It boggles my mind. Every time I walk outside, day or night, I can’t help but look straight up. We, as humans, are toxically curious; we love to search almost as much as we love to find, and that’s saying a lot. This is only amplified by a volatile cocktail of tenacity and insatiable hunger; and nowhere does this shine more true than in our exploration of the stars.
Outer space is, and in all likelihood always has been, the fuel for all of our deepest, most extravagant fantasies. We want to analyze, understand and control every speck of dust, every unfathomably huge orb of spontaneously combusting gas, even the immense nothingness that surrounds and encases it all. The very idea of outer space threatens our egos to a point that we cannot stand and bends every concept of reality that we hold dear. It is the final frontier, and it is our biggest dreamscape, home to innumerable discoveries and possibilities.
Over the past half-century, we have taken gradually larger strides forward in understanding the universe in which our galaxy resides. We have sent thousands of satellites into orbit around the Earth, landed on the moon, and taken high resolution photographs of stars, nebulae, and galaxies that are light years away. We take for granted the fact that, as we sit at home and watch Dish Network or DirecTV, we are receiving a signal from something that has been strategically placed within the thermosphere. The same can be said about the GPS that guides our cars, or the satellite phones used by emergency services and hikers, and even the weather reports we rely on to plan our days. This progress, at least as a nation, has been almost entirely due to the work of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, more commonly referred to as NASA. However, it may not always be this way due to our government’s recent budget cuts and movement towards privatization. To understand this, I’d like to lay out a background of NASA and how they got into the predicament they’re in now.
NASA was established on October 1st of 1958 with the combining of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Project Vanguard and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, with the simple preamble that it was, “…an Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”(pg.1, A Brief History of NASA) If those last two words ring out ominously in your head that’s because it was at this time, right after the end of WWII, that tensions with the Soviet Union were nearing a boiling point — though, at this point the conflict was less of a war and more of a competition between two siblings to prove who was the more productive and impressive nation. In that respect, NASA was a direct response to the USSR’s SSP (Soviet Space Programme) which, although unofficially began in the 1930s, became a threat around 1955, with the announcement that they planned to launch a satellite into orbit of the Earth. When the SSP launched Sputnik 1 on October 4th of ‘57, the American people reacted very strongly, having what one NASA scientist called, “… a ‘Pearl Harbor’ effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap.”(pg.1 A Brief History of NASA) At this point, there wasn’t a “NASA” yet, and Project Vanguard was entirely responsible for advancements in aerospace; however this crisis provided them with the vindication necessary for an improved budget and workforce.
It was here that Project Vanguard combined with the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), adopting the new title of NASA and bringing with it NACA’s more than 8,000 personnel, an annual budget of $100 million, and five new research facilities — among them were Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. It would later incorporate into itself the Maryland Naval Research Laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency inHuntsville,Alabama. Within months of its creation, the newly founded space program began conducting missions into space. Though, during this time, NASA’s technology was often centered more towards national defense than anything as benign as they led most people to believe.
NASA was, for the most part, an Army asset during the Cold War era, assisting with the development of many of our nuclear defense and launch systems to combat the ever present threat from overseas. It was in this way that a lot of the impressive feats of the space agency during this time, such as launching satellites and people into space, were as much boasts of technological power as they were scientific achievements. However, it cannot be ignored that these accomplishments certainly held superb benefits for the everyday person.
Some Ethical Considerations
One of the many benefits NASA has provided its nation with is a strong feeling of pride. During the Space Race, it gave us something other than an army or a sports team to root for and wholeheartedly stand behind while holding our heads high. When we landed on the moon, an entire nation rose to its feet cheering with tears welling up in their eyes and heads full of ideas — which at one point may have seemed fantastical — for the future.
