Photo: Hubble Space Telescope
Photo: CBR Online
What does the future of space exploration look like? What role will America, or more specifically the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), play in this future? How will this benefit humans here on the Earth? How much does it cost to fund NASA--and is it even worth it? Many senior Americans remember the feeling of triumph when they heard the famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But what has our space program produced since then? To begin to answer some of these questions, we should first look to NASA’s past.
Founded in 1958 by President Eisenhower, NASA is a government agency dedicated to the national space program as well as the research and development of air and space technologies. You heard that correctly: “air and space.” NASA develops and flies planes as well as rocketships. But the main focus has always been on the exploration of space, both physically and academically. The program enjoyed wild success and government funding, landing men on the moon only 11 years after its creation and receiving almost 5% of the U.S. budget at this time. The satellite program and journey to the moon had profound technological benefits for Earthlings as well as an increase in knowledge. To get to the moon we had to develop smaller, stronger computers, lighter, stronger material, and cheaper, more powerful fuel. Satellites provided new technologies we still rely on like GPS, improved communication, and global imaging.
While it may appear that NASA has not done much since that famous victory in 1969, a large amount of new technology has been developed thanks to NASA’s thirst for knowledge and exploration. From medical developments like heart monitors and new cancer treatments that use light to commercial technologies such as improved cameras, alloys resistant to incinerating temperatures, and developmental applications like water purification systems, NASA’s stellar quest has shown that astronauts aren’t the only ones who benefit from space exploration. As NASA’s funds gradually decreased, they opted to collaborate on a global scale for the sake of exploration. The construction of the International Space Station in 1998 demonstrated the ability of the space quest to unite differing countries in a global struggle against the confines of our naivety and the laws of physics. The ISS continues to carry out research in a unique environment that gives us insight into singular areas like the process of aging and robotics.
So if we’re still the preeminent space exploring nation, what are our plans? Well, there’s a lot, actually. NASA plans to have men on Mars by 2030 as a result of the Orion space program. While it may sound like science fiction, NASA is already moving into the testing stages for the new Space Launch System (SLS) designed to break the barriers of human space propulsion and carry the Orion space capsule to Mars, as well as new and improved space suits optimized for increased mobility. Before the Orion landing, NASA plans to land men on an asteroid near Earth as well as redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. But it doesn’t stop there.
Firstly, NASA currently relies on Russia to ferry researchers to the ISS in lieu of the once present shuttle program. However, increasingly tense relations with Russia as well as the decline of the Russian space program mean this might not be an option for long. NASA’s solution is the Commercial Crew Program, an innovative approach designed to replace Russia’s transporter role while stimulating the private space exploration sector. As part of the program NASA has set aside approximately $9 billion dollars in private contracts to budding aerospace companies like SpaceX and Boeing. The money will be used by the companies to build aerospace transportation systems under the careful guidance of NASA engineers and inspectors. The shuttles will then be required to transport NASA researchers to the ISS for a certain period of time. NASA gets the transportation they desperately need while also investing in the future of the commercial spaceflight industry--which could be the future of space exploration.
Research on the ISS will continue, as will unique developments precipitated by the unparalleled space environment. The use of the robotic arm on the ISS has evolved into a new method of robotic surgery that can deal with areas of the body requiring too much precision for human hands. Scientists on the station have also developed a new, more effective way to treat breast cancer by inserting small balloons full of chemotherapy fine-tuned in a way only possible without gravity. Recently, work replicating these results on the ground approaches the final stages of development. And we can’t forget that NASA works on air and space; NASA continues to develop faster, quieter airplanes and advanced safety equipment to keep the skies safe.
But all of this costs money, and that has not gone unnoticed by the government. NASA’s funding has continued to decrease as a percentage of the U.S. budget (down to 0.5%) and future funding is not guaranteed. Budget cuts have led to program cuts in some of the agency’s largest projects, like the shuttle program that carries U.S. researchers to the ISS, now retired. Amid all of this, the future of space exploration still looks relatively bright. Because of the size of the U.S economy and budget, 0.5% of the budget is still $19.3 billion--more than twice as much as any other space agency. To put our dominance in perspective in terms of accomplishments, to this day no other country has been to the moon. China has plans to land a rover on Mars in 2020 as the second country to successfully land a probe on the planet--something we have done 7 times.
From the evidence, it appears that the future of NASA looks very promising--that is, if funding continues. Hard economic times have led many American politicians to question the importance of space exploration when we have problems that need solving on the ground. However, NASA is likely to keep delivering solutions to those problems as they troubleshoot for the differing constraints of deep space exploration. Even if funding stops, NASA’s commitment to developing the private sector of deep space exploration means that the chase for space is likely to continue, even if NASA isn’t the forerunner.