(Picture of empty status board in NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. Image credit Tony Rice.)
Amid all the scandal, the signing on Tuesday of the NASA reauthorization act (now Public Law 115-10) caused almost no noise in the media. On the face of it, this is a standard funding authorization, and those aren’t usually worthy of much attention.
But slightly below the surface, this law contains several alterations from the present status. It’s definitely worth a second look.
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the policy of the United States government has been to support the development of a commercial space exploration and exploitation industry. It would be incorrect to state that the government lacks the ability to send a mission to space without the use of business or foreign entities, but most of our active cargo is carried commercially these days. (That’s satellites, mostly of a non-intelligence nature.) Astronauts traveling to the International Space Station do so via the Russian Soyuz craft.
This last has been changed by the new law. Henceforth, American astronauts will travel on American craft whenever possible — commercial, to be sure, but American. The interdependency between the United States and Russia will continue as long as the ICC remains operational and perhaps beyond (at least 2024), but to date we’ve managed to avoid international incidents over astronaut transportation.
Other things have changed. The anti-asteroid defense system that had been designated for installation by 2020 has been scrapped due to massive cost overruns combined with doubts over its effectiveness, and the funds from that have been diverted to promote a manned mission to Mars and the exploration of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons and the most likely extra-Earth object in the solar system capable of supporting life. (The agency has been tasked with finding another way to avoid extinction by massive meteor.) And, most importantly, now that commercial providers have demonstrated their ability to handle low-Earth orbit runs, the focus of NASA is being shifted toward sending people further.
The most telling aspect of this bill, however, is all of the things that are staying the same: propulsion systems development, atmospheric aircraft, radiotelescopes, probes and rovers, satellites. After more than a decade of diminishing funding and importance, NASA is being tasked with more and greater missions — but has been given no more funding. Taking inflation into account, their budget has actually decreased. They’re being asked to do more with less, which has become the new normal with science and the government.
“Returns on the Nation’s investments in science, technology, and exploration accrue over decades-long timeframes, and a disruption of such investments could prevent returns from being fully realized…”
– from Title II of the Act
There have been impressive announcements, massive statements, a star-studded signing ceremony, and in general a lot of self-congratulation over this bill. But, given the present lack of funding increases, the main impact of the new law is simple maintenance of present programs, which place the target date of the first manned mission to Mars some sixteen years in the future. This is not an announcement of the rebirth of the United States as a power in space exploration but rather the maintenance of our present structure, with a major focus being the preservation of past glories.
Right now, there is an average of two low-orbit launches a week, most done commercially. There are dozens of high-profit applications for this work, and even without national-level support it will continue indefinitely. None of this was imagined before the space race of the 50s and 60s; today, it’s tough to imagine a world without the benefits of orbital satellites, from telecommunications to GPS. Who among us can envision the potential benefits of solar exploration? What might they entail?
In order to reap the benefits of exploration, we must first invest — and we must not stint. At present there are at least four national projects designed to reach Mars during the next two decades, and of them, the United States has the least invested in practical effort.
Perhaps the best way forward is a global effort, a single international thrust toward exploration and discovery. Alternately, perhaps maintaining national competition will provide some much-needed impetus as well as parallel efforts which would continue if one or more should fail due to circumstance. Finally, even private commercial development of the option has its potential; four years ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk projected a self-funded permanent Martian colony that would run about a $40 billion price tag (not counting scientific development).
Whatever we choose, however, we need to commit to it not only our best minds and imaginations but our economic resources. We need to make this happen, if only because humanity, if forever bound to life on this one little rock, will be destined to die out in a comparatively short time. There will be no second option, no seeds for renewal and change and growth beyond our present physical boundaries, and accident or plague or industrial poison will eventually wipe us out.
Perhaps more importantly, we will have no framework for societal models beyond those of national and cultural borders we now possess, and there is no path forward for humanity unless we can learn to transcend those. We will simply remain humanity, ever flawed, just as we are now but turning ever inward as the years pass until, inevitably, as all things must, we will end.