NASA = No Americans in Space Anymore?
By Russ Allen
American exceptionalism has been under attack for a long time. Now, with the Obama administration’s new “plan” for NASA effectively ending nationally funded human spaceflight, we drop a torch others are grabbing.
The Bush administration instigated a flood of research and development throughout the nation by charging NASA with getting us back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. NASA began developing technologies for a new series of vehicles for this project: the Ares rockets and the Orion crew capsule, which together have been dubbed the Constellation program. Constellation represents five years of R&D and a $10-billion taxpayer investment, and it has demonstrated success. However, Obama has said that Constellation should be canceled because it was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation.”
It is true that NASA projects have often fallen behind schedule and have certainly gone over budget estimates. However, NASA is charged with exploring and studying space, which happens to be, well, out in space. It costs a great deal of money and skull sweat just to get out there, even if it’s only to find out that your equipment doesn’t work correctly. Schedule and budget problems are to be expected, as NASA is dealing with many unknowns. And they rarely fail in conquering those unknowns; U.S. footprints and flag are on the moon.
Time and money issues aside, accusing NASA of a lack of innovation is ludicrous. According to NASA Scientific and Technical Information, NASA has filed over 6,300 patents with the U.S. government. So much new technology has come from NASA that one can hardly look around without seeing devices and techniques that originated from the space program — exercise machines, satellite radio, scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam, shoe insoles, water filtering systems, cordless tools, home security systems, and flat-panel televisions, to name just a few. In addition to reducing our national energy consumption by such innovations as Radiant Barrier, it has been estimated that for every dollar the U.S. government has given NASA for space R&D, seven dollars are returned in the form of corporate and personal income taxes from increased jobs and economic growth. One NASA innovation, “safety grooving” in concrete for highways and airport landing strips, was so successful that it has been estimated to have reduced highway accidents by 85%, as well as created an entire industry, as shown by the International Grooving and Grinding Association.
Medical knowledge and technology have also benefited tremendously from NASA research. The health difficulties that humans encounter in space spawned a slew of techniques and devices that have since been adopted by doctors and hospitals throughout the U.S. medical system, and subsequently the world, saving innumerable lives and untold amounts in medical costs. Improved pacemakers, the ear thermometer, breast biopsies, ultrasound imaging systems, invisible braces — the list goes on.
The Obama administration has publicly acknowledged the current economic problems and has sworn to do everything possible to revive the economy and “create” jobs. The administration has also sworn to do everything possible to make the U.S. medical system better for everyone. Given all that NASA has done to bolster the U.S. economy and medical system for the past fifty-plus years, and the thousands of high-paying, high-tech jobs involved with the Constellation program, it seems strange for Obama to accuse NASA of being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation.” Perhaps he thought he was talking about Social Security or Medicare.
NASA has long been planning to cancel the Shuttle program, which is understandable, considering budget constraints and the priority of the Constellation program. But to cancel both programs leaves the U.S. with no viable human space transport. The International Space Station, which represents a $100-billion investment by U.S. taxpayers, will be unreachable by scientists and astronauts from the U.S. without hitching a ride on Russian or Chinese space transport. This is unacceptable. The “space race” began when Communist Russia successfully delivered a Sputnik satellite into low-earth orbit, and it culminated with the still-unmatched feat of the U.S. putting men — and an American flag — on the moon. As a nation, we spent years and money and lives to remain at the forefront in space exploration because we recognized the dangers of having communist powers rule space. Now, after our Shuttles have done most of the heavy lifting for the ISS, and our taxpayers most of the heavy paying, we are going to turn it all over to Russia and China. This places our space capabilities and experiments in their hands and poses an intolerable national security risk.
Incidentally, sending an astronaut or scientist to the ISS currently costs NASA approximately $26.3 million per person. With the ending of the Shuttle program, requiring us to “purchase tickets” from Russia, the cost will jump to $51 million starting next year and climb to $55.8 million by 2013. We will not save money this way.
One possible way to cut down on the costs of human spaceflight would be for NASA to consider nuclear-powered vehicles, capable of constant acceleration for those long trips to the moon and very long trips to Mars. Constant acceleration would eliminate the need for lengthy, dreary Hohmann orbits, getting us to our destination much more quickly while significantly reducing transit costs. If NASA needs a jump-start on the technology for nuclear-powered ships, they could talk to the U.S. Navy. The Navy has been utilizing nuclear-powered ships for decades with great success, all maintained and operated by eighteen-year-old kids.
The Obama administration’s plan for NASA outlines a “steady stream” of robotic missions “to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions.” Whose future human missions? The Russians’ and Chinese’s? With the ending of the Constellation program, there are no future human missions for the U.S., except those made possible in commercial spaceflight. While commercial spaceflight is tremendous in its future implications, it will progress only in areas that have demonstrated a possible fiscal return…and space operations are so expensive and difficult that it is highly unlikely that any true exploration would occur. Commercial space flight is space exploitation, not space exploration. For the foreseeable future, an entity like NASA — which is nationally funded and not constrained by profits and losses — and a project such as Constellation is the best way to extend our reach into and knowledge of space. Robotic missions are all well and good for certain applications, but one does not learn anything about putting humans in space by putting robotic vehicles in space.
In fact, the immense economic and job value of the Constellation program led to a congressional ban against its being dismantled. But NASA head Major General Charlie Bolden, an Obama appointee, has told aerospace contractors to cut back immediately on Constellation-related projects. Legislators have accused the Obama administration of trying to slip termination of Constellation “through the back door” in order to avoid a battle on Capitol Hill. “It’s bordering on arrogance by the administration to boldly and brazenly go forward with this approach,” says Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT). “It shows a blatant disregard for Congress.”
While sneakily destroying the U.S. human spaceflight program, the White House is directing NASA to concentrate on “earth science projects” — principally researching and monitoring climate change. So NASA will quit developing human space exploration capabilities and become what? A weather station? A prop-up for the failing global warming propaganda? It’s no wonder former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan (the first and last men on the moon) complain that abandonment of the Constellation project sets U.S. space capabilities on a “downhill slide to mediocrity.”
Interestingly, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher enacted a ban on human spaceflight beginning in 1986. We often hear that we should be more like the U.K. and other European countries. But Britain removed the ban in 2009. Lord Drayson, the British Minister of Science, said, “Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration…there are important benefits that come from manned spaceflight[.]” They tried the ban for nearly a quarter of a century, and now they have realized their mistake. This is one instance in which we should learn from one of our allies, yet the Obama administration is pointedly ignoring the lesson.
As a conservative, I have always considered myself firmly grounded in reality. But I don’t want to be firmly grounded to Earth by Obama. Let’s go back to the moon. Let’s put some footprints and an American flag on Mars. Let’s continue to allow our exceptional space program to inspire our children to become astronauts and scientists. Let’s get out there and see what there is to see! Also, I have long planned to retire to the moon, where the low gravity will be easy on my tired old bones…and I really don’t want to have to learn to speak Russian or Chinese to do so.