Since that time, NASA’s achievements have become a bit less spectacular, but that’s not to say they’re altogether gone. These are highlighted by the United States’ heavy involvement and influence in the work conducted on the International Space Station, or ISS for short. This marvel of science and technology floats inside the thermosphere at low-earth orbit and acts as an in-space science lab. For thirty years, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, officially named Space Transportation System (STS), has been sending supplies and personnel up to the ISS for the conduction of research. That is until about ten months ago with the conclusion of STS-135, the program’s final mission, flown by shuttle Atlantis. Though the famed shuttle program officially ended on October 31st of 2011, the message really hit home in mid April of this year with a flyover of Washington D.C. by the shuttle Discovery. Irene Klotz, a journalist for Discovery News, reports the experience while standing next to veteran astronaut, Bob Cabana, in her analysis, “Farewell, Shuttle Discovery,” stating that he was, “… quiet and slightly tense watching for Discovery to reappear on the horizon…”(pg.1) and noting that he looked very relieved once it was finally back on the ground, albeit forever. With such an outstanding resume, it would have been an outstanding upset if something had gone wrong.
Sadly, despite the pride it may have brought many of the uninformed onlookers, this three-lap circuit around our nation’s capital was, as Charles Krauthammer accurately phrases it, “…a funeral march.”(pg.1) The fact is, this is one of the last times this style of shuttle will be seen anywhere but on the ground, in a museum — the Endeavor will receive similar treatment in September. Klotz recalls…
On the bus back to the press site yesterday someone asked me if I knew if the Smithsonian was going to spruce up the shuttle a bit before putting it on display. The idea quells me. Destroy evidence of 39 spaceflights? Really? Aren’t the miscolorations and scars exactly the point of why Discovery is going to a museum? (pg.1)
Though, beyond all this sentimentality there lies a very good and strong reason for ending this program. It cannot be denied that of all NASA’s many branches and programs, the STS is the most prestigious and well-known. With Discovery alone having nearly 40 successful spaceflights, and the shuttles themselves leaving behind a legacy of being the most efficient and only fully reusable space shuttles, it’s hard not to feel just the slightest pang of regret in seeing it disappear so suddenly. That said, advancement has its costs, costs that haven’t been shared by their Eurasian counterparts.
Most people still remember the tragedy of Challenger – disintegrating only 73 seconds prior to liftoff, killing the entirety of its seven person crew — or the far more recent disaster of shuttle Columbia — breaking apart upon reentry and raining down across Texas and Louisiana, again killing its seven person crew. These two accidents alone make up nearly 78 percent of all deaths in space-flight missions. It is at this point that you, the reader, might ask, “At what point do the costs of being the most advanced nation in the world outweigh the benefits?” It is a question that I find myself unable to answer with any degree of certainty. If our purpose here truly is to explore and discover, and I believe it is, then our nation is far ahead of the rest of the world. But to what end do we continue to explore?
Political Issues on a Global Scale
One of the most shortsighted parts of the government’s hasty cancellation of the shuttle program is that it was just that… hasty. In his article, “Dropped Space Program Saves Money but Squanders Our Dreams,” Charles Krauthammer points out that, “The pity is not [the shuttle program’s] retirement… but that it died without a successor. The planned follow-on — the Constellation rocket-capsule program to take humans back into orbit and from there to the moon — was suddenly canceled in 2010, and control of manned spaceflight was gratuitously ceded to Russia and China.”(pg.1) The fact is, although we’ve always relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to take our cosmonauts/astronauts to the ISS to an extent, being solely dependent on them is a precarious position both financially and politically. We aren’t on the best of terms with either Russia or China, which is illustrated by the fact that China has outright refused to take U.S. personnel to the Space Station at all, instead choosing to, “… [go] for the glory,” as Krauthammer puts it, and land on the moon by 2025. He continues in saying, “Nothing could better symbolize China overtaking America than its taking our place on the moon, walking over footprints first laid down, then casually abandoned by us.” If 2025 seems like a long time away to you, then take into account that the last time a manned mission landed on the moon — in fact, the last time a manned mission left low-Earth orbit — was in 1972 with the 11th and final manned Apollo mission.
