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From the Gonzo

. . . somewhere near the event horizon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The battle over science and money

Human space travel is perilous, even during its good times. Since the Columbia disaster, NASA has had to remain content with successes through robots instead of humans.

Believe it or not, there have been plenty of successes. Especially considering the woefully small portion of the federal budget the agency recieves. More on recent successes in just a bit, first a short bit on why human spaceflight is important.

There are many, many fine reasons why space travel should continue to be a human quest (whether it stays publicly funded is a seperate question). Foremost among those reasons is the spirit of discovery and the quest for new knowledge. As intelligent creatures it has always been a natural reaction for us to question the environment we live in. Our solar neighborhood is an extension of our environment, especially in today's tech based society, which relies very heavily on space technologies. Humans have always endeavoured to go where they have not gone before, we continue to do that on our own planet, likewise we should continue to do that in our solar system.

Another, more publicly appealing reason lies in the sheer volume of technologies and inventions that have spun off since humans began reaching for the stars. From simple everyday items such as joystick controllers or many of the advanced plastics we take for granted as everyday throw away items, to the life saving technologies found in smoke detectors or fire resistant cloth. Many important inventions owe their existence to our quest to ascend to heights once thought impossible.

Then, there is always the exploitative take. The Solar System is a virtually untapped, unending source of mineral wealth. From asteroids to planets the Solar System is filled with rocks of all types.

The shuttle program's existence, however, is hard to defend. A defunct and aging fleet, billions of dollars in overhaul and for what? So it can fly for three more years to finish the cash-guzzlzing International Space Station? Money that could have been much better spent on the science that makes NASA important.

Not only is the shuttle expensive but let's face it, the whole program has been a public relations nightmare. Two disasters have virtually wiped out broad-based, Apollo-era public support for the space program. Not that floating around in low earth orbit for thirty years really has the power to inspire awe like the moon landings did.

But if we just forget about the shuttle for a minute, we can see a lot of shining moments in recent NASA history.
  • Mars Rovers - these little guys have rolled across the Martian landscape for over two years, they were supposed to last about 90 days.
  • Space based observatories - Chandra, HST, Galex, Spitzer
  • New Horizons launch - this probe will take nine years to reach Pluto and other Kupier Belt objects.
  • Cassini-Huygens - this joint NASA/ESA venture landed a probe on the mysterious Saturnian moon of Titan. The orbiter continues to send back a wealth of scientific and photographic data.
  • Mars Reconaissance Orbiter - a critical point in the mission has been reached as the orbiter nears Mars.
  • Messenger - probe enroute to the planet Mercury
  • Stardust - this probe rendevoused with Comet Wild 2 and recently returned samples from cosmic oblivion (read the comet).
  • Deep Impact - in a widely publicized July 4 fireworks show this probe sent an impactor hurling into Comet Tempel 1.

Some of the knowledge imparted by just these few missions has helped us understand fundamental things about the formation of our planet, life and the universe around us that we otherwise might not have been privy to.

Here, at the threshold of this millenium, we stand on the edge of scientific discoveries that will shatter our perceptions of reality and the world around us. Discoveries that will cause us to question the meaning of the most deeply held beliefs and values. But at the cusp of these great discoveries we teeter. Lack of funding has pushed important projects to the back burner. Essential scientific missions, such as a probe to the Jovian satellite Europa (one of the most promising prospects for extraterrestrial life in our solar system) and space based telescopes capable of detecting Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars, have been compromised. NASAs overall budget saw cuts across the board, about 15 percent. But NASAs astrobiology budget, where the cutting edge of space science sits, saw disproportionate cuts. Clearly, a science "friendly" administration at work.

NASAs FY 2007 budget request has been roundly criticized by Congress and important organizations, such as the Planetary Society. Most of this criticism stemmed from the appalling assault on real, hard science that the budget made in the name of Moonshot Vol. 2.

Until space travel becomes a viable, commercial enterprise Americans have to pony up and fund these important projects. If we can justify sending $250 billion to rebuild a nation half a world away then the comparitively smaller amount of money we allocate to our space program will not be missed. Had NASA not squandered billions on the ISS it is likely that a return to the moon and Mars mission could have already taken place.

Photos: Photo 1: Mysterious Jovian satellite Europa. One of the four large Galilean satellites Europa is thought to harbor a liquid water ocean beneath its thick, planet-wide ice sheet. (Credit: NASA: courtesy of Voyager 1) Photo 2: Artist's rendering of the Kepler observatory whose primary mission will be detecting Earth-like planets, scheduled to launch in 2008. (Credit: NASA)

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