My NASA OpEd in the New York Post

By Phil Plait | May 18, 2009 7:30 am

I have an opinion piece in the New York Post yesterday about the future of NASA. It’s hard to imagine that while at this very moment we have astronauts working so hard to upgrade Hubble and doing such a fantastic job, NASA is itself somewhat rudderless.

Cassini still orbits Saturn, returning one stunning image after another. Rovers still traverse the Martian surface, years after their warranties have expired. The Swift satellite recently saw the most distant single object in the Universe, a titanic explosion an incredible 13.1 billion light years away.

Despite these astonishing achievements, NASA is floundering. The Space Shuttle program is waning. When the current mission touches down, only eight more flights of the birds will remain, the last in 2010. The replacement program, called Constellation, won’t launch until at least 2014, and more likely later. For at least four years, NASA won’t be able to launch a human into space without help from Russia, Europe, or just possibly private industry.

I’m very concerned about the future of NASA and of space exploration itself, and I honestly don’t know what needs to be done. I have some suggestions in that article, but they’re my personal opinion. What do you think?

Another opinion piece posted today is by astronaut Tom Jones and largely mirrors what I said. And there’s a third OpEd on this topic up as well… by Buzz Aldrin! He talks about the ISS, which I did not, due to space limitation (in the article, not in space). Buzz makes some good points, though I wonder if we should focus more on the ISS or set our goals higher. It all depends on how willing we are to take the big steps.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind

Comments (76)

  1. Dare. Be bold. Reignite the spirit of adventure. I know Cheyenne will likely pooh pooh my comment, but we need to get people up there, beyond the ISS. Gather more information on how space affects people so that it can be made safer for future missions going further out. It’s going to happen, so it’s best to get started sooner and work out the kinks.

  2. Joe N.

    liked the article, you choose a great ending for it, too. now if only people in positions of power get the same feelings from reading something like that or viewing images of space…

  3. Tom K

    The first explorers to reach the South Pole got there in 1911 by using dogsleds. The next visitors to the South Pole went there in 45 years later 1956 – by airplane.

    In 1969 we went to the moon in a dogsled. 40 years later we are proposing to go back, still using dogsleds. Manned space exploration will never be truly feasible until we have a comparable breakthrough in propulsion technology, going from dogsleds to airplanes. Futzing around with chemical rockets is a dead end. We need to restart research in nuclear propulsion at the very least.

  4. Brandon

    One of two things needs to happen, in my opinion:

    A: NASA should stop launching craft, and simply become the government agency responsible for monitoring private space companies, working on enforcement of spaceflight regulations, and those sort of things, much like an FDA or CDC of space flight. As it stands right now, private space flight in this country seems to have way more support, and at a certain point there’s nothing wrong with cutting one’s losses.

    B: A complete overhaul of the program. It’d take a while, but I’m talking a complete review of the whole organization, and the way they do business. Revamp the sluggish bidding process, remove ineffective administrators (and actually get a full time CO!), and generally get some fresh blood. More funding would be, of course, nice too. But instead of talking about the “scientific exploration” aspect of space, talk about its economic value. Don’t get me wrong; I am 100% for exploration for its own sake, but most Americans simply aren’t when the cards are on the table and the economy is bad. At least for the time being, finding ways to actually make money could be good for NASA, whether that’s from getting resources from space or some other unfathomable means. It’s worked well for my own field (I’m a professional Historian). We simply slant things to make them appear as a good investment, and suddenly you have support coming out the woodwork.

  5. Matt T

    and they’re doing stellar work

    You made teh funnee. Good article. Buzz’s was pretty good, too :-)

    Buzz Aldrin is the second man to walk on the moon

    Oh I *knew* his name was familiar… If I was the editor it would have said “Buzz Aldrin is… Buzz fricken Aldrin, okay?”

    It all depends on how willing we are to take the big steps.
    The giant leaps, I think you mean.

  6. firemancarl

    I could not agree more. Living here in Daytona Beach, I am pretty close to the action-one of the guys at my station also works at KSC as a firefighter-so I get a pretty good daily scoop. But, why has NASA and the Govt not forseen the end of the shuttle program? I am discouraged by the fact that we will have to pay the Russians for..anything. I wish NASA would get the funding it deserves and we can go farther into space. We are in a habit of settling for less. The space program in one area where that line of thinking doesn’t hold water.

  7. It’s hard to imagine that while at this very moment we have astronauts working so hard to upgrade Hubble and doing such a fantastic job, NASA is itself somewhat rudderless.

    It’s not hard for me to imagine at all. It sounds like most of the companies I’ve worked for, in fact: managers sitting on their thumbs, not having any idea where to go or what to do, while the grunts keep plugging along, making sure the work gets done.

  8. bob

    The two things holding back people from space are propulsion and energy. And they really come down to the same thing: power. Until we have some breakthrough in power generation we are never going to get much past the moon. Solar panels might be good enough for a few manned lunar science stations but until we at least get a handle on fusion we simply don’t have the energy to put people past the moon safely. Once you meet the power requirements everything will change. Constellation is the same thing we have been doing since the dawn of the space program and nothing is going to change until we control an energy source that is orders of magnitude better than what we have now.

  9. Craig Edgar

    Hi Phil,

    Great piece, also loved your vid in space.com today! I to fear for the space program, I can only see that we are on the way down of our ‘M’ shape curve/Plot. Highs in the 60′s to lows in the 80′s, back up again and now as you say rudderless and in danger of hitting an early plateau.

