NASA Wakes Up
As some of you may have heard, the Obama administration has recently come out with the new NASA budget, and there have been sweeping changes within the administration. Succinctly, they get about 2.5 billion bucks more, but they also have to axe their next generation of space vehicle (the Constellation class).
I really don’t think this is a bad thing, and could actually lead to a whole new way of looking at space travel.
For the last 50 years, the model that any developed nation has taken towards space travel has been the same as NASA: From conceptual design to launch, every aspect of the process has ultimate control from the top-down., I’m a socialist, having a big government doesn’t really bother me, but the nature of this approach has some natural limitations. For one thing, NASA is structurally designed to employ lots of skilled technicians, contractors and scientists, dispersed throughout the U.S. ; so by its very nature it must be a bureaucracy. To design one rocket (like, say the constellation), the plans and execution takes place under different teams in different places and different times, all under local political regulations. To say this is an expensive system is one thing, but bureaucracies are big, expensive, and employ lots of people. For this reason, Phil Plait (over at the bad astronomy blog) thinks that the congressmen (primarily from the south, I might add) will probably protest the new budget due to the effect it will have to these big, high value bureaucracies.
However, NASA has seen the writing on the wall, and realize that bleeding their money into a terribly inefficient design process is not the best use of their considerable budget. To that end, the administration has earmarked billions of their budget specifically to encourage innovation into space travel. With groups like Branson and his SpaceShipOne, or SpaceX’s Falcon 9, who are already creating rockets that do what the space shuttle does, for a tiny fraction of the Space Shuttle’s operating cost and no overhead, stimulating this new economy can only be a good thing for society.
In essence, this new budget will be used to seed a bus service into low-earth orbit, with prices controlled by the market. By eliminating this huge boondoggle, NASA is free to do what it does best: Science. Launching into all the ways that NASA has increased scientific understanding is a waste of space, but it is not an exaggeration to say that without NASA, our knowledge of our place in the universe would be laughably small.
As for the effect this will have on manned space travel; its debatable. Immediately, by scrapping the constellation class, NASA has seemingly stranded themselves on the earth for the next while. I don’t see this as a bad thing in the least, for two reasons. First off, the private market is already ramping up its R&D to get people to the moon in under ten years, and NASA will be a primary user of this private service, both to shuttle their future astronauts (at a tiny, tiny fraction of the price that the would have if they had done it themselves) and to put equipment on the moon, and possibly beyond.
Secondly, and like it or not, our technology isn’t yet at the point where manned space exploration is feasible. Don’t get me wrong, I love manned space travel (hear me wax poetic on that subject HERE), but the fact is, we can’t yet safely go beyond earth’s cozy EM shield and stores of delicious water yet. In the future, I have no doubt at all that we will permanently establish ourselves on the moon, Mars, and beyond; but for now, I think we need to develop our infrastructure. While we’re waiting for the private sector to clean up our bureaucratic mess, we can still use non-manned exploration to the benefit of humanity.
We’ve already investigated other bodies in our atmosphere with a hydrological cycle of methane, with lakes and rivers and volcanoes of water, heard the music of Saturn’s Aurora Borealis, discovered water bursting forth from moons, seeding rings seen millions of kilometers away that inspire generations of astronomers, and that was all with one robotic mission. We landed two robot rovers on our neighbour that worked 12 times longer than we designed for, and one of them is still going, all for 400 million dollars total. When you factor in all the R&D for the space shuttle, a single launch of that old beastie costs 1.3 billion dollars. We’ve landed on asteroids, smashed into them, and even bombed the moon, and gained huge amounts of understanding as a result. If you do any kind of cost-benefit analysis, robot missions will win, hands down all the time. In the intervening time, let’s let the private sector fill out the boring transportation problems, and stimulate the economy by doing so.
I see great things in the near future for NASA, from finding earth-like planets orbiting other stars, replacing the aging hubble with an even more awesome telescope, and even possibly finding life within our own solar system. This budget is a great step in that direction.