Volume II, Number 4 Front Page
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April 29, 2005

NASA's New Challenge

Brian W Kelly

      I was originally slated to write an article about Earth Day, but Earth Day—forgive me, EAC—is boring. Instead, I chose another scientific topic of debate, which, frankly, is just a bit more interesting: space exploration.

      With all of the radical changes taking place in regard to the United States' space program, it seems a small wonder that more has not been mentioned in mainstream media about the developments. On January 14th of 2004, President Bush announced a new vision for space exploration. The speech was remarkable in that, for the first time in a long while, NASA was given a clear, goal-oriented, long-term agenda—the likes of which had not been realized since the Apollo program of the late 1960s and 70s. The news, however, was quickly suppressed by the events of an election year, the Scott Peterson trial, a nationwide battle over Terry Schiavo, the death of an extraordinary pope, a national debate over revamping Social Security, and a few hundred other major news stories—all with more value ratings-wise than the quest for space.

      One usually wouldn't assume that news about the same agency that put a man on the moon would go unnoticed for long; yet it took the disaster of the space shuttle Columbia in February, 2003 for many lawmakers to even take another look at NASA and exactly what was happening there. The shuttle Discovery is now scheduled to launch sometime between May 15 and June 3; barring unforeseen developments, it will bring the news that we have returned to successfully executing shuttle missions. I suppose many would rather leave such news in the realm of space buffs, scientists, and, most unfortunately, monetarily-interested politicians who have the financial health of corporations like Lockheed Martin and Boeing in mind. There are, however, reasons for us to pay attention: most importantly, where your tax dollars will be going for the foreseeable future.

      Although not a political matter, per se, the space program has historically been a source for inspiring speeches and a means by which to encourage national pride. I am sure that there are those bold enough to claim the moon as ours, by virtue of Old Glory being permanently suspended there in place. The truth is that work in space, especially by the former rivals of the United States and the Soviet Union, in building the International Space Station, has been a remarkable global achievement. The ISS stands as a symbol of our ability to work together toward a common goal, despite varied and significant differences between nations.

      In what may be a first for this publication, I am going to go into a dangerous realm and suggest that George W. Bush is doing the right thing . . . at least when it comes to a realistic plan for future space exploration. To his credit, the president has laid out an agenda that will ultimately cost $120 billion over twenty years. Granted, this seems like a lot of money. However, upon second consideration and when put into perspective, it seems reasonable. The plan is for the completion of the International Space Station and retirement of the shuttle fleet by 2010. At this stage (post-2010), a manned mission to the moon will be set for 2020 (with Mars to come in 2035). The transport vehicle, known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) will be developed as part of Project Constellation, beginning in 2008.

      Okay, the inevitable question: how much? NASA receives $15 billion annually (less than 1% of the total federal budget). After the shuttle is retired and ISS is complete, $6 billion will be diverted to the CEV program. These sums of money seem like an incredible amount when considered in isolation; however—considering that Boeing is currently spending $7.5 billion to develop its new airliner, the 7E7 Dreamliner, that the Army just canceled a 22-year long program to develop a two-seat scouting helicopter at $8 billion, and that ex-President Bush's plan for a similar space initiative rolled in at an estimated $500 billion—the current plan for future space exploration doesn't seem all that expensive.

      I would also argue to those who believe space exploration to be a fruitless endeavor that many of the greatest scientific achievements of our time have arisen from similar instances, when discovery was pursued purely for the sake of discovery. With cuts to social programs and tax breaks we can ill afford, many argue this is no time for sinking funds into ventures like a lunar base and a mission to Mars. However, we must remember that the effects of the Apollo missions were felt long after Neil radioed news of success back to Earth. An entire information age was jumpstarted, in large part due to these efforts and the technologies developed because of them.

      Space exploration captures the imagination and will inspire generations to come to enter fields of science, which we desperately need reinvigorated. Space holds the unknown; for this simple reason, the value of exploration is impossible to gauge. But for anyone who doubts the merit of this effort, I invite him to consider the notion of Columbus turning around and forsaking such a perilous and expensive journey to the New World. With this in mind, I wonder: How can we afford not to explore?

      At a time when our nation seems to have suffered tragedy after tragedy in the beginning of this new century—and with our greatest challenges yet to come&151;it is heartening to know that with them will come our greatest glories. And you can't put a price on that.

Front Page (April 29, 2005)

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