The Space Shuttle Program will come to its official end with the landing of Atlantis on July 21. In 2010, US President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation Program (another moon visit), so after many years and nearly $200 billion in funding, manned NASA space explorations have been halted into the foreseeable future. The only main planned events for NASA in the coming years will be a satellite orbiting Pluto (in four years) and a new Mars Explorer launching next year – but will that quench our thirst for knowledge of the great beyond?
As we all know, the US is in a bit of financial difficulty and is currently trying to approve an increase in their $14.3 trillion US debt ceiling by August 2, 2011. This, obviously, makes it very tricky to approve funding for space exploration. Over the past 30 years, the space shuttle program has cost the US government nearly $196 billion – at about $450 million per mission (on average as of 2011).
Many people in the US find the space program to be a frivolous cost to the nation. But if you really get down to dollars and cents, the US government spent about $145 billion on Medicare over the past six months alone. And in the grand scheme of things, NASA is 0.4 per cent of the US national budget, while the military budget is 35 per cent. The question is, what’s more important?
Yes, health care is extremely important and so money should be spent on that, but the Space Program has also contributed many health innovations, as well as everyday innovations. If it weren’t for the Space Program we would not have programmable smoke detectors, microwaves, water filters, memory foam, invisible braces, etc. And probably the biggest impact the Space Program has had on life as we know it is in the area of computers. Fifty years ago a single computer filled an entire room. The need for everything to be much smaller and compact for space travel has led to the development of the computer chip, which can be found in almost everything, from personal computers to cars, ovens, clocks, washing machines, DVD players, etc.
Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on space development, $7 has been returned to the US economy in the form of a new product or service. Does the military have that return on investment? And how much has the War in Iraq cost – besides the unnecessary deaths of many soldiers? I personally believe the Space Program is much more important and much less destructive.
The cutting of NASA funding for manned space exploration also comes because public interest has declined massively over the past few decades. During the “Space Race”, where the US was up against the Soviets to put the first man on the moon, Americans all over the country were glued to their televisions and radios to hear NASA updates. And the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong walking on the surface, is considered to be one of the top moments in human history. I wasn’t around to witness this myself, but everyone who was remembers where they were at that very moment. Since the US reached their goal of “…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” (President Kennedy), public interest has dropped off.
What has taken over as the new “Space Race” is the competition between India and China. China even plans to have a mission to the moon by 2025. And though the US may not be as supportive of NASA space explorations as it has in the past, private business has taken quite the interest in the undertaking. Virgin Galactic, a company within Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflights to to anyone who has the money, along with suborbital space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites. Will this fulfill the research component? NASA did sign a memorandum of understanding to explore the potential for collaboration in February of 2007.
Apollo 11 landed on the moon 42 years ago to the day Atlantis makes its landing back on earth, so as of the 21st we’ll all have to focus on the China-India Space Race and the commercial outer space flights for our manned astronomical urges.
If the program kicks back into high gear, what will be next? A manned trip to Mars would be the next logical step for research, return on investment and to increase public interest to the levels they were the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon – but when will that be?
What are your thoughts on the final shuttle mission? If you had the money would you take a ride on Virgin Galactic? Do you believe the US government should continue to fund manned space exploration? Or do you feel it’s only necessary until we reach Mars?