Almost 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy declared that by the end of the 1960s, the United States would put a man on the moon, and in 1969, the entire world watched as Neil Armstrong fulfilled Kennedy’s vision. Last Thursday, President Barack Obama made similarly bold promises before a wary audience at the John F. Kennedy Space Center: By 2025, he said, Americans will land on an asteroid, and by the mid-2030s, the United States will land a manned space craft on Mars.
But rather than laud this new plan for American space exploration, many prominent astronauts, former NASA administrators and politicians have criticized Obama for cancelling NASA’s Constellation program, which would have brought American astronauts back to the moon; critics argue that by doing so, the U.S. will be more vulnerable to losing its supremacy in space. But Obama’s critics miss the point: If executed properly, Obama’s plan will do more than send people to an asteroid or to Mars. It will get Americans excited about science, engineering and math, and reestablish our credentials in space exploration.
Before the president’s speech, a group of astronauts and NASA administrators had written to Obama urging him not to cancel the Constellation program, started by President George W. Bush ’68 in 2005 and designed to take attention away from Bush’s call to end the space shuttle program by this year. But perhaps the group’s criticism was driven by nostalgia rather than reason; the group included many older astronauts who flew in the missions to the moon in the 1960s and early 1970s. Not only is the Constellation program over budget and behind schedule, but its aims are underwhelming. We’ve already been to the moon several times; what specifically would we accomplish by going back?
Furthermore, our fragile economy behooves us to spend money responsibly. Obama is not cutting NASA’s budget, but he does want money to be redistributed to earth science, aeronautics and commercial entrepreneurs. Not only will these moves extend the lifespan of the International Space Station by an additional five years and start the development of a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, but they are also necessary if we are to realize the ultimate goals of his timetable.
It goes without saying that landing on an asteroid and on Mars will not be trivial. In 1969, Apollo 11, which was the first manned space craft to land on the moon, was in space for eight days. A manned mission to Mars would take 200 days.
Landing on an asteroid would present additional challenges; because asteroids have very weak gravity, space craft would need to hover around the asteroid. These challenges and others would require new technology, and Obama has called for federal funding to be channeled to private companies. Republicans who criticize the plan’s dependence on private companies come off as hypocrites.
Another concern that critics have is job loss because of the cancellation of the Constellation program in addition to the ending of the space shuttle program. However, Obama has promised that the loss of these jobs will be offset by upgrades to the Kennedy Space Center and the continued development of some of the shuttles that were to be used by astronauts in the Constellation program.
But the most absurd claim being made by critics of Obama’s plan is that the plan will hurt American leadership in space exploration. Many of these critics forget that the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was more than just a byproduct of the Cold War. It came to embody what is great about this country — our desire to explore, our urge to invent and our ability to work together. It captured the public’s imagination and sparked a generation’s interest in math and science.
While NASA has had successes since the last moon landing, younger Americans are more immediately familiar with its tragedies, such as the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia explosion in 2005. In revamping the future of NASA, Obama is taking a short-term political risk so that Americans will rally around a new, more exciting mission.
Unfortunately, as Obama himself has pointed out, NASA has suffered in recent years because the agency’s budgets and budget goals are highly dependent on the whims of the president. It is crucial that future administrations — Democrat or Republican — maintain the timetable Obama has now set. It is time for the U.S. to take another giant leap for mankind.
Saheli Sadanand is a third-year student in immunobiology.