    Craig (Ireland)

  10. T_U_T

    1. more funding.
    2. more funding.
    3. funding research into how to cure radiophobia
    4. submit all greenpeace to compulsory taxpayed radiophobia treatment
    5. launch several nuclear powered tugboats into orbit
    6. attach one reactor to ISS, and use it both to produce huge magnetic bubble, and drag it to L4 lagrange point
    7. start constructing mars colony ship and/or alpha centauri probe there.

  11. Mark S.

    I’m disturbed… that their editor would let the word “floundering” slip through in your OpEd, when you clearly meant “foundering”. That’s right, I’ll blame them, not you. :-)

  12. Jim Atkins

    I just read your piece this morning (7:35, PDT) and noticed the first comment at the bottom- somebody saying Obama’s priorities are higher for funding “ACORN thugs” and illegal immigrants. That’s the problem with writing in the Post, I guess. You can have the most cogent argument in the world and it makes no difference to a pack of ignorant yahoos. Pearls before swine, Phil.

  13. Francois

    I liked Buzz Aldrin vison for the ISS. I think Nasa’s vision for the moon must become more of an international also.

  14. Daniel

    I totally agree with your article. It seems NASA is falling behind. One possible reason I see, though, is that it doesn’t seem there’s much we’ve discovered from space that’s marketable (aside from really nice pictures of nebulae and novas). Of course there’s the possibility that a permanent extraterrestrial settlement could be used to fight overpopulation by moving beyond the planet.

    But things like “it will find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy.” (from Spaceref.com as quoted at Newsy.com), while scientifically interesting, nevertheless don’t seem (at least to me) to have much practical application in solving problems on our planet.

  15. MarkH

    @ Mark S.

    I’m pretty sure he means floundering.

    Flounder: –verb (used without object) 1. to struggle with stumbling or plunging movements (usually fol. by about, along, on, through, etc.): He saw the child floundering about in the water.
    2. to struggle clumsily or helplessly: He floundered helplessly on the first day of his new job.

    From Dictionary.com

  16. Ten Things You Don’t Know About The International Space Station

    That’s all I have so far. Take it, Phil…

  17. Richard

    Heavily promote the Google Lunar X Prize, and encourage similar competitions. The combined allure of fame and profit will take humanity off this planet faster and more affordably than NASA ever could… and the experience won’t be limited to military pilots. After we’re there, people will receive Hubble-class imaging tools as birthday presents and today’s research will look like Copernican musing—but only if NASA stays out the way.

  18. Jim Atkins: that’s the sad truth to be sure. Whatever the issue, it gets instantly derailed by some paranoid loon with another agenda entirely.

    It’s a hard piece to write from Phil’s perspective. There is so much to be said it’s quite the burden to cram it all into a tiny op-ed like that. With that constraint in mind I think it’s a good piece, but I’d like to hear the long winded version much more. Perhaps, Phil, what you can do for your next book is to write a serious list of directions that NASA could take. I’m of a younger generation here (by NASA standards, that is. I’m half the age of most of my contemporaries). It’s apparent to me that we are not doing a good job of inspiring the current generation, at least not in large. Most all (and I’m plenty guilty of this) are simply making sure our particular task is getting done, and often miss the big picture.

    I’d like it if there were a position here for inventing new ways to get people interested. Not like a tourist thing, although that would be part of it. I suspect there is such an office, but I simply don’t see them making big impact items. I’d love to work in a department like that, assuming there was even a vaguely reasonable budget for creation.

  19. MarkW

    I’m with Todd W and T_U_T

    When I was a kid, I was sure there would be people living off-planet by now. I even dared to dream that I might be one of them.

    But it was not to be. Humanity would rather spend its precious and limited resources on killing one other than on embarking on the greatest adventure ever.

    Our species needs to get out there, beyond the all-too-fragile planetary cradle of our birth, if it is to survive.

  20. Bigfoot

    Let us not forget that a principle reason we are in this mess is because we DID take on a bold new objective in the 70s that we were not really ready for; to build a re-usable do-all manned Earth-orbiting spacecraft that would make orbital spaceflight “routine”, safe, and less expensive, while enabling us to accomplish new manned tasks in space (satellite capture and servicing/repair, etc). We only really achieved the fourth one, and at costs far beyond what was originally estimated to be required to acheive them all.

    We are atill paying the price for trying to accomplish more far than we were able to engineer/fund back in the 70s when the manned space program goals, and ultimately the shuttle program, were decided upon. The shuttle program has cost us more in human lives, money, and reputation than any fan of the the space program could ever have feared. As a result, we in the end are left with a population and a legislature that has a little interest in super-expensive lofty-sounding programs that have similar potential for failure, especially in thes financial times.

    I think we should take a lesson from that and focus exclusively goals that are vetted far more carefully against our ability to afford, design, and implement, and have a much better safetly protocol.

    Long term visions are one thing, but the program steps we take to get there should not be giant leaps; else we may end up once again without a place to stand.

  21. Richard: NASA is not “in the way.” In fact we provide facility and guidance to places like Space-X (although they need very little. They’re a fantastic organization.)

    It is very very very importaint to recognize that what SpaceX does and what NASA does are on completely different scales. It is also importaint to recognize that SpaceX is exceptionally unique, and not the likely result of individual contribution. Elon and his team are something else altogether. We’re rooting for their success (or at least most of us are), not hampering their progress.

    Likewise NASA, and other government agencies, are heavily sponsoring smaller scale private works to companies like Lockheed and Boeing. Fame (Elon Musk) and Profit (any of the plethora of space companies around here) are fully available. If that were all that was required to inspire individuals to step up we’d already be there.

    It takes a heck of a lot more than astronauts to get to space. This just ain’t your childhood estes kit.

