At a recent public hearing of the White House panel reviewing human spaceflight options, while describing the findings, one member exclaimed: “This sounds terribly ambitious and dramatic,” referring to the recommendation that the goal of human spaceflight should be the establishment of human colonies on other solar system bodies. “But if that is not the goal of human spaceflight, what the hell are we doing?”
That was a good question, however, the conclusion drawn endorsed pure science fiction. Try convincing someone who has just had their house foreclosed, or has been trying to find a job for a year, that their tax dollars should be used to settle humans on another planet.
Having attended that hearing, there appeared to be little connection between what the panel was preparing to recommend and reality. The reality is that future NASA budgets — and, for the record, those proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama — after 2010 do not keep up with inflation. The panel may recommend increasing future budgets, but there is no assurance Congress will agree. History suggests it won’t. Those of us who were involved during the Apollo program remember that years before the first landing Congress decided that NASA budgets should be reduced. Since then, NASA’s appropriations have not kept up with needs.
Is there another important reality? In July the National Research Council released a report, “America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs,” that emphasized prioritizing NASA programs to address national needs. The priorities spelled out are: national security, clean and affordable energy, protecting the environment, education, global economic competitiveness and building a safer more sustainable world.
NASA programs, including human spaceflight, must demonstrate they support these needs. First priority should be fully utilizing the international space station (ISS). To do this requires that the space shuttle continues to fly until a suitable replacement exists, with emphasis on “suitable.” Supplier contract terminations and layoffs now under way must be stopped — immediately. The shuttle is the only means to keep the ISS fully functioning in the years ahead, especially if major repairs or maintenance are required.
Planning to return to the Moon, or send humans to Mars and beyond, do not qualify as “national needs.” Other NASA programs such as aeronautics research, which currently is allocated only 2 percent of the budget, must receive greater support. Pick your own programs that should be expanded but compete for funds in a constrained budget.
We have already witnessed the consequences of one unsustainable vision. Let us hope we won’t follow another.
St. Johns, Fla.