Under President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal, NASA’s Constellation program is canceled, and NASA is given the outline for a new direction. Constellation was supposed to be the program that got America back to the moon and beyond. Does its cancellation mean the end of American manned space flight?
Michael Griffin, the former NASA Administrator, seems to think so. He says terminating the Constellation program means America is “not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future.” A closer look at the proposal, however, may offer just a glimmer of hope to those who want America to remain the leader in manned space exploration.
“Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously,” Charlie Bolden, the current NASA Administrator, said at a February 1, 2010 press conference. He says this will be the outcome of the direction outlined in the 2011 proposal. It certainly sounds impressive, but can any of it really happen?
The Commercialization of Space
One encouraging sign is that the commercialization of low Earth orbit is part of the plan. The Space Shuttle fleet will be retired at the end of 2010. Rather than use NASA resources to develop a replacement for the Shuttle, the goal is to have the commercial sector develop the means to reach low Earth orbit.
The commercialization of space is long overdue. Private enterprise will do it more efficiently and cost-effectively, and leaving low Earth orbit to the private sector frees up NASA resources to explore deep space. Billions of dollars are allocated to NASA in the 2011 budget and beyond for research and development of new technologies and approaches to space flight. Hopefully, breakthrough technologies will make space flight easier, faster, and more affordable.
Real Space Science
Real science is supposed to play a big role in NASA’s new direction. “We’re going to start by using the International Space Station as the national lab that it was envisioned to be. We will make full use of its incredible potential, and enhance our use of its research and development capabilities on-board,” Administrator Bolden says. The ISS has never lived up to its promise. It essentially exists simply to give the Space Shuttle somewhere to go. Actually using the ISS to its full potential would be a big step forward for NASA.
In addition to extending the life of the Space Station and using it more effectively, there will be missions to study the sun and planets, and to help detect asteroids and other objects that may threaten Earth. We are told that many of these robotic missions will be precursors to human exploration. Hopefully this is true, and the exploration of deep space will not be left solely to robots.
Clear Goals Are Needed
The problem is there’s no real plan for any of it. There are no goals for NASA, only impressive-sounding ideas. In the 1960’s, Project Apollo succeeded in landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade for three reasons. One, they had a clear goal and a specific deadline. Two, there was adequate funding, and three, there was strong public support for the program.
For any of the current ideas to become reality, NASA needs to formulate a set of clear goals and deadlines. Without that, there is no way to evaluate funding requirements, nor is there any way to build public support. First and foremost, NASA must have a clear and strong sense of direction, not a collection of lofty-sounding statements, if it is to succeed.
It Could Happen
NASA’s budget is not being cut under the 2011 proposal. It is being increased, just not at the amount that Constellation required. With ambitious but achievable goals that spark the imagination of the American public, and the help of America’s private sector, it may just be possible for NASA to revitalize America’s manned space program.
Right now there are more questions than answers, but perhaps the 2011 budget and its new direction for NASA will not be the serious blow to America’s manned space program that some fear. If it truly results in proper use of the ISS, successful commercialization of low Earth orbit, and new technologies for manned exploration of deep space, we may one day look back and wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.