October 22, 2014

29.01.10: A Failed Vision: Where does the U.S. Space Program go from here?

The launch of Ares X-1 last year; a one shot rocket? (Credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph/Kevin O'Connell).

The launch of Ares X-1 last year; a one shot rocket? (Credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph/Kevin O'Connell).

By now, everyone in the astro-blogosphere has heard the bad news concerning the Constellation program. No Ares. No Mars. No permanent presence on the Moon. This week’s announcement of Congress failing to provide funding for the future manned space program comes as a tremendous blow to all who work in and follow the space industry. All we’re left with is the vague promise of the development of a heavy lift rocket to get us out of low-Earth orbit, a promise that might be over a decade from lift-off… at this point, it seems as if we may be headed towards another lean decade, much like what struck the space program in the 70’s after Apollo.

But is there hope? Certainly, the dual forces of crisis and opportunity may well come into play here. While the shuttle program is coming to an end, the extension of the International Space Station out to 2020 assures us that our manned presence in space will indeed continue. Scientists and astronomers may quietly breathe a sigh of relief, as the axe didn’t fall on their pet space probe, and funds for small shoe-string unmanned projects won’t be sacrificed to the dollar-guzzling manned space program.  Perhaps, as some might argue, the “Apollo on steroids” approach lacked the vision to truly grab the public’s imagination and was doomed from the start. But all would ultimately acknowledge that we truly need both, a robust manned program and a diverse unmanned space exploration program. It’s true; we are in financially troubling times. Unfortunately, space exploration tends to wind up on the short list of many inside the beltway as they search for perceived pork barrel projects to cut. But history has shown that nations that cease exploration and curiosity tend to end up as historical has-beens’ as they become introspective and withdrawn. Perhaps the sight of Chinese or Indian astronauts setting up shop alongside our hallowed Apollo sites will be enough to inspire a new space race… but will it be too late? “How could this have happened?” the credulous public will then say… how did we end up so far behind?

We here at Astroguyz believe now is the time for vision and action in space. What’s needed are some truly innovative plans for exploration; how about a manned mission to an NEO such as Apophis in 2029? Or funding the shelved Terrestrial Planet Finder?  Or further exploratory landers for Europa or Titan? A heavy lift platform also gets astronomers wheels spinning as to the payloads it could launch. Now might be the time to dust off some of those innovative alternate plans that engineers were said to have been moonlighting over years back. But one thing is certain; any new drive into space must be accompanied with a twin drive in science education as seen in the 60’s to be truly effective. This week’s news may have been a major setback, but there are lots of intriguing options out there; let’s get out of low-Earth orbit and back into deep space exploration, this time, for good!