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Jul 16, 2009

Reimagining the future of space exploration.

By Greg Emerson Bocquet

Forty years after first landing an astronaut on the moon, man’s future in space is, literally, up in the air.

With budget cuts chipping away at every branch of government and a presidential review charged with reevaluating NASA’s future, the agency that for the last 30 years has acted largely as a delivery service for the International Space Station (ISS) is going through its mid-life crisis.

With the massive NASA bureaucracy looking to turn over the routine activities of ferrying scientists and equipment to the ISS to private groups, the agency has set its sights on loftier goals: colonizing the Moon and planting our flag on Mars. That is, if it can convince the president to fund their plans.

“I believe it’s the role of government to do the things where the business case doesn’t exist,” says John Olson, director of the NASA office responsible for integrating the various pieces of the lunar mission. “To push the bounds and blaze the trails and to do those bold, important, high-risk, high-return-on-investment-to-the-nation type of activities.”

But even as he pursues his own ambitious agenda, President Barack Obama may have other ideas when it comes to space. He recently ordered a special blue-ribbon committee of former astronauts, academics and NASA officials to evaluate not just the how of manned space travel, but also the if.

Observers like Keith Cowing, author and founder of the NASAWatch.com blog, believe NASA’s mistake is that it sought to build a new line of rockets—which are already over budget and behind schedule—from scratch instead of modifying one of the designs currently being used to deliver satellites into orbit.

“I think the fear is that the Obama folks will say, ‘NASA has too much on its plate. Let’s just back off. We’ll send people over to the space station. But the Moon? Let’s forget about that for a while,’” Cowing says.

Some have gone further, notably famed space scientist James Van Allen—responsible for discovering the solar system’s Van Allen radiation belts—who argued in a 2004 paper that “almost all of the space program’s important advances in scientific knowledge have been accomplished by hundreds of robotic spacecraft in orbit about Earth and on missions to the distant planets.”

So how likely is it that our role in space is over? For sure, the evolution of robotic probes has enabled a slew of new discoveries to be made without a human ever putting on a space suit.

In the past few years, robots have discovered water ice on the Moon and on Mars, and found saltwater on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And as we all know, water means life.

But having a probe equipped with a spectrometer tell you that it has found water is quite different from having an astronaut taste it and proclaim “one small sip for man, one giant gulp for mankind” on prime time television.

NASA is aware of the difference as well, and in 2004 began distinguishing between exploration and scientific discovery, the former referring to humans going into space and the latter to the activities of robotic probes. Semantics aside, human exploration remains NASA’s ultimate goal.

“If you’re after science, you send the robot,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. “If you’re after the projection of power abroad, if you’re after the vicarious thrill, then you send people.”

With the Cold War behind us, however, geopolitical concerns are a lower priority than before. But even though we are motivated less by the drive to plant our flag on alien soil, hard science can still lose out to human nature.

“You can do a lot more with robotics now than we did before,” says Henry Hertzfeld, professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University. “But there are things, of course, that machines can’t do: they don’t shake hands with congressmen, and they don’t go to elementary schools and talk to students.”

NASA is a very different entity now than when it was originally conceived to jumpstart the U.S. presence in space.

In the last decade, the agency has begun to turn many of its cameras Earthward to monitor weather and climate change, with the funds devoted to earth science now surpassing those for planetary science.

Tyson does not see this growing segment of NASA operations as a threat to the space program, but rather as another reason to continue the push to explore our planetary neighbors.

“We have examples already within our solar system of a runaway greenhouse effect on the planet Venus. We have examples of a planet that once had running water and is now bone-dry, and that’s Mars,” Tyson says. “The history of discovery shows that the more you know about what surrounds you, the better you are able to handle what you confront right in front of your face.”

What remains, then, is to convince the public of the returns that the space program generates for life on Earth. The two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which have explored the Martian surface for five years past their expected lifetime, have been particularly successful back on Earth at involving regular people in their discoveries.

Jim Bell, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and head of the camera team for the rovers, has seen the team’s decision to share their pictures on the Web in real time result in a flurry of participation from thousands of amateur astronomers who have analyzed the images and made their own high-resolution panoramas with them.

“It ties what we do directly to a real strong thread of public interest,” Bell says. “And it shows that exploration doesn’t need to be something that is done by just a few selected people. It really can be a joint venture.”

While the next generation of America’s space program stumbles its way to fruition, the increased sophistication of other countries’ efforts suggest that the future of space exploration also hinges on joint ventures with China, Japan and India, who are investing ever-increasing amounts to reach their goals of landing astronauts on the Moon and establishing a permanent presence there.

This is worrying for some not because of a need to assert national power in space as during the Cold War, but because of the recognized economic returns of a vibrant space program that has already generated a wealth of new technologies with everyday applications.

“We have to reprioritize our investments in science and technology because those are the engines of economic growth,” says Tyson. “I think we should do it because it’s fun to learn and explore, but if that’s not a good enough reason for you, then not wanting to die poor is.”

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