There is a struggle going on for NASA’s soul. Is NASA all about sending human beings into space? Or is NASA about elucidating the secrets of the cosmos? The former is, of course, best embodied by the Apollo missions: pure, unadulterated rocket science. The latter is probably best associated with the Hubble space telescope (although NASA’s contribution to our understanding of the Universe goes far beyond Hubble). Of course, spacewalks and science are not mutually exclusive (as Hubble has demonstrated). But a singleminded focus on the former has led to significant weakening of the latter.
At present, it looks like there will be two more space shuttle launches. That’s it. Within a year, our nation will no longer have the capability to launch humans into space. For some this is a sure sign that America is sliding into mediocrity. Both the first and the last man to step on the Moon testified before Congress last May, speaking out against the Obama plan to shut down the Constellation program (video). Their testimony was reminiscent of a past age, where we proved our worth by beating the Russians to the Moon, and the natural next step is to now prove our worth by beating the Chinese to the Red Planet. The jingoistic associations are unsettling, and these arguments gloss over the staggering costs involved. To quote none other than Neil Armstrong: “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interests.”
It is certainly amazing that we’ve had continuous human “inhabitants” in low-Earth orbit. Rocket science is, indeed, rocket science, and this should never be taken for granted. Launching people into orbit is a massive endeavor, and having them survive in the incredibly inhospitable environment of space is even more impressive. But the simple truth is that the contributions to basic science from the space station have been entirely negligible (especially in comparison with the staggering costs). Furthermore, I would argue that the Hubble space telescope has done significantly more to awe and inspire the world than the International Space Station.
A year ago we discussed an Academy report which criticized the direction of the manned space program, and recommended profound changes. Subsequently the Academy released a separate report sharply criticizing the scientific underpinning of NASA, and recommending similar changes. Two months ago the Obama administration outlined a new vision for NASA, in line with these reports, including the cancellation of the Constellation program (which was the new and improved version of the Apollo program). Given the immense sums of money involved, especially to influential states such as Florida and Texas, Congress has taken the liberty of trying to do an end-run around the White House, and fund Constellation despite the lack of a request for funding. In a triumph of politics over common-sense, money will be poured into building more rockets, rather than funding a broad portfolio of technological development (including better ways to get humans into orbit and beyond) and basic research (including unmanned probes and satellites elucidating the mysteries of the Universe). In the latest salvo, fourteen Nobel laureates, and a few astronauts for good measure, issued an open letter supporting Obama’s strategy, and advising Congress against throwing all of NASA’s eggs in the “heavy lift rocket” basket.
One thing is clear: for better or worse, the shuttle program is at an end. There is no clear successor, and it will likely be many years before another astronaut is launched into orbit by the United States. If you want to experience the thrill of sending humans into space (and it is an incredible, indescribable rush), you’d better hustle on down to the Kennedy Space Flight Center. The next-to-last launch is currently scheduled for November 1, 2010.