In-depth briefing

NASA's uncertain course

The Obama administration is charting a new direction for the space agency. Is it the right one?

What is NASA’s status?
It’s in limbo. The federal budget squeeze has sapped the space program’s ambitions, and the public’s fascination with space exploration has dwindled ever since its high point during the first moon landing, in 1969. One recent poll found that by a 50 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans say that given the current state of the economy, the U.S. should cut back on space exploration. NASA was given a temporary reprieve when President George W. Bush launched the Constellation program, which was aimed at designing and developing spacecraft to send astronauts back to the moon, establish a manned base there, and then launch a mission to Mars. But a government panel recently concluded that Constellation would need an additional $45 billion to $60 billion to achieve those goals. As a result, President Obama has proposed killing Constellation and moving NASA in a radically different direction.
What is Obama’s plan?
He wants to reorient NASA to a long-range goal of creating entirely new technologies to reach Mars and the farther reaches of the solar system. In April, Obama proposed scuttling the shuttle program entirely, and in the short term, his budget shifts more of NASA’s $18.7 billion budget to unmanned probes to Mars, Jupiter, and other planets. In the long term, the administration wants to direct federal funding toward cutting-edge research into new types of propulsion and transport systems that could carry astronauts into deep space. Basic rocket-propulsion technology hasn’t changed in 50 years, and would require more than six months to get astronauts to Mars and back. That’s too long, because in those many months in deep space, they’d be exposed to a possibly fatal barrage of cosmic radiation. By retrenching and developing new propulsion systems, Obama thinks a manned Mars landing could be possible. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, and a landing on Mars will follow,” Obama said. “And I expect to be around to see it.”

How can we afford this?
By outsourcing more of the research and development to the private sector. Obama wants to allocate billions in seed money to private developers who are already working on projects that until recently were the stuff of science fiction: concepts like Earth-orbiting hotels and ion and plasma rocket-propulsion systems. The administration argues that just as early government investment in the development of the Internet spawned the Information Age, smart federal investments now could usher in a new Space Age.

Is Obama’s plan popular?

Reaction has been decidedly mixed, and it’s not at all clear that Congress will go along. There has been considerable resistance from Florida, Texas, and other states where the end of Constellation means the loss of thousands of jobs, and critics have raised concerns that China and India will surge ahead of the U.S. in a new space race. “Some question why America should return to the moon. After all, they say, ‘We have already been there,’” says Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. “It would be as if 16th-century monarchs proclaimed that we need not go to the New World—we have already been there.” But many scientists and entrepreneurs say it’s time for a new direction in space exploration. “We’re the only country with an agency that designs, develops, operates, and regulates a space program,” says space entrepreneur Jeffrey Manber. “It’s baffling to me that we don’t let our greatest strength, our free markets, exist in the space program.”
Can private industry pick up the slack?
Over a period of decades, possibly. Hundreds of sophisticated private satellites already orbit the Earth, many of them launched by rockets owned by entrepreneurs, not the government. And adventurous souls are lining up for seats on spacecraft being developed by entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic, PayPal mogul Elon Musk, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. But in the short term, the free market cannot match the many billions NASA once spent every year, or its concentration of experienced engineers all focused on a single goal. Skeptics say that as a result of Obama’s policy, the U.S. will essentially give up on manned space exploration for a decade or more.

So where does that leave us now?
The remaining shuttle fleet is scheduled to retire in 2011. That’s expected to free up funds for NASA to expand research at the International Space Station, extending the $100 billion orbiting laboratory’s original mission by 10 years or more. To get there, though, U.S. astronauts will have to hitch rides on Russian rockets until commercial entrepreneurs roll out their own “space taxis.” But a NASA review panel recently said that unless Congress greatly boosts its budget, any manned space exploration plans will have to be delayed by at least 20 years. And for many space enthusiasts, that’s a disappointment. “America,” a group of former astronauts recently wrote, “must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.”

NASA’s practical legacy
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, created by President Eisenhower in 1958, initially was a response to the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union. Since then, NASA has had spectacular successes, including six manned moon landings, and stunning failures, most notably the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its entire crew. But NASA also has a much more down-to-earth legacy. Over the years, NASA has turned to private companies to develop tools needed for missions, resulting in a stream of technological advances and consumer products that have become part of everyday life. Among them: smoke detectors, solar panels, water purification systems, medical imaging, and GPS navigation systems. NASA even has a publication, Spinoff, that tracks the offshoots. “NASA retains the usage rights, and the company retains the intellectual property rights,” says Spinoff editor Daniel Lockney. “Everybody benefits.”


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