

Then there was the case of the publication of the draft Unified Space Vision headed by Buzz Aldrin that was picked up by New Scientist, only for the post to be hastily pulled from the NSS blog when it started to get all the wrong kinds of press (the draft letter was here, but now it’s not).

And today? Well, read this, a bizarre take from Karen Shea:

Assume that President Obama doesn’t care about NASA. When there was a talk of a missile gap [during the Cold War] NASA was important to show our technical prowess in a non-threatening way. NASA hasn’t been important to the President since. Presidents want NASA to demonstrate America’s technological leadership and not kill any one, that seems to be about it.

It is time for NASA to grow up and take responsibility for its self and its accomplishments, and do so within a flat budget. Don’t expect to see Apollo level funding again. Don’t expect a President with 2 wars going on, a third one possibly on the horizon, the worst economic crisis in the last 80 years, and a health care crisis to worry about NASA.

Barrak [sic] Obama put NASA in the able hands of Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver so he wouldn’t have to care about NASA and could simply make speeches about the wonderful things NASA is accomplishing during his administration.

Yey! Go US spaceflight! Woohoo! Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

It’s one thing to criticise NASA and US space policy, but this is incredibly defeatist for an organization that should be working harder to promote the importance and shape the future of NASA science. Come on NSS! I’d happily see more enthusiastic videos about how a new spaceflight industry will save the economy (even if it’s unrealistic) rather than read someone’s depressing, and frankly limited, opinion that Barack Obama (note the correct spelling) doesn’t give a toss about NASA.

[ UPDATE: The site has now been updated with the correct spelling of the President’s name, but here’s the original post (thanks to Keith at NASAWatch and SpaceRef.com) ]

This blog post was picked up by NASAWatch.com, and Keith Cowling makes an interesting observation:

Ouch, this is rather gloomy and depressing talk from the National Space Society’s official blog given that two of its former Executive Directors are at NASA – one being Deputy Adminstrator and the other being Chief of Staff – and hold opposite, hopeful views of what lies ahead for NASA. It is also odd that the webmaster of this blog does not even bother to spell the President’s name correctly.

NASA is an easy target for critics, and the agency certainly has its problems, but I think this is a surprising cheap shot from a blog of the biggest US space advocacy non-profits.

I’d have a read of the blog ASAP, it might vanish soon…

Source: NASAWatch.com

One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)
When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?

As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision
Continue reading “One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite”

Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?

Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)
Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)

When times get tough, the world needs visionaries.

Visionaries find solutions, they invent systems and invoke change. One such figure in current events with a weight of 300 million people on his shoulders, is the new US President Barack Obama. His entire political campaign is based on bringing change to the USA (and the world), making him the most prominent political figure out there. Is he a visionary? Some would argue that he is, others would say that history will decide that point. I’m on the fence as to whether Obama will find historic solutions to these seemingly insurmountable global crises. But the thing I admire about the new US President is that he is a strong leader, and sometimes, that is all a country needs to pull itself from the precipice and back to prosperity.

So, the Obama-backed $800+ billion economic stimulus package is currently pumping through the system to eventually be divvied up and sent to areas of the economy that need to be reinvigorated. In principal, it’s a good idea. But what if it fails? Unfortunately there’s an awful lot more riding on Obama’s shoulders than 300 million hopes; $800 billion of their taxes will be keeping the new President awake until the early hours. If this all goes right, Barack Obama will go down as one of history’s visionaries; if it all goes wrong… well, let’s just not go there for the time being

There will be critics of any economic bailout, and others who think there are better options. Robert Zubrin, founder and President of the Mars Society, has come forward with his suggestions to aid economic recovery…
Continue reading “Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?”

The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency
President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
Continue reading “The Space Exploration Crisis”

“Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama

And you know what? I believe him.

Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)
Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)

In only three days, the USA will take to the polls and vote in their next president. Presently, Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat) is holding the lead in the opinion polls, in front of Sen. John McCain (Republican). Opinion polls, although indicative of the current mood of voters, are by no means fool-proof, this election could go either way.

This is the first US election I have been in the country for, and from what I’ve seen and heard from both leading candidates have been worrying yet significant. It is no secret that the US is suffering every “crisis” in the book (housing crisis, credit crisis, economic crisis, health care crisis…), but the one election issue that is key in my mind is the growing space exploration crisis. Whilst this may be low on the list of national priorities at the moment, the next few years will be critical to the international balance of space exploration dominance for decades to come. The next few years, if unchecked, could be the most challenging period NASA has ever faced.

The US space agency needs to be nurtured and led by a strong president and vice-president who understands the position of building a powerful position in space exploration. In my view, there’s only two men up to the task
Continue reading ““Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama”