NASA celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday, looking back on a half-century that saw the growth from an 80-person agency sending up the first communication satellites to a massive network of scientific and engineering hubs capable of sending the Voyager probes to the edge of our solar system and sending the robotic Mars Phoenix Lander to dig in the dirt on Mars.
But even as officials raised their glasses of champagne in celebration, many observers questioned NASA’s current direction and wondered whether it will have enough money to carry out its goals. “It’s a rather unfortunate time to be celebrating a 50th anniversary,” says space historian Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College. “Right now, we’re at best at a plateau, if not — I hate to say this — heading downwards” [USA Today].
The agency’s angst is Velcroed to the vehicle that NASA has been married to for more than half its life and is seeking to dump — the space shuttle…. Making the break from the shuttle program would mean five years without an American way to get into space, forcing astronauts to hitch a ride with the Russians to the multibillion-dollar space station that U.S. taxpayers funded. That makes many people uncomfortable [AP]. Both presidential candidates have raised the possibility of keeping the shuttle flying past its target retirement date of 2010, but NASA says that would require a huge expenditure, and would take money away from other projects. And NASA has plenty of other work to do–it’s building a replacement system for the shuttle, the Ares rocket and Orion crew capsule, and is also juggling a number of lunar and Martian missions.
Some commentators see a schism between NASA’s robotic missions and its dreams of sending humans back to the moon and onward to Mars, and wonder whether the agency will have to choose. Will NASA be a scientific agency, sending out robotic probes to unlock the secrets of the solar system and beyond? Or will it devote more of its resources to exploration, following a step-by-step campaign to station humans on the moon? NASA Administrator Michael Griffin argues that the agency has to continue to do both…. “NASA has to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time” [MSNBC], he said.
With the implications of the current financial crisis still not clear, some observers question whether NASA will get enough funding to fulfill the ambitious Constellation program, which calls for the establishment of a permanent lunar outpost and a manned expedition to Mars. NASA’s Griffin conceded that “it’s a difficult time … (with) lots of churn, lots of turmoil, lots of uncertainty.” All the same, he declared confidence that even if NASA’s budget doesn’t grow, it will build a moon base in the next 15 years and send humans to Mars in 30 years [USA Today].
Get the full story on NASA’s plans–and what’s holding the agency back–in the DISCOVER article “The Future of NASA.”
NASA Considers Specialized Mini-Nuke Plant to Power Lunar Outpost
NASA Considers Keeping Space Shuttles in Flight Past 2010
Two Very Expensive Crashes Trouble NASA
NASA Outlines Fix for New Moon Rocket’s Vibrations: Giant Springs
New Race to the Moon Could Bring Permanent Bases and Observatories