Lunar dreams: Returning to the moon requires a lander spacecraft, but NASA has no money for one.
The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the most complex and expensive engineering projects ever undertaken. When it is completed in 2011, it will have cost nearly $100 billion. And then, just five years later, the space station will be destroyed when NASA deliberately takes it out of orbit and plunges it into Earth’s atmosphere.
That, at least, is NASA’s current plan. The agency would like to keep the station running, but funding for it is projected only through 2015, much to the consternation of researchers who are just beginning to use it and international partners who have invested billions of dollars in the project. Extending the life of the station would cost $2 billion to $3 billion a year. Even “deorbiting” it–dumping its remains safely into the ocean–will not be cheap, costing at least $2 billion.
The 2015 deadline means that after decades of largely directionless space policy, Congress will be forced to make at least one clear decision: it must allocate funds for either the space station’s continued operation or its destruction. And that is just one of a number of urgent issues facing the country’s human spaceflight program. The space shuttle is due to be retired by late 2010 or early 2011, leaving NASA without a means of sending astronauts anywhere for several years. And the key elements of NASA’s exploration program, the Ares I rocket that will launch astronauts into orbit and the Orion capsule that will ferry them around in space, are several years behind schedule.
In October, the Augustine Committee, a panel chartered by the White House and chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, issued its report on the future of space travel. The committee examined NASA’s plans and explored alternatives. Much of the report discussed the merits of different destinations in space and the rocket and spacecraft technologies that could be used to reach those destinations. But embedded in the report is a rationale for why there should be a human spaceflight program at all. “The Committee concluded that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system,” it states.
Over the years, NASA and space advocates have put forward many reasons to justify sending astronauts into space. They have garnered support by offering something for everybody, especially the military and scientific communities; scientific progress, strategic superiority, and international prestige have been foremost among the promised benefits. On closer inspection, though, these justifications don’t hold up or are no longer relevant. For example, robotic missions are increasingly capable of scientific work in space, and they cost far less than human crews. Satellites launched on expendable boosters allowed the United States to achieve strategic dominance in space. And Cold War motives disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Consequently, some have concluded that there is no longer any reason for human space exploration. A longtime critic of human spaceflight was the late James Van Allen, who in 1958 made the first major scientific discovery of the space age: the radiation belts around Earth that bear his name. In a 2004 essay, Van Allen wondered whether robotic spacecraft had made human spaceflight “obsolete.” “At the end of the day,” he wrote, “I ask myself whether the huge national commitment of technical talent to human spaceflight and the ever-present potential for the loss of precious human life are really justifiable.”
But for most of the engineers and astronauts involved in the space program, astronauts can never be rendered obsolete by robots, because human spaceflight is an end in itself. They share the committee’s belief that the purpose of these manned missions is to allow people to expand into, and ultimately settle, outer space.