  22. You have a small chorus going on over at the Post there. Cool. Also I love your “pennies” analogy. Similar for NSF funding, too, right? That’s just a couple % with huge payoff.

    I agree with Buzz Aldrin in focusing on the ISS b/c it IS there now and there’s nothing we can do about that. Let’s use it AND increase cooperation so it’s not all on one or a few countries.

  23. Sundance

    A lot of people have been saying we need a power breakthrough, e.g. nuclear propulsion. I disagree. What’s been missing from NASA has been continuity of effort, and the effort to build upon previous achievements.

    When the Apollo project was in full swing people anticipated setting up permanent colonies on the Moon, building spacecraft in orbit, developing bigger, better versions of the Saturn rockets, using the Moon colonies as a training ground for manned Mars missions, etc. In other words, building on one’s achievements. All of those goals were perfectly achievable if they’d built upon the momentum of what had come beforehand in a continuous manner. What actually happened was several changes of direction – the goal of a permanent Moonbase was abandoned in favour of a shuttle that couldn’t get past LEO. The big successful interplanetary probes like Voyager and Viking became unpopular, in favour of the “faster, cheaper, better” ethos.

    In other words, NASA has been changing its mind, and reinventing the wheel every decade or so. And as a result, it hasn’t allowed itself time to excel at anything since the glory days of Apollo. It’s just like compound interest – if you invest $1000 and leave it to gather interest for 40 years you’ll make more than if you invest $1000 for 10 years, four times.

    By contrast the Russians have been launching basically the same machines since Yuri Gagarin’s day, (with regular, piecemeal upgrades to the onboard computers or the structural materials). No wonder they’re getting pretty good at it.

    So NASA has to do two things (a) set itself long-term goals and work consistently to build infrastructure that will serves as a basis for future developments towards those goals, and (b) cut back on its bureaucracy. Let the engineers and scientists set the agenda and tell the administrators what resources they need to achieve it, not the other way around.

    There is no reason to say that private enterprise should do everything, and NASA should get out of the way. That’s just ideological nonsense. Government organisations and private industry can work towards the same goals, in parallel, and the human race will probably achieve more if they do.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see nuclear propulsion technology. NERVA or Orion are sensible technologies and will give a lot more delta-V than chemical propulsion. But they will require development and testing. Chemical rockets work NOW, and we can start designing spacecraft that will take humans back to the Moon and on to Mars using chemical propulsion today, get the hang of life-support and deep space travel now, and upgrade the engines to nuclear in 15 or 20 years without having to redesign and rebuild our entire spacecraft from scratch.

  24. Simon

    NASA has been rudderless since JFK’s “mission statement” was completed with the Apollo 11 splashdown. NASA needs new directions and challenges, and has for a long time.

    Suggestion 1: NASA provide earth with a “fully instrumented ecosystem”. Sadly, this will be viewed by many as a political move.

    Suggestion 2: Build Aldrin cyclers to the Moon and Mars (see Wikipedia on “Mars cycler”). If we have vehicles that can take cargo to Mars in 5 months, and return items from Mars in 5 months, then many missions are feasible that are not now – first unmanned and perhaps manned. The energy required to rendezvous with the cyclers may break the project, but it’s worth consideration.

  25. Cheyenne

    I really liked Phil’s article in the Post. I think my only complaint was that he didn’t attempt to answer his own question as to what NASA should do specifically. He seemed to play it a little too safe I’d humbly say (but then again he’s in a major paper and I’m a little blog comment so what do I know?). I like Spiv’s idea of reading a more detailed plan from him.

    I agree with Todd’s “Dare. Be bold. Reignite the spirit of adventure.”. But he obviously knows that I’d probably disagree with the means of achieving that (I think I typed enough on the Bolden thread for the day to re-hash it here).

    I think basically I would hope for – Realism. A recognition that we have to live within constraints and that NASA has an obligation to maximize how it spends the billions what it is given. Sorry, I don’t see that now. I think it massively cuts itself short and has lost out on doing some amazing science and exploration of our solar system and beyond for the sake of supporting a dubious manned adventure.

    I still heart on NASA though. Just wish it would do a whole lot better. This Bolden pick is such a bummer. But hey, debate is good right?

  26. If NASA is to have a future in the next few decades, it should be a robotic one.

    I believe that humanity will eventually expand outwards into space. It is advisable due to the small but catastrophic risk of asteroid or comet impact, as well as generally in keeping with an agenda of exploration that I find personally inspiring. The first moon landings were an astonishing demonstration of human ingenuity and American technical and economic might. With present technology, manned spaceflight is a symbolic and political endeavour, not a scientific one. That said, returning to the moon serves no purpose, scientific or political. If we could do it in the 1960s, we can do it again now. Even if you accept the argument that a moon base is necessary for a manned mission to Mars, the enormous question remains of why we should take on such an expedition at this time, with this technology, and the present financial circumstances of the United States.

    When it comes to space science, people are very expensive and delicate instruments. Robots might not always work (note all the failed Mars landers), but they don’t require all the food, air, space, and temperature and acceleration control that people do. The things we hope to learn about our solar system and the space beyond are almost certainly better investigated by robots, at this time. And the moon is hardly a profitable place to go looking for new scientific insights. A robot sent somewhere interesting – like Europa – would almost certainly advance science more than sending scores of people to that great airless ball that lights up our night sky and causes our tides.

  27. T_U_T

    cheyenne and his small but fixed budget assumption. combined with complete short-sightedness.

  28. Quiet Desperation

    My suggestion is to start thinking seriously about space industry. Start by making LEO/MEO an interesting place for private companies. There could be so much more to commercial space than bouncing phone calls and cable channels.

