Spaced out

Recently, three Apollo-era astronauts, including the first man to walk on the Moon, attacked the new program of space exploration proposed by the Obama administration.  They contend that terminating the Constellation program to build a new rocket for carrying Americans into space is wrong, and that the proposed reliance on private space companies to send astronauts into space is flawed and unworkable.

The United States is on the brink of an abyss, a time when there is no American spacecraft to carry our astronauts to their work.  This happened before, during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, between the Apollo spacecraft and the space shuttle.  The space shuttle is being grounded, because NASA does not have enough money to fly it and to do anything else.  The costs have not increased, the money that Congress gives the agency every year has stagnated, and inflation has reduced the ability of the dollars to buy what they used to.

When President Bush announced the Constellation program, it was expected that the new rocket would be ready by 2015, so there would only be a 4 year gap in our space faring ability.  But, because of the new kind of rocket that is to be used in the Constellation program, delays have mounted, and the earliest that it would carry people into orbit had been pushed back to 2018.  Plus, the capsule that was supposed to ride the new rocket into space, the Orion, had been too heavy to begin with, and so the number of people it was supposed to carry shrank from 5 to 3.

The Constellation program had become so expensive that NASA was considering shutting down the International Space Station 5 years early to free up money for Constellation, something which our partners in the space station were not likely to agree to.  NASA was proposing to build a rocket that would have nowhere to go, at least until the year 2020, when a new, larger rocket was supposed to make it possible for people to go to the Moon.  But there had been no money in the budget for developing the equipment needed to explore the Moon, so we would again have a rocket with nowhere to go.

What the three Apollo astronauts did not say was that we are not spending enough on space exploration.  They avoided mentioning budgets, and focused on prestige and scientific standing.  But the sad fact is that we are losing our ability to go into space, unless we reconsider the decision to stop flying the space shuttle.  The Constellation program would not have solved that problem, because there would still have been nowhere to send the rockets once they were finally built.  Our current budget for manned space exploration, including development of new spacecraft, is about 7 billion dollars.  We could double that amount and still not approach what we spend on the War on Drugs, for instance.

Without space, the prospects for the human race are bleak, because we will be trapped in a petri dish, stuck in a closed system, more and more of us competing for a finite amount of resources.  Without space, our consumption of energy will eventually destroy our environment.  Without space, the pie that everyone wants a bigger piece of cannot grow.

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