As for U.S. and Russian relations, though the Space Race ended for most people with the bankruptcy and disarmament of the Soviet Union, neither country has entirely let go of the cold competitiveness and tension they are infamous for having towards each other. An extreme example of this is the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, which was engaged in by the United States and Russia after the Cold War. The U.S. continued by announcing plans for a ballistic missile defense installation in Poland, along with a radar station in the Czech Republic — both are former Warsaw Pact nations and are in very close proximity to Russia — which was explained as a defensive response to the September 11th attacks. Russia, for obvious reasons, didn’t quite see it this way and responded by designing the RS-24, an intercontinental ballistic missile described by Vladimir Putin as being able to defeat any missile defense system. The United States later cancelled its plans, taking initiative towards setting up a missile defense system on our own soil instead, something Russia has done on theirs as well.
With tensions already high and no official United States shuttle program in place, if conditions get worse we could potentially lose access to the world’s most advanced science facility and humanity’s most impressive piece of technology. Though the stress between the two nations is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, this situation would be far more navigable if our government had kept the shuttle program alive, or at the very least left something to take its place.
The Loss/Gain of Science and Technology
Aside from the aforementioned potential loss of access to the ISS, there have been many recent advances made by private industries that give great credence to the decision to break apart the space program.
As a whole, NASA operates much like a university. Decisions that are made affect the entire program — every one of its divisions, though separate in their overall mission, work as one giant machine and must adhere to these decisions. Whereas the private sector operates in the form of many individual colleges, each capable of focussing on their own more specialized areas. The benefits of this have been made obvious by companies such as SpaceX, Boeing, and Virgin Galactic. While Boeing and SpaceX have both centered around the creation of powerful and advanced shuttles capable of taking large payloads to low-Earth orbit — or as SpaceX demonstrated recently, to the ISS — Virgin Galactic has focused on commercializing spaceflight.
Late last year, Virgin Galactic held a large celebration at their launch site, which is dramatically named Spaceport America. The president and CEO, George Whitesides, addressed the audience on the occasion of this celebration, stating, “Virgin Galactic is on track to be the world’s first commercial spaceline, and today is a major milestone on our path to commercial operations from Spaceport America!”(Virgin Galactic homepage) As of last month (May, 2012), Virgin Galactic has received a green light from the FAA to begin commercial powered flight. Personally, I could watch the video of their grand opening and press conference for hours. There is something extremely captivating about how excited every one of the speakers looks, like a child on christmas morning. But the apex of the whole video, at least for me, is the very end. The previous scene shows Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson, hanging from a harness far above the crowd that’s surrounding the spaceport. He pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and yells, “Cheers!” followed by a long swig from the bottle. The screen dims with the sound of Branson laughing gleefully and just as the video ends you hear him say, “I’m quite happy up here, do I have to come down?!” With the double meaning of this being quite clear. This, I feel, best displays the unbridled excitement and enthusiasm the private sector seems to be feeling with their newfound free reign.
As was touched on earlier, SpaceX shocked and excited the world last month with their launch of the Falcon 9 shuttle, which carried the Dragon space module to the International Space Station. In doing this, SpaceX made history as the first commercial company to visit the ISS and cemented their place as the first of many possible heirs to the NASA throne. Though SpaceX is far more scientifically centered than Branson’s excitement filled sci-fi funland, even the average person would have a hard time fighting a certain feeling of glee when thinking about the possibilities of a space program that is finally free to run itself entirely. SpaceX specializes exclusively in shuttle technology, boasting the largest and most advanced rocket — the Falcon Heavy — which is capable of carrying nearly twice the payload of the former NASA Saturn V and more than twice that of the Boeing Delta IV Heavy.
However, recently there has arisen a new player in the war for space. In what seems like a plot for one of his new movies, director James Cameron has teamed up with Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt creating an incredible new venture called “Planetary Resources.” The goal of this new company will be to travel to near-earth asteroids and set up commercially built robotic mining units. In Jeremy Hsu’s article, “Why Asteroid Mining Makes Huge Dollars and Sense,” he points out that, “Even smaller space rocks can have mineral prizes worth tens of trillions of dollars. The smallest known metallic asteroid that is an accessible near-Earth object has 40 times as much metal as all the metal in Earth’s history.”(pg.2)
With this much potential in the private sector, one might start to wonder why we didn’t hand the space program over to them years ago. The biggest reason for this is that these companies are entirely private entities, completely owning whatever they produce. When NASA would create a new technology, that technology would immediately be property of the United States government. The smoke detector that is standard in everyone’s houses, the fireproof pajamas that toddlers wear, artificial heart pumps, long-distance telecommunication, modern water-filtration, and even cordless power-tools are just a few of the important inventions that have been brought to us by NASA and are now commonplace due to their public nature. We use many of these every day and even shape our lives around some of them.