    We already see a barely nascent tourism industry trying to get started, but I’d like to see something more practical than giving rich celebrities yet another perk in their lives. Unfortunately, tourism for the pampered might be needed. People need to accept that the rich early adopters fund the later things that come down the scale, much as sales of the $110,000 Tesla Roadster helped fund development of the $50,000 Tesla S, and that, hopefully, will fund the development of the projected $30K third generation Tesla electric car.

    Solar power sats are a good first idea. A couple companies have big plans (like Solaren), but the funding just isn’t there as far as I can tell. The idea has been studied and refined since the 1970s. It’s time. And federal backing could help punch through any local idiots who might try to pass local bans because of the ignorant “Oh noes! Teh evil microwave beamz will burn our children!” effect.

    As others have mentioned, we really need massive development of new launch techniques. I remeber seeing a small show about NASA’s laser launch team. They were studying using lasers to launch payloads into orbit. They were working out of what looked like a shack somewhere, and launching little metal discs 30 feet in the air with laser pulses. It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. They had basically proved the idea at that scale. It’s time to move it up, but I don’t think they ever did.

    NASA could take a DARPA-like approach and fund private sector developments. NASA, of course, would retain some of the licensing rights for any technology developed. What I’m looking for is a way for NASA to eventually develop its own income and maybe even be a profitable branch of the government. I know that idea might me anathema to certain ideological persuasions, but we can’t let the political hangups of the 19th century hold us back. Hey, the Post Office sometimes turns a profit. Why not other federal entities?

    There’s also my idea of the L5 Data Haven. I am accepting investment inquires. :-)

  29. T_U_T

    And again. There goes the Priiivate goood, gooovernmeeeent baaad. mantra

  30. @T_U_T

    And again. There goes the Priiivate goood, gooovernmeeeent baaad. mantra

    But you just know that the private companies will eventually put profit ahead of science and safety. I mean, someone pointed out how that has happened in one of the antivax threads.

  31. Cheyenne

    Vs. T_U_T’s idea to attach a nuclear reactor to the ISS to move it to an L4 point to begin construction of a Mars colony ship and/or probe to Alpha Centauri…..

    What are you thinking on my friend?

    I actually love that. I love that some manned spaceflight supporters think that ideas like that are remotely in the realm of the possible. Again, a little bit of realism is all I’m hoping for. Well, and that real scientists can take direction at NASA and get the funding support they need.

  32. You haven’t counted in the lingering horror and depression of watching two shuttle crews die before our eyes. And there has been a growing philosophy, somewhat misanthropic, that we have made such a mess of our planet we shouldn’t be allowed to go elsewhere and do the same thing. If we focused on robotic exploration it would be cheaper and quicker. And if something was discovered that meant big bucks I guarantee it would jumpstart a new space program.

  33. Jason Dick

    Personally, I’m of two minds about human space exploration. Clearly human space exploration is just fantastically cool. And there are definitely many things we can do in space with humans there that we can’t do with robots.

    On the other hand, we can send a very large number of robotic probes out there, and still get some fantastic data, for the cost of sending a person. So, from a purely cost-benefit analysis, it might actually be better to halt, for the time being, human space exploration, and instead focus on unmanned probes.

    However, I personally think that we really need to have a long-term plan that does include human space travel. And, it seems to me, the only real way we’re going to make that cost effective is going to be to have a way to get people into orbit that doesn’t require us to expend 99% of the energy merely lifting the fuel. Some massive launch platform should do the trick, such as a space pier or space elevator (if such devices can be shown to be feasible…). Personally, I’d rather we focus on something of this nature for our expensive, long-term goal for space travel. Because if we could construct a cost-effective launch platform, then we could dramatically lower the cost of any orbital or solar system missions, which should, in turn, make human space travel dramatically more feasible.

    If we could commit to developing something like the above as a very long-term project, I would be completely happy with foregoing human spaceflight.

  34. T_U_T

    And there has been a growing philosophy, somewhat misanthropic, that we have made such a mess of our planet we shouldn’t be allowed to go elsewhere and do the same thing

    somewhat misanthropic. that was the understatement of the year . More like pathological suicidal self-hatred.

    If we focused on robotic exploration it would be cheaper and quicker.

    This would also mean admitting that they are right. And that would mean death to us all.
    Because humans need long term vision. Some answer to the question ‘where we are going’. And no one who ever pondered that question can be really satisfied with ‘nowhere’ as the answer.
    Space is one possible answer. The other is religious eschatology/apocalypse. And, with all the nukes around, any such prophecy will be self-fulfilling if enugh people believed in it.

  35. Cheyenne

    @Molly- “And if something was discovered that meant big bucks I guarantee it would jumpstart a new space program.”

    You mean like finding life on other planets that didn’t arise from Earth? Talk about the new Apollo mission for NASA! That would be (arguably) the greatest discovery in history. It would re-write our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. And NASA would be the ones that pulled it off. Historic with an exclamation point.

    That’s one of the reasons I am one of those that is so hugely supportive of getting robots out to scour around our solar system as soon as we can and to bring the most promising samples back here. Press release -” NASA discovers life under Europa! Totally different from the DNA/carbon based kind we have here gush NASA scientists!”.

    To me that is much more interesting than whether or not spiders can have sex in space and make webs (they can by the way, NASA proved it on the ISS). Or whether you can make beer from wheat that is grown up there – again, yep, check that off the list.

    So while the astronauts on the ISS are fighting over who can use what toilet and when (that should go on the Top Ten Things about ISS article) I’ll keep dreaming that NASA will stop canceling and scaling back real science and exploration missions like that so they can launch even more people up to LEO.

