Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Beginning of the End for NASA

The last shuttle launch was yesterday, and thus goes America's ability to launch astronauts into space. 

Well, it's official: the United States will no longer be capable of launching astronauts into orbit for the foreseeable future, thus ending half a century of U.S. manned spaceflight and 42 years of U.S. space dominance, which began following the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. So, now that space shuttle Atlantis is on its way into orbit, what does America's future in space hold?

Answer: no one really knows.

Right now, the state of NASA is not a good one. For the first time in the space agency's 50+ year existence, it finds itself without a clear direction for manned missions. When organized in 1958, NASA's main aim was to get America into space as soon as possible. In 1961, the focus, thanks to President John F. Kennedy, became landing men on the Moon and returning them to Earth. With the conclusion of the Space Race with Apollo 11, public interest in the final frontier began to wane. However, even as Apollo was winding down, NASA had simultaneous plans on the drawing board for the coming decades. First to become reality was Skylab, which pushed the concept of long-term spaceflight to the limit. Also on the drawing board was the successor of Skylab, the space shuttle, which was to become America's longest-lasting manned spaceflight program.
Now, come 2011 and the end of the shuttle program, America is, for the first time since 1961, an Earth-bound nation.
After the shuttles retire, Americans will have no avenue with which to enter space. Yes, there is probably no good reason why an existing rocket cannot be modified to carry an astronaut(s) into space but the fact remains that no one ever thought about a shuttle replacement with enough foresight to guarantee an overlap in programs. End result: America will have to rely on, of all nations, Russia, to get us into space. Talk about irony.

Why? The harmony of space (imagine if all nations could get along on Earth as the astronauts of different nationalities do on the ISS) is being threatened by discord on Earth.
Right now, NASA is in a state of limbo. In 2010, President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act, which laid out the blueprint for NASA's future objectives, chief among them, an asteroid mission that will serve as a stepping stone to a manned Mars landing. Unfortunately, the Authorization Act means nothing without the money that can only be provided through an appropriations bill, which has to, by law, start in the House of Representatives. Problem: last year, the Democratically-controlled Federal Government never passed such a bill Now, with budget hawk Republicans in control of the House, more pressure than ever is being placed on the president and the Democrats to rein in spending.
Needless to say, NASA may be on the chopping block not only in terms of space exploration, but for science projects, too, most notably the James Webb Telescope. In addition, hundreds of Americans could lose their jobs if one of NASA's nearly two dozen centers were to close or have its programs cut.

So, what can be done?
First, consistency in policy needs to be developed. In the time between President Kennedy's pledge to go to the Moon and the Apollo 11 landing, America had 3 presidents, yet the goal for space exploration remained unchanged: go to the Moon. Now, that is not the case as the Bush 43-Obama transition has already proved (Constellation and a return to the Moon was dumped in favor of asteroid-hopping to Mars).
Second, motivation. In the 60s, national pride was on the line with the Space Race, which gripped the public's imagination. Now, science, which many people are ambivalent or even hostile toward, is the goal. While science is good in itself, many people just cannot grip how astronauts in space can impact life here on Earth. Well, here's a very practical goal: self-preservation. In time, whether through an expanding Sun or through man-made catastrophe, Earth will eventually become uninhabitable, thus necessitating that we find a home elsewhere. Yes, colonizing other planets and building cities in space is a long way off, but we all have to start somewhere.
Third, an and to partisan politics. Overall, the public approval of government is at an all-time low. However, while many governmental agencies and leaders are viewed quite negatively, NASA is still viewed in a very positive light by most Americans. So, with the opinion of NASA being one of the few things Americans can seem to agree upon, why not channel resources to this bright spot in government? Yes, by expanding NASA funding, there will always be those who insist that investing in space exploration, science, spin-off technology, and the future of the human race is a waste of money but, as a whole, exploring space and discovering our universe is a much more worthwhile pursuit that the majority of people believe is a worthwhile expense.
So, as America is about to be an Earth-bound nation for the first time in 50 years, the ultimate goal needs to be the future and the first step in getting back into space is setting clear goals, sticking to them despite whatever difficulties arise, and not changing them from president to president.

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