NASA may have a future lost in space (or left at the launch pad) as Congressional debate about where the space agency should take its manned exploration program has become increasingly heated of late. On Tuesday, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on the future of NASA, which drew some very heated opinions from both sides.
Right now, there is one official mission for NASA: fly to Mars by the mid 2030s. However, earlier this year, President Obama’s budget request for 2014 allotted money for a mission wherein NASA would capture an asteroid, tow it into Earth orbit, and use it as a training ground for the Mars mission. Some members of the committee called this plan a “detour” from the Mars mission.
If that weren’t enough fodder for debate, some other lawmakers are still convinced that a Moon base, originally proposed by then-President Bush in 2004 (and then killed by President Obama in 2010), is the best way to train for life on another world.
So, what’s NASA to do?
Earlier this year, a study conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) concerning NASA, and more specifically, the space agency’s future, came to a troubling, though not unexpected conclusion. The consensus: NASA has lost its direction, chiefly because of disagreement over goals, which then trickles down into budgeting and other practical considerations.
This fact was clearly borne out by Tuesday’s hearing.
Ever since America became a space-faring nation in 1958, there has always been a clear plan for the future on the proverbial drawing board. Right from the get-go, America had big plans in regards to space exploration with 3 successive programs. Project Mercury was designed to merely prove that men could survive and operate in space, Gemimi was intended to test the feasibility of extended spaceflight, and of course, Apollo was to place a men on the Moon. Then, even as Apollo was winding down (and interest in space was beginning to wane), NASA had simultaneous plans on the drawing board for the coming decades. First to become reality was Skylab, which pushed the concept of long-term spaceflight to the limit. Also on the drawing board was the successor of Skylab, the space shuttle, which was to become America’s longest-lasting manned spaceflight program.
Unfortunately, unlike in the past, new presidents today often mean complete overhauls of policy, space exploration being no exception.
Within a year of coming into office, President Obama decided to kill the Constellation Program, begun by President George W. Bush, with a new program focusing on a more ambitious goal of sending astronauts to asteroid and then to Mars. Result: all of the money, time, and effort spent on Constellation might as well have been wasted. In light of this week’s hearing, it now appears that NASA may not have a set future in space even with Obama in office through 2016 and then, who’s to say that the next president won’t decide to pull the plug on the Obama Administration’s space policy and decide to take America on yet another avenue in regards to exploring the final frontier?
Bottom line: there is a good chance that future space policy will change with occupants of the White House or even with the whims of Congress.
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