Mo’ money, mo’ problems…
October 3, 2010 2 Comments
On Wednesday (Sept 29), Congress passed NASA’s new budget, securing $19B for 2011 and $58B through 2013. “Yippee!” you might say, but don’t get excited too fast; President Obama’s plan for the future of NASA still has a long way to go. Obama’s vision for NASA, as announced last February, basically cancelled President Bush’s Constellation program, targeted at getting Americans back to the Moon in the next two decades, and replaced it with a plan to land on an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030. Obama’s plan basically boils down to three key parts: 1) phase out the Space Shuttle, 2) commercialize space transportation, 3) develop one heavy-lifting launch vehicle for deep-space missions.
Although many scientists and former astronauts (most famously Apollo astronauts Alan Bean and Buzz Aldrin) support President Obama’s plan to skip returning to the Moon in favor of more ambitious missions, such as Mars, there’s still a big dilemma. By canceling the Constellation program (which had already begun several years of development and sucked up a lot of taxpayers’ dollars) and switching governmental focus to helping subsidize the commercialization of space travel, the U.S. has left itself in a situation which it is not used to: it will need to rely on other nations for all of its space transportation needs…at least until a company comes up with a reliable space taxi.
Since its inception in 1982, the Shuttle program has conveniently doubled as both a manned space vehicle and a heavy-lift launch vehicle for most of NASA’s space-bound cargo (such as the Hubble Space Telescope and various International Space Station (ISS) components). Once it’s final flight is over (the Congressional vote also approved funding for this “final-please just one last one, we swear” Shuttle flight) sometime in 2011, the U.S. will need to buy flights to the ISS on Russian rockets and need to pay either the Chinese (who we already owe enough money to), Japanese, or Russians for any heavy-lift launches that we may need for satellites or unmanned space missions. Not only that, but NASA has already begun to lay-off thousands of Shuttle employees, many of whom have been with the program since its beginning nearly 30 years ago.
Personally, I agree with scientists and past astronauts who felt that President Bush’s plan to return to the Moon was redundant and by pushing ourselves further with difficult challenges (like reaching Mars by 2030) we can try to recapture the passion and drive that made the Apollo program so successful in the ’60s. That being said though, NASA isn’t planning on slowing down its scientific endeavors just because it no longer has launch capabilities. That means all of the Agency’s planned space missions, such as the Jupiter-bound JUNO spacecraft and the highly-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will need to be launched for NASA by other countries. We’ve basically removed ourselves as the leading space-capable nation and consented to the roll of passenger or spectator, at least until the fledgling industry of commercial space flight gets off the ground (excuse the pun).