Saturday, December 27, 2008

the future of nasa

Over the past month, there has been much speculation about the future direction of America's space program. During the Bush administration, it seemed as though internal squabbles at NASA were a dime a dozen and that mismanagement was more rule than exception. For evidence of that, look no further than the op-ed pages of The New York Times, where former science administrator Alan Stern recently wrote a scathing article about the agency after resigning from his post. (You can check out some responses here.)

To outsiders, it has often seemed like NASA has mostly been treading water these past eight years. Despite several well-publicized spacecraft missions (often, it should be noted, planned well before Bush took office), the shuttle program suffered some major setbacks—especially after the Columbia breakup disaster in 2003. And the question of overall vision for what we should (or shouldn't) be doing next for human spaceflight has essentially remained unanswered.

Sadly, the issue got relatively little play during the presidential campaigning this year. And so far, evidence suggests that the Obama team hasn't exactly formulated a coherent plan that's much better than the current one. But one thing that seems pretty clear is that Obama is going to kill the Constellation project—Bush's plan to send humans back to the moon in preparation for eventually going to Mars—at least in the near term. It's hard to blame him; there have been many critics of the Constellation program from both outside and within NASA.

Instead, it is seeming more and more likely that Obama's vision for NASA will involve more funding for science projects—and science education—rather than human spaceflight. To me, this would be a welcome change. For one thing, in order to get ourselves to a place like Mars or Europa, we need to know everything there is to know about those bodies before we go there. And since we can do quite a lot with robots (a.k.a. unmanned spacecraft and probes), we might as well send as many of them as possible to scout these places out before we invest the billions of dollars it will cost to get humans there. But also, people often forget that science research done by NASA helps us in a big way back home as well—for instance, with national security and studies on the environment. Plus, if we don't have kids getting interested in science again, we're going to fall even farther behind on space exploration.

One of the first orders of business, of course, is choosing leadership. It seems pretty obvious that the current administrator, Michael Griffin, will be out. But who will fill his shoes? And how much of a leash will this new person be on? All of this remains to be seen. I do have confidence that Obama will make space science more of a priority than his predecessor over the long term, but I can see NASA taking a serious hit of funding in the near term. Which is too bad, considering just how little NASA actually gets compared to the total U.S. budget. (This year's $700 billion bailout would have funded all of NASA 39 times over...) Still, I'm hopeful that things will change for the better over the next four years. &infin

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