Soon after the explosion that crippled the Odyssey spacecraft during the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970, Mission Control sent Commander Jim Lovell an order to close some circuits in an effort to stem the loss of oxygen leaking from the ship. At that moment, Lovell knew the larger meaning of the order: no lunar landing. “We just lost the moon,” he told his crew.
Decades later, America’s space program finds itself in the economic equivalent of Lovell’s sitauation. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget released on Feb. 1 flatlines most of NASA’s line items, and axes the costly, controversial Constellation program, which was to have taken man back to the moon on or about 2020.
With just four flights remaining in the antiquated, nearly 30-year old space shuttle program, the path to “Star Trek’s” final frontier is unclear. American astronauts will still “boldly go” into space, sort of, but answers to the questions “when” and “where” may remain obscure.
Space program backers, including many federal legislators and advocacy groups, such as the National Space Society, say that sidelining manned spaceflight means surrendering our position as the world’s leader in space to the Russians. It also risks the loss of a uniquely skilled and educated workforce, according to Congressman Ralph Hall (R-Texas).
Indeed, job losses in Florida following the last shuttle mission could affect up to 7,000 positions. Many personnel that previously prepped and launched shuttles, who hoped to retool and do similar work for the Constellation program’s Orion capsule and Ares launch vehicles, will likely be pink slipped.
Congressman Pete Olson (R-Texas), whose district includes Houston’s Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control, blasted the Obama proposals, pointing to the administration’s $787 stimulus bill that he said is “wasteful” and “sent billions to Obama’s supporters,” while doing next to nothing to create jobs.
Others, such as Marty Hauser, VP of the Washington-based Space Foundation, are trying to focus on the positives, saying that NASA’s plans to outsource space flight to both other governments (i.e. Russia’s) and private companies have the potential to generate private sector jobs. Whether that proves a boon to entrepreneurs such as Virgin’s Richard Branson and others, remains to be seen.
Gone for the foreseeable future: lunar landers and moon bases in favor of developing “heavy-lift” vehicles that could carry humans and robots further into space, perhaps to Mars. Those vehicles, however, are at least a decade away. In the interim, the White House will direct NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to focus on monitoring climate change and researching technology for future exploration of asteroids and the inner solar system.
The space agency had hoped for an extra $5 billion over five years to develop commercial vehicles that could transport men and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The Obama budget shows NASA will get a modest boost in that area, but not what officials had expected. The White House indicated it plans to extend participation in the ISS until at least 2020, and will make more money available to private companies to make rockets and a new spaceship that can send our astronauts there. That funding, however, looks to be much less than what was recommended to the White House by a panel of space experts in 2009.
Congress managed to save Constellation in last fiscal year’s budget, but may have a harder time doing so this year in light of disclosures from many of the project’s contractors, who have been quietly expecting the end of the program anyway. The Ares launch vehicle alone has already consumed $3 billion, the rest of the program another $5 billion, and is years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.
Proponents of the president’s budget say that our focus should be on Planet Earth. They advocate spending more on immediate needs, such as healthcare, and cite the heavy costs associated with our “war on terror” in parts of the Middle East, as well as the economic burden being posed by the current recession.
Opponents of the new NASA “direction” argue that during the height of “space race” in the 1960s and ‘70s, the U.S. endured at least two recessions and spent boatloads of money on Vietnam, while at the same time establishing the infrastructure for the space program we still use now.
Nonetheless, the president’s supporters respond that we’re not under the mandate set forth by President John F. Kennedy that had us racing the Soviets to the moon, and the recessions of those years don’t compare to the one in which we currently find ourselves.
In any case, “Star Trek” may have made it look neat and easy, but it’s not. Space exploration is, and has historically been, expensive. Keep in mind that development of the lunar module — the vehicle used to actually land Apollo astronauts on the moon — cost $11 billion … and that was in 1960s dollars.
Critics of manned spaceflight are already using the Obama budget plan to set a trajectory for what they say are more cost-effective unmanned programs, renewing the point that manned spaceflight is too dangerous. The U.S. has lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire, and 14 shuttle astronauts in the Columbia and Challenger accidents.
So, where does that leave us? Mars, perhaps, but it’s likely many of us won’t see a manned mission in our lifetime. Much of the technology needed to successfully send a crew there and back is still being created. While the Constellation program may not be entirely dead, powerful lawmakers, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), whose state includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, may be in for a fight to get it off life support. An Obama administration insider said the president’s new budget sends a clear signal that members of Congress shouldn’t count on NASA to “design space programs to create jobs in their districts.”
Meanwhile, the once busy lunar surface, site of so much activity between July 1969 and December 1972, has not been visited by people from Earth in almost 40 years. And for better or worse, when the final shuttle mission blasts off this coming September, a major chapter in U.S. manned spaceflight history will end, and the man in the moon may have to get used to being lonely a while longer.