We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started… and know the place for the first time. -T.S. Eliot
Yesterday, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Address, and talked about a number of things that ranged from inspiring to disappointing. But one thing that didn’t make it into the address was the rumor that NASA’s Constellation program (including the Ares Rocket designed to launch crews) will lose their government funding.
(Please note: what follows is my opinion, and I take responsibility for it.) If this actually happens, I think this is one of the best things that could happen to NASA. When the Apollo program was at its height in the late 1960s, we had a grand vision of where we were headed. Walking on the Moon was going to just be the first step; our goals for the future were going to include permanent outposts in low-Earth Orbit, on the Moon, and eventually the exploration and colonization of other worlds. It was no stretch of the imagination to believe that, 30 years in the future, we would routinely have people who lived in space aboard stations with their own artificial gravity, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And doesn’t that seem like a pipe dream today? After the end of the Apollo program in 1975, the only manned space mission run by NASA has been the Space Shuttle program, which cannot reach beyond low-Earth orbit. Although it has been marginally scientifically useful, there simply isn’t the awe that was present in traveling to the Moon. Moreover, the largest, most successful “space station” that we have is the ISS, which looks anything but impressive when compared to 1968’s science fiction.
Moreover, the ISS is fairly useless scientifically. So in 2004, when then-President Bush announced a new space initiative for manned spaceflight, I was at first optimistic, and then almost immediately devastated. Why was this so disappointing to me? Let’s go over some reasons.
- There are no awe-inspiring short term goals.
- The vision’s major mandate — establishing an extended human presence on the Moon — has no clear scientific merits.
- It is already way over-budget and behind schedule, delivering lackluster results to this point.
- The vehicles presently in development are insufficient to take us beyond the Moon anyway.
- The long-term goal — to send a team to Mars — is unreachable by even the most optimistic estimates until the 2030s.
- It affirms the perception that the space program is a waste of tax dollars.
It is appalling to me that this vision is still in place as current policy. The Ares rockets currently in development (Ares I and Ares V) are barely improvements in any way over the Saturn V rockets from nearly half a century ago, even on paper!
What was even worse? When this vision was instituted, it basically cost NASA $1-$2 billion per year to fund it. But NASA’s funding was not increased to cover that cost, causing them to scrap about 5-10% of their total budget to make room for this new initiative.
While there are many opinions out there on this, I am unequivocally in support of Obama’s pulling the plug on this monstrosity of a funding-eater. NASA has already spent about 8 billion dollars on the Ares rockets and other Constellation-related programs, and — in order to get humans back to the Moon by 2020 — will need to spend around 100 billion total. Keep in mind that NASA’s entire budget for this fiscal year is just over 18 billion dollars, so if NASA is no longer bound to do this, they will be free to fund missions that are actually scientifically valuable.
But my great hope is that they’ll actually use these freed-up funds to reach for something truly awe-inspiring. Landing humans on other planets, searching for (and possibly finding) life elsewhere in the Solar System, or perhaps even reaching for another star system… there are plenty of goals out there that we can shoot for that people will be excited for.
I’m simply reminded of the great artist Michaelangelo, and my favorite thing that he ever said,
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
So aim high, and encourage your local space agency to reach for the greatest heights that are out there.