  36. T_U_T

    But you just know that the private companies will eventually put profit ahead of science and safety. I mean, someone pointed out how that has happened in one of the antivax threads.

    Stop putting bullxxxx in my mouth.

  37. Jeff Wright

    I agree. The alt.space movement is a big fraud. Only Musk with his Redstone and Delta class rockets come close. and he had to operate at a loss. That isn’t capitalism–its patronage.

  38. Harbles

    IMHO …

    Put the human flag planting on the back burner.
    Continue with aggressive unmanned planetary exploration.
    Put the lessons learned from the shuttle program plus the advances in all areas of aerospace from the last 40 years to build a practical easy to maintain and reprocess next gen shuttle that is more of a mini van than the Mac truck that the military requirements made the STS. Just big enough to carry 8 people &/or return hi value cargo. What hi value cargo?
    Develop the space tug that can conduct either manned or robotic missions to geo stationary orbit and back to ISS to repair or retrieve hi value spacecraft. Possibly enhanced (probably un-manned) versions could get to lagrange points to service satellites there.
    All satellite launches done by existing or next gen single use (commercial) boosters.

    The Bush admin lunar aspirations seem too retro to me and I think a lot more experience in deep space is needed before Mars should be attempted.

  39. Cheyenne

    @T_U_T- Maybe if you spent some time at L4 wrapped in your magnetic bubble you would comprehend that Todd wasn’t “putting bullxxxx” in your mouth. Seriously, try to figure out what he was saying. It’s called humor. It was obviously above somebody’s grade level.

  40. T_U_T

    He put something in my mouth that I newer would say, And he was comparing me with antivaxers. Insults are not humor.

  41. T_U_T

    I actually love that. I love that some manned spaceflight supporters think that ideas like that are remotely in the realm of the possible.

    Yeah. You love us saying something, that you consider obviously insane. Because you think that we discredit ourselves that way. You know, Just everyone else knows that nothing beyond LEO is possible even in principle. We know that since NASA had to fake lunar landings because of this impossibility.

    ( now, do you still like that style of ‘humor’ even if your ox is getting gored ? )

  42. Cheyenne

    @T_U_T- Go back to the Bolden article that is now on page 2 for a response. I don’t want to threadhog here. Others should be able to write what they want without reading through nitpicking from either of us.

  43. Caleb Jones

    I see part of the problem with funding NASA as being caused by the erosion of public scientific literacy in the US. Correct me if I’m wrong, but NASA is publicly funded (ie: our tax dollars pay for it–or at least a significant part of it). If the public doesn’t understand the benefits of space exploration, public sentiment to fund it will wane and funding it will become political suicide for politicians.

    This is what we’re seeing when people lament how many millions it costs to do these missions. I’ve even heard some people remark on how much the shuttle pollutes as it rockets up into space. They simply don’t understand the science (ie: that the column of smoke produced is insignificant) or the benefits we, as humans, have received from it (Phil, you should do a piece on how mankind has benefited directly from space exploration). This can also be seen when people seek to pit the sciences with the non-sciences (ie: literature vs. science, religion vs. science, politics vs. science, etc.). While these debates always needed and healthy, too often the debate shines more light on the misunderstandings and biases of individuals debating than it does on the differences/similarities of the topics involved in the actual debate.

    This is why public science figures (like you, Dr. Tyson, NPR’s Science Friday; to name a few off the top of my head) are so important. More important, however, is the quality of science education that everyone receives in public schools. As much as you try, not everyone is going to read your blog, see/hear other public science figures, or otherwise seek out information. If we can build public scientific literacy and, perhaps even more important, the desire to seek out and learn on one’s own then NASA would be seen for what it is in the proper context–and in this light funding it is a no-brainer.

  44. TheTranceMan

    What grabs me about these opinion articles is the similarity between the scientists, astronauts, and engineers that the problem isn’t NASA, per say; The Hubble servicing missions are a good example, that there is no group of people who could have accomplished what NASA just did for Hubble says that the agency itself is more than capable and a shining example of perfection in performance.

    What NASA needs is an objective. if it had one it would execute it better than any other agency humanity has created. There are too many far-fetched ideas gaining traction and no agreement as to what we should be doing; Bush wants us to go to Mars, scientists want more unmanned exploration vehicles and observatories, politicians want us on the moon to plant more flags, etc.

    What we have here is a failure to reach unified objectives. Until the various groups with interest in NASA agree what objectives the agency should execute, it will continue to ‘flounder’.

  45. Jim

    YAY! we need more like you to describe to the ignorant that NASA isn’t shipping money into space. That money is spent employing many people, creating new technologies and spawining new industries. The lessons we learn are priceless.

  46. Gotta love that the first comment on that site is an anti-Obama guy. As if the dopes who were running against him, those anti-science people, would have even allowed this to happen.

  47. Erica

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the forthcoming James Webb Telescope in your article.

  48. Erica, the article was already too long, or else I would’ve mentioned the ISS as well.

  49. Mark S., look it up. Both words are acceptable.

  50. Nate

    Here’s my thoughts regarding human exploration. I am all for it. However, I feel the moon is yesterday’s news. People do not get excited about this. NASA needs public support and saying you want to go do something we did forty years ago doesn’t excite people. Especially the young people who will be needed to design and execute this hypothetical plan.

    I believe we should shoot for a near Earth object (further than the moon, but shorter than Mars and very small). We could gain valuable scientific knowledge about something that could one day literally kill us all and it would act as an excellent stepping stone to Mars. Structural design would be less demanding as the “lander” would only need to survive microgravity. Not to be overlooked, it just seems more exciting than going back to the moon. Let’s go do something that has never been done before! That is something people will get behind.

