NASA’s Future

When President Obama released his proposal for the 2011 budget, one thing that made the science blogging community go “Whaaa???” was his proposal to cancel the Constellation program. A large majority of the people on the internet involved in Science! (e.g. the science blogs I read) were for this. Those against it: people in Texas, Alabama, and Florida, where three of the largest NASA operations are. I fully support his decision to cancel the program, and now that a few more details have been released, here is why:

George Bush announced the Constellation program in 2005. I remember watching the speech, I think it was his State of the Union, and thinking this is really cool! I was excited, how could I not be? Bush just said we will return to the moon and them, just maybe, go to Mars. Then NASA faced a budget cut, yet the program was to remain on the same track. It quickly ran over budget and faced lots of delays. In October 2009, NASA tested the Aries I-X. I would say that this was a proof of concept launch, but it wasn’t. We know that NASA can launch rockets. This test was nothing special, and this is the main problem many people had with the Constellation program: It was nothing new.

The Constellation program was flawed. It was just rehashing Apollo age technologies. Like rebuilding a 1977 Cadillac, but painting it red this time and adding a Tom Tom navigation system. While NASA was working on Constellation, Obama assembled an independent panel called the Augustine Commission. Their purpose was to review NASA’s future, present their results to the president, and give recommendations on how to proceed. So the met, held public town hall meetings, discussed, and finally released their final report (PDF). They said either NASA needs a bunch more money for the Constellation program to actually get off the ground or scrap the program and have the private space flight industry take over low earth orbit stuff.

Well, Obama listened. Constellation is gone, NASA actually is getting a budget increase, and they now have a goal. The goal is not a destination, like the Moon or Mars, but a technological goal…or more of a new purpose. I respect President Obama for his decision on this issue. It takes a lot of guts to completely cancel a program that we have already spent $10 billion on. I support this too. We need to develop new technologies to get us into space cheaper, and that is what the proposed NASA budget focuses on.We have already shown that we can go to the moon using massive rockets, let’s see NASA do something new. The biggest change is that NASA will no longer launch humans into space. Instead, our main path to space will be with the commercial space industry.

Commercial space flight. SpaceShipOne does not count, it can’t quite make it to space for a long period of time. SpaceX is probably the front runner in the commercial space flight industry. They already have a contract to resupply the International Space Station once the shuttle is retired, and they are the only commercial company to successfully launch a rocket into space using only private funds. In fact, they are prepping to test their heavy lift rocket, Falcon 9, and its reusable spacecraft, Dragon, sometime this year. They are actually very close to launching Falcon 9 in the next few weeks. Upon successful completion of the test flight, Falcon 9 and Dragon will be the craft that resupply the ISS. Another company is Orbital Sciences Corporation. They have one rocket that is being used to transport stuff to space, and the are working on another larger rocket.

All this is cool and stuff, but it is not the inspirational space exploration that makes kids want to become astronauts and study math and science. But what are the realistic options? Continue with the Ares program? As cool as Ares is, I don’t think it was the right option to pursue. As I said before, it’s just an update of technology that has existed since the 60s/70s. It’s a shame that Ares was the course we took for NASA, and now it looks like the whole program will be canceled. A waste of time and money, but you can’t change the past.

Just today NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced some more details about the future of NASA. This is from an NY Times article:

Among them is an effort known as Flagship Technology Demonstrations, intended to test things like orbital fuel depots and using planetary atmospheres instead of braking rockets to land safely.

That program would cost $6 billion over the next five years and would be run by the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida is to get $5.8 billion over five years to develop a commercial program for carrying cargo and astronauts to the space station.

These new programs, General Bolden said, were “extending the frontiers of exploration beyond the wildest dreams of the early space pioneers.”

The commercial space flight industry will have support from NASA. I’m also excited to read about the new technologies that will  be coming out of NASA (hopefully).

Most of the push back is coming from congressmen in districts with a lot of labor working on the Constellation project. There is a lot of fear that canceling it will be economically harmful to those regions. However, a lot of this labor will be in increasing demand as the commercial space flight industry expands. We (as in the government) will be sending more rockets into space for less money than the space shuttle costs to operate per flight. Research is where the future is. While I’m a little disappointed that I will not be going to the moon anytime soon, I feel like my chances of takign a trip to space have increased now that NASA is fully supporting the commercial space flight industry.

And what of the budget? How big is it? Most people think NASA’s budget is quite large. In reality is is very small. Only about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. If you paid $100 in federal taxes this year, only half a penny went to NASA. Meanwhile $23 will go towards defence spending. Think about what NASA has done with all that money. They run the space shuttle program, operate robots on other worlds, and conduct research and scientific experiments on earth. Now that the space shuttle is being phased out NASA will have a lot more money to focus on developing new technologies that will take us further and faster into space. You can find a good breakdown of what NASA is planning on doing with its budget for the next five years here. Lots of cool stuff there, but nothing to make the public go “wow!”

Who knows what the future will bring. Let’s hope its good stuff.

UPDATE: Read This!

This is really exciting to me. I picture a 2001 type thing going on, with common access to space by 2030. Who knows if my version of reality reflects what will actually happen. He also said that it might be possible to take a trip to Mars by 2030. Not land on it, but orbit it. I can happily live with that.

Read his remarks here.

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