Future of Space Exploration

Imagine the day when humankind steps down on the surface of Mars, the day when humanity reaches out to expand its interests and colonize in new and unfamiliar reaches of the universe, forever changing the course of human history. As vastly important as this event may seem, there is a chance that it will never become a reality. NASA has seen devastating budget problems in the past few years that have seriously put the future of the U.S. manned space program at risk. If reasonable solutions are not implemented with haste, it is possible that the manned space program will be terminated completely, leaving mankind with few options for expansion into the cosmos when the earth can no longer sufficiently accommodate the human race. This frightening scenario is a very real threat, and changes must be considered immediately.

Previous plans in regards to manned space flight now seem to be far from reasonable. The Bush Administration had planned the Constellation Program for NASA, which implemented several new projects. The first was the building of two new spacecraft, Ares I and Ares V. Ares I was planned to be the successor to the Space Shuttle, which has been NASA’s standard spacecraft for manned missions since 1982. Ares V was planned to be a cargo carrier that would transport any supplies or materials necessary for space missions. Also, it was intended that a moon base would be established by 2020. This base would serve as a point from which future spacecraft could be launched. This would be considerably easier and safer than launching from the earth because the moon has much less gravity, and so both the risk and the need for fuel are diminished. It would also be a place where new spacecraft could be built—the vessels that would eventually carry men to Mars and beyond. Finally, the Constellation Program included an eventual manned space mission to Mars, though no definitive date was set. Also, the Bush Administration planned to have the U.S. abandon the International Space Station in 2015. These plans seemed quite reasonable at the time they were conceived, but it has recently become clear that they indeed are not.

Funding problems have arisen within the past few years that have put NASA’s previous plans in serious jeopardy. The Constellation Program, for example, is currently $45 billion dollars over budget. NASA would need $3 billion more dollars per year in order to continue the manned space program as currently planned. Still, NASA’s 2010 budget was $18.7 billion, the highest ever. However, larger cuts are being taken from manned space missions while more money is being applied to other areas, such as scientific research, developing new technology, and making the International Space Station more useful. Unfortunately, the manned space program budget will suffer as a result. Yet there are even more problems. If the International Space Station were abandoned in 2015, it would result in a large loss of investment for the United States, which has already invested several billion dollars into the station with a relatively small return on the investment. This “return” would come in the form of scientific research, but due to the short lifespan of the International Space Station thus far, a considerable amount of research that could be conducted has not been. The problems come in when the two following points are considered: 1.) The ISS needs more funding to make use of the funds the U.S. has already invested into it, and 2.) Funding the ISS would require cutting funding of manned space missions. Therefore, NASA must choose the lesser of two evils. On one hand, they can loose much of their initial investment into the ISS to help continue the manned space program. On the other hand, they can cut manned space program funding to preserve their investment. In terms of the manned space program, it would seem that the first choice would be most desirable. However, NASA will have the final say on the issue.

Aside from the issues relating to the ISS and the Constellation Program, there are still more problems. Public support for manned space missions has been wavering since the Columbia disaster in 2003, where seven crew members aboard Space Shuttle Columbia were killed upon re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere when the shuttle broke apart due to damage that had been sustained during the launch. More interest has now been taken in sending robots to far off planets to do research. This is both much safer and more economical than sending humans. In fact, sending the Mars rovers to conduct research on Mars cost less than $1 billion dollars in total, a fraction of the cost to send humans to do the same research. However, limiting exploration just to robots has its drawbacks. Humans have considerable advantages over robots in complex environments, such as Mars. They are more versatile and less prone to injury, among other things. Also, sending humans to other planets paves the way for future expansion. A great many problems have surfaced in recent years that threaten NASA’s plans for manned space flight. However, there are many innovative solutions that are now being considered.

Many solutions to the aforementioned problems have been suggested by the Augustine Commission, which makes all major decisions regarding manned space flight. First of all, it has been suggested that the U.S. partner with other countries’ space programs in order to increase funding. These countries could include Canada, Japan, Russia, France, and others. If NASA can establish more international partners, it would be able to draw funds from these countries to combat budget loss. It has also been suggested that NASA seek commercial solutions to its funding problems. This would involve paying private companies to develop spacecraft that can reach low-earth orbit, where the International Space Station resides. SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion dollar contract with NASA to transport cargo to the ISS. Boeing Co. and the Lockheed Martin Corp. are both attempting to secure a contract with NASA as well. Commercial solutions are more economical than currently proposed plans because private companies would compete in a free-market situation where competition would drive down the cost. NASA, by contrast, does not have any competition and therefore costs are often quite high. And if private companies could take over the task of sending astronauts and supplies to the ISS, it would allow NASA to focus on larger scale projects such as the Constellation Program. In regards to the International Space Station problem, it has been proposed that NASA extend the life of the project by five years to 2020. This would allow for a larger return on the large U.S. investment into it. This, in combination with the use of private companies to lower costs, would effectively eliminate the problem of having to choose between ISS funding and manned space program funding. Not only would private companies be able to inexpensively continue the use of the ISS (preserving the U.S.’s investment), but the money that would be saved could be used to fund manned space flight. Finally, it was suggested that instead of building the Ares I for crew and Ares V for cargo, a lighter version of the Ares V could be built that would carry both. This would save both time and money. All of these solutions would potentially lighten NASA’s financial burden, which may lead to a brighter future for manned space flight in the U.S.

NASA is facing severe problems that threaten the manned space program as a whole. Optimally, NASA will turn to private companies to help keep the ISS functional for several more years, allowing for the redirecting of more funds toward manned space flight. If this and other actions are not taken, however, NASA may be forced to shut down the program altogether. This would leave mankind stranded on earth with no means to explore and colonize on other planets in our solar system. Solutions must be implemented as soon as possible in order to preserve the manned space program and allow for future expansion of the human race.