It seems to me…
Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise. Its 5 year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.[i]
It is difficult to underestimate the level of understanding or appreciation Congress has for the importance of space research to our country. We now are facing – for the second time – the dismembering of a team that has taken years to assemble, train, and develop. After reaching the moon for the last time on 11 December 1972, Congress cut the budget for manned space flight cancelling the program though it was widely assumed at that time that we had the expertise to probably establish a permanent manned outpost on the moon within about ten years. Now the space shuttle has been terminated prior to availability of any replacement vehicle. What can they be thinking? While the $3 billion NASA spent on the space shuttle program will be reallocated to other projects, about 7,000 experienced contractors and other people will lose their jobs but that is not the total cost: as with the Gemini moon landings, the real loss is the coordinated skills of that team of people.
The political shortsightedness demonstrated by Congress of reaching for the moon and dismantling the team responsible for that achievement is endlessly repeated. They initially fund development programs and then cancel program funding prior to program completion while our country continues to fall behind. Space isn’t the only example: high-speed transportation, education, healthcare…
Yes, NASA is expected to continue basic space-related research but Congress’ commitment to continued funding and development of a next generation launch vehicle is questionable. It actually is not either cancellation of the space shuttle or future reliance on non-NASA launch vehicles to which I object; both should have been done years ago.
The space shuttle never was a good design; it was not the initial design selection (the initially selected design exceeded budget allocations). While the preferred shuttle might not have met expectations, cost of each launch would have been significantly less since fuel tanks and boosters would have been reusable, launch turnaround time would have been shorter, and reentry would have been safer (tile problems)…
Reliance on contract launch vehicles would have encouraged development of non-governmental exploitation of space. Where would we be today if contracts to take people to the space station had been given to a Delta or SkyWest equivalent or parts delivery to UPS or FedEx twenty years ago? Without financial encouragement, it is unlikely non-governmental organizations will exploit the many potential space represents.
We must never forget that while advanced research is critical, the ultimate goal of any space research is to reach out beyond the bounds of our single planet. Humanity always needs to explore beyond whatever current frontiers or physical limits exist.
More important than basic research or achieving our potential as a space-faring species is that to increase the probability of our survival, it is necessary to not be dependent upon a single planet. Establishment of off-planet colonies substantially reduces catastrophic probabilities from events such as asteroid collision or nuclear-winter.
Our planet has resource limitations providing only a short window of opportunity to take our initial step into space and we are rapidly running out of time. We already have wasted our initial opportunity after reaching the moon. What our political leaders do not appreciate is that it doesn’t matter who gets there first, only who stays. It seems highly likely that if we ever return to moon, what we will find there will be labeled “Made in China”.
Cost justification of any program is important, whether it is research, development, manufacturing, or other activity. The DARPA model has shown its effectiveness in DOD programs and with appropriate modifications probably would be equally effective as well for non-governmental space-related development.
That’s what I think, what about you?
[i] Taken from the title sequence of most episodes of the original Star Trek science fiction television series and the mission of the original starship Enterprise.