O’ROURKE: NASA is still a go

My friends and family keep throwing cold water on my passion for space exploration. They believe news reports that President Obama cancelled the human spaceflight program, dooming NASA to slowly wither and die, and they try to nudge me away from denial. Fortunately, their narrative is wildly inaccurate; space exploration is poised for an exciting future.

The national media confuses the deserved cancellation of the space shuttle program with the death of space exploration. In reality, commercial companies will soon replace the outdated space shuttle to launch cargo and crew into orbit around Earth. NASA will no longer focus on providing taxi service to the International Space Station. Rather, a quest to explore the uncharted cosmos with both robots and humans will exploit the imaginative possibility of space.

In short, NASA is recapturing the excitement of the Space Race — without the fear of the Cold War.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Americans panicked because the shiny, beeping satellite represented an existential crisis. People evolved with a basic urge to explore the unknown, and their ability was threatened. Desperate to preserve American preeminence, NASA executed the spectacular Apollo Program, culminating in the 1969-’72 series of moon landings.

Most scientists never lost the drive to push the envelope in space, making the last four decades a golden age of exploration. Spacecrafts have visited every planet in our solar system; the Hubble telescope collected breathtaking images of distant galaxies and nebulae. Planetary scientists have explicitly prioritized frequent small- to medium-scale missions over occasional flagship efforts, ensuring the steady return of engaging science. With the ongoing detection of shockingly diverse planets orbiting distant stars, the possibilities for discovery are virtually limitless.

In contrast, the human spaceflight program lost luster in 1975 after American and Soviet spacecraft docked above the Earth, ending the Space Race. Lacking either an obvious threat from a foreign superpower or an ambitious new goal, public interest in human spaceflight quickly waned, prompting advocates of space exploration to hype engineering advances in lieu of novel excursions.

But technology development is only exciting if conducted in pursuit of an accessible, exciting goal. The space shuttle was the most complex machine ever built, yet launches soon seemed routine and even boring. The International Space Station is closer to Earth than Los Angeles is to San Francisco. So a new emotional focus for the space program would be cause for celebration, not despair.

Although the national media enjoys blaming President Obama for killing the shuttle program, credit actually belongs to President George W. Bush, who scheduled its cancellation for 2011 to liberate funding for the Constellation Program to return astronauts to the moon.

President Obama took decisive action in 2010 after an independent review panel concluded that the Constellation Program was hopelessly over budget and behind schedule. Instead of killing NASA, he committed to increasing overall funding by $6 billion over five years. The International Space Station will be operated as a national laboratory for science research through 2020 and NASA will continue designing a powerful rocket capable of reaching destinations beyond Earth’s orbit, such as asteroids and Mars.

Most importantly, President Obama strongly supports contracting with commercial companies to transport crew and cargo to orbit around Earth. Private entities are demonstrating impressive capabilities. For example, SpaceX, one of many commercial spaceflight corporations, launched its Dragon spacecraft into orbit around Earth and recovered it safely in 2010. Cargo delivery to the International Space Station should occur this year and the first crewed Dragon flight is planned for 2015. Space tourism and trips beyond the earth/moon system will follow.

Of course, you will not cheer the continuation of a vigorous space program unless you consider it a worthwhile endeavor.

After all, reasonable people have criticized the space program since its birth as a tremendous waste of money. According to several studies, however, the average American overestimates the percentage of the federal budget allocated to NASA (roughly 0.6 percent) by at least a factor of 10. Compared to expenditures like wars and bank bailouts, NASA appropriations might as well be a rounding error.

Eliminating funding for space exploration would not increase spending on other worthy causes, despite rhetorical attempts to pit NASA’s funding against domestic programs. In the current political climate, the money would likely be thrown into the pit of deficit reduction and tax cuts.

Conventional defenses of space exploration are pragmatic: Dollars are spent on Earth, not in space, to employ skilled workers. Commercial spinoffs from NASA technology — everything from life rafts to clean energy technology — improve lives every day. Without satellites, our ability to navigate, communicate and predict weather would vanish. But none of these reasons ignited the Space Race.

Ultimately, to support space exploration is simply to be human. Footprints on the moon and the tracks of Mars rovers both provide an unadulterated, natural thrill. People and robots in space are uniquely capable of expanding our imagination, inspiring life-changing technology, motivating science and engineering education. Thanks to President Obama, the stage is set for decades of adventure.

Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at joseph.orourke@yale.edu.

Comments

  • silliwin01

    Great column.

  • JohnHunt

    I largely agree with your historical overview. Agree too that the ending of the Shuttle program and the ending of Constellation were not Obama’s fault.

    I also agree that commercial taking over cargo and taxi to LEO is a good thing.

    But I will disagree with a few things. Finding something exciting to do could make us repeat our same failings. In particular, a big exciting rocket could cause us to repeat Constellation, Shuttle, X-33, and the Apollo-one-offs. In particular, I am concerned that the SLS will turn out to be too expensive and get canceled…then what? Obama wanted to delay it. Better he should have axed it altogether.

    In it’s place, the so far very successful COTS program should be followed up with a “Lunar COTS” program to mine lunar ice for propellant. Instead of a flags-and-footprints adventure, we could get a cis-lunar infrastructure which would create economic sustainability thereby opening up space permanently.

    If that were to happen, yours would truly be a very bright future.

    As it stands now, your future will still probably be bright. But we will probably have wasted tens of billions on an unsustainable SLS while SpaceX demonstrates it’s Falcon Heavy making the SLS seem like the space pork that it is.

    Once we start mining lunar ice and making propellant from it, it’s all over. Asteroids, Deimos, Mars, the asteroid belt, you name it, it all comes within reach.