Entries Tagged as 'NASA'

Who Supports Government Space Programs?

January 2nd, 2012 at 5:56 pm 16 Comments

After quoting from a speech where a Republican presidential candidate praises the space program, Mark Palko writes:

I [Palko] don’t know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn’t that detailed) but I’d imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you’d probably come up with something like the manned space program. Click here to read more

NASA’s New Rocket Won’t Reach New Frontiers

September 16th, 2011 at 1:35 am 12 Comments

There’s been lots of news about space exploration lately, but it has little to do with spacecraft flying anywhere. Rather, there’s much legislative maneuvering and political bickering about spacecraft that may never get built or launched.

NASA just unveiled its design for a powerful rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, which may bring— if adequate funding and any definite missions materialize — astronauts to explore asteroids or Mars.

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The Man Who Beat America to Space

April 12th, 2011 at 12:29 pm 3 Comments

50 years ago today, Moscow state radio announced that Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the first man to journey into outer space. But his odyssey didn’t end when he returned from space.  On earth, Soviet authorities turned him into a potent propaganda symbol.

Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth was incorporated as the third pillar of Soviet propaganda alongside the October Revolution and the defeat of fascist Germany.  His voyage was especially useful for Nikita Khrushchev who had initiated the “de-Stalinization” process in a secret speech back in 1956. Gagarin’s accomplishment gave new impetus to Khrushchev’s revamp of the Soviet Union, which had been marked by terror, world wars, a messianic personality cult and was unsure of its future.

Gagarin’s flight also enabled Moscow to fill the spiritual vacuum which the suppression of Christian orthodoxy had opened up. Gagarin’s journey was treated as mysterious, surreal, yet also inspiring. Khrushchev boasted that Gagarin’s exploration of space made “mankind’s greatest wish” come true.

Apart from the personality cult built around Gagarin, the Soviet intelligentsia also used the event to make claims of Soviet technical dominance. To help spread this message of supposed technological superiority, Gagarin and his fellow cosmonaut Gherman Titov were named envoys of “Soviet society” and sent to spread a message of “mir” (peace) and “drushba” (friendship) abroad.

Back home, the authorities made much of Gagarin’s modest background: highlighting the fact that his father was a simple kolkhoznik (a member of a state-owned collective farm) who had survived the Nazi invasion.

Gagarin was seen to represent the thousands of technical students across the Soviet Union, who aspired to work in the aeronautical industry. The state used him as an iconic hero of the Soviet generation, who as Nikolai Kamanin (head of the committee which handpicked Gagarin to be first in space) noted “must accomplish superhuman tasks yet be able to identify with the common folk.”

Yuri Gagarin’s legacy lives to this day and is further fuelled by the conspiracy theories which arose after his sudden and mysterious death in 1968. He’s still seen by many Russians as the man who beat the Americans to space. And over time, his popularity hasn’t diminished, often manifesting itself in ridiculous ways.  In 1998, the Russian duma prohibited the screening of the blockbuster Hollywood flick Armageddon for allegedly demeaning Gagarin’s image.


NASA Budget Grounds Space Probes

March 10th, 2011 at 8:00 am 8 Comments

For decades, there was debate among space exploration proponents about the relative merits of manned versus unmanned missions. Enthusiasts of sending astronauts argued that manned missions captured the public imagination in a way that robotic probes never could, besides serving the grand purpose of building a human future in space.

Space probe proponents, including many scientists, emphasized the lower costs and far greater scientific payoff of robotic missions. They also noted the daunting difficulty of sending humans to Mars, let alone to the outer solar system where probes already travel.

The debate is now effectively over, and both sides have lost. A cherished notion long held by many probe advocates — that cutting back human space exploration would free up money for the robotic version — turns out to have little practical meaning.

NASA’s manned space program is under much-noted budget pressure. The space shuttle fleet is winding down to its final missions, plans for a human return to the moon have been scrapped and it is unclear what combination of governmental and private-sector activities will enable human access to orbit in the coming years, or how successful such efforts will be.

The robotic space program, meanwhile, also faces a future of fiscal squeezes, political uncertainty and diminished expectations. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal foresees NASA’s annual planetary science funding dropping from its current $1.36 billion to less than $1.2 billion in 2016. The Obama 2011 budget had projected the figure to rise to $1.6 billion by 2016.

Congressional Republicans show little interest in defending robotic space exploration. Rather, their focus has been on cutting NASA’s budget overall (and, with particular zest, slashing Earth climate science) or, among NASA defenders (often based in states such as Texas and Florida with large NASA facilities), on preserving funding for manned space missions. Space probes don’t show up as vividly on the political radar.

The National Research Council, which advises the government on science policy, just released a report setting priorities in planetary exploration. The report raised the possibility that NASA may need to scrap one or both of its “flagship” missions: the Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher, (MAX-C), aimed at determining the Red Planet’s past or present suitability for life; and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO), focused on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which evidently has an ocean beneath its icy surface and thus too is a candidate for possible life.

Of course, times are tough all over and space probes cost money. Before taking the budget ax to robotic space exploration, though, consider how much it costs and what it achieves. Planetary science accounts for less than 10 percent of NASA’s budget, which in turn accounts for about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. For every $100 in federal spending, NASA gets about two quarters, and puts less than a nickel into space probes.

Until a few decades ago, humans knew little about the rest of the solar system. Now we have a wealth of data and images from Mercury to Neptune. The Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977 for a tour of the outer planets, is still returning data from the edge of the solar system. Beginning with the Viking missions in 1976, we have been getting information directly from the surface of Mars, a place once relegated to science fiction. Probes have physically touched Jupiter’s atmosphere and Saturn’s moon Titan, among other celestial sites.

Gaining such knowledge and up-close pictures of our cosmic environs is unprecedented in history. Besides being enlightening, it provides practical benefits, such as technological advances (as when digital image processing for probes helped give rise to CAT scans) and insights into Earth science (as when Venus’ greenhouse effect raised questions about our own). Furthermore, robotic space probes are vital for building human capital. What kind of scientific and technological workforce would the U.S. have without the educational tools and interest in science generated by planetary exploration?

Don’t let space probes get crushed in Washington’s gravitational field.