With private companies, the game totally changes. If a new technology is produced by SpaceX, Virgin, or any other private entity, it belongs entirely to them. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, in fact it’s capitalism and the dream of America at work. It becomes a problem, however, when you think about the fact that a private company can and will sell their technology to the highest bidder, either that or they will charge a fee every time someone wants to use their product. It’s not that they’re malicious or evil, they don’t have much of a choice if they’re to turn a profit, and therein lies the problem. Imagine if the artificial heart pump was invented in this way. Hospitals would have to pay much more to have one, which would in turn either make your insurance go way up or put you in jeopardy of not receiving proper treatment.
Politics aren’t the only reason relying on Russia for trips to the ISS is a bad idea. When the U.S.shuttle program was shut down, Russia saw an opportunity and took it, upping their cost to a staggering $55.8 million per seat — as opposed to the $60 million per crew previously — aboard one of their Soyuz crafts. Many Americans were hopeful this would end with SpaceX’s successful and exciting launch of the Dragon module. Sadly, this is not the case.
Soon after their accomplishment, SpaceX announced that, while they did have plans to complete a personnel carrier, these plans would not come to fruition until around 2015. In comparison to China’s lunar plans this sounds very soon indeed, but technology moves very quickly, something that the United states cannot afford to miss out on, and especially not for three years. There is no doubt that as a country we cannot afford the nearly $392 million — $55.8 million per person with the standard seven person crew — per trip. These trips have, until recently, been every four-six months, with either a Chinese, Russian, or American crew keeping the ISS constantly occupied.
Many people would also argue that we couldn’t exactly afford to keep the shuttle program going either. In 2011, NASA’s annual budget was at $18.45 billion (according to NASA’s Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Estimates, page 7) with $5.15 billion alone going towards Space Operations — Space Shuttle, ISS, and Space and Flight support. That budget is actually down from the previous year by 1.3 percent and will likely continue to drop exponentially. The most recent figures show NASA’s funding dropping by another one-billion dollars this year alone, largely as a result of the canceled shuttle program.
In a shocking display of desperation and what can only be frustration to the point of humor, NASA scientists have begun fundraising in the form of a series of bake sales and car washes. Their cause is an attempt at salvaging the U.S. Planetary Science Projects, which the current presidential administration has announced will be cut by around $309 million by 2013. Laura Seward, a graduate student at the University of Central Florida and participant in the fundraiser, told reporters, “We’re not asking for more of the pie, we’re asking for less of a bite out of the pie… A strong robotic planetary exploration program is essential for a strong human planetary exploration program.”(pg.1) Though scientists haven’t said as much, it’s obvious that this is more of a message than an actual fundraising attempt; an effort to raise awareness of their situation to the general public and try to convince lawmakers to provide the necessary support.
Space is our future. No one can deny this and it cannot be avoided. Once we have learned all there is to know about our planet, something I believe is close at hand, we must venture outward. Without this exploration, we will simply exist for the very purpose of existing; we will consume, sleep, reproduce, and die. The everyday person may not see a flaw with this, as it wouldn’t directly affect their life; however the effect would be devastating to the people of this earth for generations. For the first time in the history of our species, we would cease to evolve and adapt in a positive way.
It should be knowledge, not necessity that drives us into outer space. Our progress in technology and intellectualism shouldn’t be controlled by the selfishness and short sightedness of those in power, but rather the fact that we want and need to know what our boundaries are, if for no other reason than to break them. Sadly, a majority of the world will not see space as a worthwhile investment until it has a strong cash return, or until we have destroyed the world around us to the point that we have no choice but to venture into its cold depths. I end this with the knowledge that humanity will never lose interest in the stars, and the hope that our future space program will keep us productive and bring new wonders to the people it serves.