A new study conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) concerning NASA, and more specifically, the space agency’s future, has come to a troubling, though not unexpected conclusion. The consensus: NASA has lost its direction, chiefly because of disagreement over goals, which then trickles down into budgeting and other practical considerations.
So, what solutions has the NRC come up with?
First: NASA needs to find a mission that carries high enthusiasm from the public, and its own work force. Shortly after coming into office, President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, inaugurated by then-President George W. Bush, that would have sent Americans back to the Moon by 2020 in favor of a program that would send Americans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars my the mid 2030s.. Problem here: in its study, the NRC found high enthusiasm for a Moon mission from the American public and NASA employees, but little such eagerness for an asteroid mission.
Another problem: lack of infrastructure in space. Commenting on the current state of U.S. space opertaions (or lack thereof), Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson and the chair of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, said that “we should have continuous operational reach in near-Earth space, regular access to the surface of the moon, and regular access to Mars.”
Obviously, nothing could be farther from the truth.
A third problem found by the study: no plan to life off space. Speaking on what this means, Sykes pointed out the Apollo Program, which accomplished great things but which had no sustainability as everything had to come from Earth. In contrast, the NRC proposes that NASA start focusing on near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could be exploited for resources, both material and as low-gravity launch pads/destinations for future missions.
Problem: NASA hasn’t even begun to scout potentially desirable NEOs for lack of money, outsourcing this vital task to the private sector and privately-funded academia.
Needless to say, NASA is in a bad way going to 2013.
Ever since America became a space-faring nation in 1958, there has always been a clear plan for the future on the proverbial drawing board. Right from the get-go, America had big plans in regards to space exploration with 3 successive programs. Project Mercury was designed to merely prove that men could survive and operate in space, Gemimi was intended to test the feasibility of extended spaceflight, and of course, Apollo was to place a men on the Moon. Then, even as Apollo was winding down (and interest in space was beginning to wane), 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.
Unfortunately, unlike in the past, new presidents today often mean complete overhauls of policy, space exploration being no exception.
Within a year of coming into office, President Obama decided to kill the Constellation Program, begun by President George W. Bush that wold have sent Americans back to the Moon, with a new program focusing on a more ambitious goal of sending astronauts to asteroid and then to Mars. Result: all of the money, time, and effort spent on Constellation might as well have been wasted. However, this sudden cancellation did not sit well with some politicians, who managed to resurrect some parts of Constellation, most notably the Orion space capsule, by incorporating them into the Obama plan.
The good news is that, so long as Obama is in office, America’s future in space is set. However, whenever Obama leaves the White House in 2016, who’s to say that the next president will then, after e 8 years of development, not decide to pull the plug on the Obama Administration’s space policy and decide to take America on yet another avenue in regards to exploring the final frontier?
Bottom line: there is a good chance that future space policy will change with occupants of the White House, which is something that no think tank, no matter how highly-regarded, can control. .
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