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  • Grappling With a New Space Era
    Posted by Joe Anselmo 3:04 PM on Apr 12, 2012

    In 1981, during the space shuttle’s maiden voyage, co-pilot Robert Crippen proclaimed, “We are really in the space business to stay.” Another veteran astronaut, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently made a similar pronouncement, but under quite different circumstances.In a speech to the Aero Club of Washington, Bolden boasted that the International Space Station has been continuously manned for nearly a dozen years. But with the shuttle recently retired, the U.S. is forced to rely on Russia to carry astronaut crews to orbit. Soon, Bolden hopes, entrepreneurial private companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will step in with seed money and launch contracts from the government.

    It is hard to look at NASA and not feel disgust about what has happened to the agency’s human spaceflight program‹and how little has been accomplished since Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon more than 40 years ago. The shuttle and space station were supposed to be stepping stones to landing humans on Mars. The sad reality is that NASA cannot even launch astronauts into low Earth orbit anymore -- and China can.

    But is it misguided to see that as a symbol of American decline, rather than a re-alignment of priorities?  “I’ve heard many people say that NASA is out of business, because they equate human spaceflight as the only thing that NASA does,” says Roger D. Launius, the senior curator for space history at the Smithsonian Institution¹s National Air and Space Museum. “That¹s where the problem lies.”

    The retirement of the shuttle has led to a lot of hand wringing, but the reality is that public support for the space program has been a mile wide and an inch deep for a long time. Policymakers are inspired by the vision, but not enough to pay for it. Three years ago, a commission led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine concluded that Constellation, a post-shuttle effort to develop boosters and spacecraft to take astronauts back to the Moon, was underfunded by $15 billion. Proposals to find extra money were dead on arrival, and soon after, so was Constellation.

    The challenge is not unique to NASA. A recent report by Euro- consult, an international space research firm, finds that global funding for space programs has reached a plateau of $70 billion annually. It sees investment declining during the next 3-5 years as the U.S., Europe, Japan and Canada grapple with budget pressures and “the need to define a coherent long term strategy for their space programs.”

    To be sure, outsourcing the job of launching astronauts to private companies is fraught with risk. SpaceX may have proven it can return a spacecraft from orbit, but safely transporting humans to space takes things to a whole new level. Given budget constraints, however, there may be no other choice. “We have to figure out a way to fly humans into space in a more cost-affordable way,” says Lanius. “If we can¹t, we¹re probably not going to do it.”

    Tags: os99, AWCOL, space12

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