    With that said, you must admit that robotic exploration is much less demanding, can obtain say 90% of the scientific knowledge that human flight can and costs an order of magnitude less. From a purely scientific side, human space flight does not appear to be worth the costs.

  51. @T_U_T

    I wasn’t putting words in your mouth. I was actually poking fun at the antivaxers. I knew I should’ve put a winking smiley at the end of my post. ;)

    No offense intended.

  52. Jeffersonian

    “What do you think?”

    Phil, you can probably answer this question better than almost anyone:

    Why can’t we have a North American agency, similar to what Europe has? Canada and Mexico have great engineers, physicists, etc. Why not combine resources now that the space race is no longer a euphemism for cold war?

    Am I missing something obvious (aside from the obvious time/cost, though that didn’t stop Europe)?

  53. Christina Viering

    Very emotional input.

  54. StevoR

    Your piece there was spot on BA if you ask me. Well written. :-)

    I wish they’d given you more space to say more advocating … well… more space! ;-)

    It strikes me as almost criminal and immensely frustrating how the USA has allowed banalities of economics and needless wars (Vietnam killed Apollo, Iraq has stopped us going back – or forward for that matter.) to get in the way of continuing Werner Von Braun’s and JFK’s visionary program of space exploration.

    Landing on Mars, colonising the Moon, these have all been twenty years away since 1960. We should have achieved them in 1980. There’s no technical reason why we couldn’t have done this – just the pathetic forgettable mundanities of money and politics and wasting all your money on invading other nations that posed you no threat and also funding Israel’s appalling invasions, bullying and occupations too.

    To take that one giant leap then fall back on our butts is just sad.

    We need to fund NASA properly, give it a real focus and direction – and a deadline that is given as firmly as JFK’s “…by the time this decade is out..”

    Another Apollo needed? HELL YES!!!

  55. StevoR

    Nate wrote : (May 18th, 2009 at 4:44 pm)

    Here’s my thoughts regarding human exploration. I am all for it. However, I feel the moon is yesterday’s news. People do not get excited about this. NASA needs public support and saying you want to go do something we did forty years ago doesn’t excite people. Especially the young people who will be needed to design and execute this hypothetical plan.

    I believe we should shoot for a near Earth object (further than the moon, but shorter than Mars and very small). We could gain valuable scientific knowledge about something that could one day literally kill us all and it would act as an excellent stepping stone to Mars. Structural design would be less demanding as the “lander” would only need to survive microgravity. Not to be overlooked, it just seems more exciting than going back to the moon. Let’s go do something that has never been done before! That is something people will get behind.

    I’m with you there. I’d love to see a NASA mission to Apophis or one or more of Earth’s quasi-Moons like Cruithne &/or a mission to Icarus placing equipment or even a small team there (as suggested by Arthur C.Clarke) to journey with that little rock as it ventures from beyond Martian orbit to inside the Mercurian orbit! Great idea & well said.

    With that said, you must admit that robotic exploration is much less demanding, can obtain say 90% of the scientific knowledge that human flight can and costs an order of magnitude less. From a purely scientific side, human space flight does not appear to be worth the costs.

    Here though, Nate, I have to disagree with you.

    Human spaceflight has learned and achieved a lot more than you seem to give it credit for.

    The results of the Hubble Space Telescope alone are enough to justify NASA’s manned spaceflight program many times over in my view. Recall that when the HST was launched it badly needed to be fixed – by real people not machines.

    Remember too that ‘Apollo’ was decisive in scientifically improving our understanding of the Moon – the ‘Big Splash theory’ came about because enough astronauts picked up enough of the right moon-rocks and left enough of the right equipment to enable us to look at the then dominant theories of how we ended up with our Moon – capture from independent orbit or formation with us or from us even – and decide that none quite made the grade and that a better theory – the one we have now was needed.

    Think of all we’ve learned from the Shuttle (both good as well as bad), from ‘Skylab’ with its solar observing and finding comet Kohoutek and the ‘Salyuts’ and ‘Mir’ and the promise of the International Space Station. Yes, a lot of folk knock the latter, but, crikey, give it a chance – they haven’t even finsihed building it yet! That alone teaches us so much about constructing things in space, about having people and other animals living in space; tells us what works and what doesn’t, what health effects there are and aren’t; and much more.

    Maybe we can learn other stuff just from robots – I’m certainly not knocking them and think we need both but come on! Humans have contributed a lot more than just 10 % of our space knowledge and accomplishments. At very least, I’d have to say it was 35 ~45% ! ;-)

  56. Plutonium Being From Pluto

    Caleb Jones wrote :

    This is why public science figures (like you, Dr. Tyson, NPR’s Science Friday; to name a few off the top of my head) are so important.

    Dr Tyson? I reckon that knucklehead has done astronomy more harm than good in the public with his arrogant, contemptuous and downright cruel attitudes to and treatment of Pluto and it many supporters.

    For sure I think the BA has done a lot of good as have Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and many others but I think Tyson and his fellow Pluto-bashers really bring astronomy and astronomers into disrepute and that lovers of astronomy would be well advised to pressure Tyson to reverse his position and apologise to everyone – or be shunned and lose all his airtime and publicity.

    Tyson contemptuously abusing and mocking schoolkids becasue they dared to care about the scientific definition of ‘planet’ and argued – correctly – that, yes Pluto is one ( & Tyson and the IAU can take along walk off ashort jetty) is NOT the ideal image for astronomers or scientists generally. :-(

    Frankly, I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is as bad for astronomy’s reputation as his namesake Mike “ear-chomper” Tyson is for boxing’s! ;-)

  57. Ken

    The input from ‘Naked Bunny with a Whip’pretty much sums up NASA’s problems.

