Like any other space explorer, I like to think I have a pretty good imagination. I easily imagine other suns, other worlds, and yet-to-be-discovered physics.
But I never imagined, not for a moment, that I would so strongly disagree with two of the world’s heroes, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. As of this writing, these astronauts are opposed to key aspects of NASA’s new plan for space exploration. They, along with a few others, believe that the U.S. is ending its human (manned) space exploration. I cannot help but ask, have these opponents read the same documents that I have? Are we all talking about the same NASA?
The new plan strikes me as just that — new and inherently exciting. It’s focused on doing new things in space, developing new technology, making discoveries, and going where no one has gone before.
If you ask a group of adults why we continue to explore space from the international space station, a large fraction often can’t provide an especially good or compelling answer. If you ask a group of kids why we explore space, every hand will shoot up, and they’ll give you an earful. Each kid wants to be a discoverer, an explorer. We venture into space to make discoveries beyond the horizon. I imagine every reader of this publication feels, or certainly once felt, the same way.
Near as I can tell, some opponents of the new plan feel that the space shuttle program is a good one and should be continued now and for as long as needed. Some harbor the belief that using well-tested rockets made in Russia somehow gives the Russian space program an advantage over NASA. This will not be the first time U.S. rockets have not been able to take astronauts to the space station. After the Columbia shuttle crash, the U.S. relied on these same Russian rockets for more than two years. Meanwhile, it is clear that the shuttle is very expensive. Funding it is a drag on NASA’s budget, and NASA just cannot produce a new vehicle, if that’s what’s needed, while the shuttle is being funded.
Ask a group of people, kids or adults, to name the people orbiting the Earth right now on the space station, and few, if any, can name a single one of them. All told, over 500 people have flown in space. That’s not good or bad so much as just the way it is. The shuttle program sought to make space travel to low Earth orbit routine, and except for the two shuttle wrecks, it has. We need to send humans to exciting new destinations in space to rediscover the passion, beauty and joy of exploration.
As a charter member of the Planetary Society, steeped in the lore of Viking, Voyager, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, I deeply believe that robots do great things. Exploring space with these extensions of our senses has broadened our understanding of other worlds as well as our own. Imbuing these spacecraft with human characteristics and names helps us all appreciate them. But without humans along for the ride, the adventure isn’t quite the same. There are plenty of people seeking to work on robotic spacecraft. But that number would pale compared with the number who would apply to be the first human to Mars.
If we’re willing to take risks, shouldn’t we be risking our treasure and genius on discovering something new?
As I try to understand what motivates these extraordinary statements from these extraordinary men, I consider what we do agree on. I am pretty sure we agree that the shuttle program was canceled six years ago, during the previous president’s term. I believe we would agree that the Constellation program, which included the Ares 1 and 5 rockets along with an Orion space capsule, would not take anyone back to the Moon before 2020, or even 2025, some 50 years after the Apollo astronauts made the same voyage.
Would we agree that the Constellation program somehow got away from its managers? Would we agree that it was not going to accomplish much, while spending a lot of money? Would we agree we need a plan that will work?
While the current NASA administrator fights the good fight with some of the agency’s retired explorers, other nations’ space agencies are doing new things. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has deployed a solar sail as a part of a mission to Venus. The European Space Agency () is exploring a comet, the sort of object that could impact Earth. Saving the shuttle from retirement will hold us back. Let’s imagine new adventures instead.
Imagine NASA taking us on a new path. Imagine new journeys. Imagine NASA leading our world in space exploration, so that we all can appreciate and know our place in space.
Bill Nye is executive director (designate) of the Planetary Society.