    Anyone interested in understanding the dry rot infecting that organization can readily survey the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) website & reports.

    One of the problems is the lack of accountability for the funding they’ve been given & spent — that’s our tax dollars spent on who knows what. NASA lacks the internal controls to not only account for where it went, but to objectively assess how much is needed…so they rely on contractors. A classic ‘putting the fox in charge of the henhouse’ approach.

    Sometimes the only way to fix a broken bureaucracy like that is to let it break down & disintegrate…and then build a new one from scratch. Eventually, that process needs to be repeated.

    Sure, more space exploration, space science, etc. would be worthy. But I personally do not want to give my money (taxes) to a government bureaucracy that doesn’t know how much things should cost or were the money actually went.

    GAO’s reports present a consistent, and unchanging, picture. That picture, when compared to how “well” the Defense Department accounts for & spends money, is pretty grim. That’s a pretty damning indictment.

  58. Plutonium Being From Pluto

    Just read the other two columns by Buzz Aldrin & Tom Jones.

    I’m going to say one thing only :

    Well said to both! 8)

    Okay make that *very* x lots well said all three of you! ;-)

    IMHO.

    It all comes down to we so badly do need a new Apollo program – & we need to fund it and direct it properly! Full stop.

  59. StevoR

    @ Ken :

    The US government indeed *wastes* a lot of money.

    1. Invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan costs trillions per day ..

    2. Funding & arming Israel & its wars and bullying and occupations in the Islamic world /SW Asia.

    (Incidentally why the blazes does *any* US money raised by US taxpayers go to fund an apartheid-like nation that actually harms US interests along with those of the rest of the world? How does it not violate Church state separation to give somuch money toastate specificallysetaside for one religious group over all others? Or is State -synagogue unity somehow okaty when nothingelse like it is? Off topic I know but still ..)

    3. Corporate bailouts keeping the rich, rich as the poor lose their homes.

    and that’s just the three largest wastes …

    HOWEVER :

    Not a penny spent on NASA and space exploration is wasted. Not in my view anyway.

    Hubble and tehMars Rovers and the Cassini mission and so many other examples show thatthe very minimal amountof money the US spents on NASA is farand away abargain and in fact NASA needs tobe funded far more – preferably by ceasing and redirecting all three of the examples of money wasted quoted above. ;-)

  60. StevoR-Correcting

    D”oh italics stuff up! Editing BA, please!

    TAKE II

    *****
    @ Ken :

    The US government indeed *wastes* a lot of money. Toname the three worst examples :

    1. Invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan costs trillions per day ..

    2. Funding & arming Israel & all its wars and bullying and occupations in the Islamic world /SW Asia.

    (Incidentally why the blazes does *any* US money raised by US taxpayers go to fund an apartheid-like brutal nation that actually harms US interests along with those of the rest of the world? How does it not violate Church state separation to give so much money to a state specifically set aside for one religious group over all others? Or is State -synagogue unity somehow okay when nothing else like it is? Off topic I know but still ..)

    3. Corporate bailouts keeping the rich, rich as the poor lose their homes.

    and that’s just the three largest wastes …

    HOWEVER :

    Not a penny spent on NASA and space exploration is wasted. Not in my view anyway.

    Hubble and the Mars Rovers and the Cassini mission and so many other examples show that the very minimal amountof money the US spents on NASA is far and away a bargain!

    NASA is the best side of the US of A. The Apollo program was its finest moment. NASA is an investment not a waste.

    In fact, NASA needs to be funded far more – preferably by ceasing and redirecting all three of the examples of colossal amounts of money wasted as quoted above.

  61. Son of von Braun

    The problem with the Space Shuttle is that is so expensive because it was designed to transport humans and cargo, so the whole lift capacity would have to be man-rated (i.e. made safe enough to carry humans).

    Wernher would approach the problem first from the organizational side:
    Split NASA into an unmanned and a manned spaceflight organization (USO and MSO)

    Goal of the USO:
    Get as much paylaod into space as cheaply as possible. The USO could enlist private companies and
    innovative ideas (such as Jules Verne cannons). The lauch vehicles would come with distinct reliablity factors and launch profiles: To lauch drinking water for the ISS would permit a lower reliabilty factor (let’s say 70%) and a higher accelleration (maybe 10g) than for example the launch of an expensive and delicate space telecope or a mars lander (where you would aim for 90% and 4g).

    Goal of the MSO:
    Get humans into space as safely as possible while keeping cost manageble.
    To keep costs manageble this vehicle would look more like a fighter airplane than a rocket. Like a jet fighter it would have a very small cabin holding 3 or 4 persons and just the minimun life support system to keep the crew alive for one day.

    The jet fighter design would also do away with the head shield and all its associated problems (just think of the problem with heat shield tiles on the space shuttle). Instead, beause it is very light, it would use its engines to decellerate.

  62. Gary Ansorge

    NASA goal:

    1) survival thru growth/expansion to new environments

    1a) of humans
    1b) OF EARTH LIFE IN GENERAL

    2) Methodology:
    2a) ground based launch systems
    2b) mag lev launchers
    2c) laser launch systems

    3) Space power systems

    3a) nuclear powered
    3b) solar powered

    4) exotic propulsion systems

    4a) MHD propulsion
    4b) mag lev propulsion

    5) economic return from space

    5a) energy (via,,,short wave radio)
    5b) growing food on space platforms(condensed protein/carbs/fats returned to earth)
    5c) other raw materials(iron/copper/rare earths,etc)

    6) Improved re-entry systems

    6a) magnetic drag systems
    6b)Active propulsive/deceleration systems
    6c) large surface area/unit mass systems(ie, the “shuttle cock design”)

    See how easy that was?

    Gary 7

  63. Quiet Desperation

    1. Invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan costs trillions per day …

    BOOOOOOM!

    No, that wasn’t a roadside bomb going off. That was my hyperbole meter overloading and disintegrating.

  64. Quiet Desperation

    See how easy that was?

    Yes, writing a list of goals (and not having to worry about how they get funded, staffed and kept in line, etc.) *is* very easy. ;-)

    #5 should be #1, although I’d seriously question the economics of space farming for anything other than supporting off planet colonies. Same with ore mining. We’re not doing any sort of mass colonization in the lifetime of anyone reading this. If you do everything else, some sort of migration will eventually happen.

  65. Gary Ansorge

    QD:
    Number one was the long range goal.
    Everything else is, of course, up for discussion,,,

    GAry 7

  66. Orson

    I’m very concerned about the future of NASA and of space exploration itself, and I honestly don’t know what needs to be done.

    Phil, your next book needs to be titled “Space Failures!” chronicling what we have – and have yet – to learn about making space transport safer, more successful.

  67. Cheyenne

    I humbly think that what the BA needs to do right now is answer his own questions about what the future of NASA should be. He wrote a very interesting Op/Ep but it didn’t actually advocate for anything. If he writes just that, lets it sit as is, and goes back to writing about Dr. Who it would be such a cheap politician like move (well, I think).

    Senator Mikulski is in a fight right now to get somebody in charge of NASA that is an actual scientist. Maryland is home to the Hubble and there are a lot of us that want to see science reign the day at NASA. She’s probably going to lose to that twit Nelson and Obama’s desire to carry out the George Bush space plan but damn I admire her gumption.

    So OK BA you have the Time web-blog award, a huge audience, and a persuasive voice. Right now, this is one of those times when you can advocate for something that can make a difference. Wanna try to take a leap and take a side? The BA minions are waiting and your “What I think NASA should do” article would be read by thousands. What would you do if you were made the NASA administrator? It’s not like you haven’t thought about this every day of your life or anything ;) . And yes, if you are administrator you can deem that you should be launched to space (I know I would). So tell us your thoughts.

  68. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Buzz makes some good points, though I wonder if we should focus more on the ISS or set our goals higher.

    You could do it in small steps. The current NASA rejected the idea though, by circumventing the original idea of ISS as the middle station to the Moon. Not sure if it is a good idea to retrace that.

    But Aldrin’s idea of how to use ISS to invite international cooperation and sharing of costs is sound. Before discussing the level of the US budget one have to ask why that should be a constraint.

    The other opportunity is to use a motivational goal. NEOs are dangerous, yet they offer the only second realistic opportunity for mankind to avoid an environmental danger. (The first was the PFC threat to the ozone layer. AGW is another opportunity but it is not realistic to predict that it will be avoided.) An international cooperative program to find, explore, and test avoidance techniques could be such a motivation, much as Jones proposes but more focused.

  69. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Wow, BA has a preview! Well then, maybe we can go back to space again. :-)

  70. N M

    I agree with what Phil is saying but to a point I think this isn’t a new argument. I know its good to get this out in the public but the public doesn’t care. Obama doesn’t care about NASA he gives it lip service only because there are Republicans and Democrats in Congress that Care very deeply about it because its part of the Pork that keeps them in power.

    Forcing out Mike Griffen was the worst thing that could happen to NASA right now he was finally moving a Agency best known in the modern time for mixing up miles and kilometers to something that would send people to the Moon and Mars. Now look at NASA as Phil says its rudderless with a Inter Administrator who has no power to do anything. I know a lot of Scientific say that just ditch manned flight and give the money to the researcher(a wholly selfish view mine you) but as Robert Zibberman says with the the Man flight it getter harder and harder justify that research. I know Obama pledged more money is going to be spent on science which is good up to 3% of budge but with the debts we are creating when it come times to pay down those debts you can bet those promises will forgotten in the interest of cutting budgets. Because at the end of the day Science doesn’t will elections it sounds good in a speech but a few thousand scientist votes aren’t going to effect much of anything.

    That is why you manned flight something for people to see even if they don’t care about it when you say NASA they see the Shuttle or Orin if you try to explain what Casinni is doing in orbit of Saturn to the average person on the street in Boston or New York they are looking to give you a odd look. Since chance are strong these people can’t even find Mexico on a map.

    NASA is in a hard place but if they don’t find a way to expend the shuttle(which they are already start to lay people off for) they will be in a even harder place in 4 to 5 years. Because by that point all these points about how much the military cost will just be silly because Social Security and Medicare will be out of money and be looking for any funding they gable up to keep going. The important thing now is to get congress to force Obama to extend the shuttle he isn’t going to do it on this own, hell I don’t expect him to even appoint a new Administrator before 2010 at this point.

  71. As much as I like NASA and space exploration, I fret about how much funding it gets compared to other non-medical science — three times the NSF, if I remember correctly.

    Should we invest more in science? Yes! And Obama has said he would. Whoo-hoo!

    But let’s stop and think for a moment along more practical lines. Assuming we have X available for non-medical science funding, it’s pretty crazy that something like 0.35X is spent largely on ballistics research. Is the aerospace industry really deserving of billions more than, say, climatology, microbiology, and quantum physics combined?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »