A frontier too far

Coverage of President Obama’s dead-on-arrival budget will, no doubt, focus on the issue of taxes on the wealthy, but it also defines other aspects of a vision for the nation.

Mars isn’t in it.

According to CBS News:

The president proposed cutting $309 million for studying planets this year, with more cuts in future years. After an already mostly built Mars mission in 2013, future journeys to the red planet are eliminated, put on hold or restructured. While the study of planets would be sliced 21 percent, spending for the overall budget and long delayed James Webb Space Telescope would increase 21 percent. The telescope which may cost $8 billion is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and would peer further into the universe and back in time than ever.

Which brings up the obvious question: What’s the point of looking into space — time, if you will — if we’re no longer interested in exploring what’s out there?

Obama wants to double the amount of money for private firms to develop “space taxis” to take people to the International Space Station, but at some point, doesn’t a space program have to involve more than going around and around in a circle?

The budget tends to prove Minnesota native Paul Dye’s comments to me the last time we talked about his role at NASA. Humans will mostly certainly go out into space to see what’s there. They probably won’t wear an American flag on their spacesuits, however.

This is not to say the United States of America is going to be the one to lead that charge. Just as British Empire tapered off and the Roman Empire tapered off, sooner or later almost all human institutions end, but that does not end what humankind does.

I’m a student of history and… a lot of folks have said recently, “why are we still messing around in lower earth orbit? We just keep going exactly where we’ve been for a long time.” It took the early exploration cultures — let’s go with the Portuguese — it took them quite awhile sailing around near coastal areas before they developed the technology to just leave land behind and head out into the deep blue. And to a certain extent that’s what we’ve been doing in lower Earth orbit.

There is still money for developing the Orion crew capsule, which could be used is the U.S. decides to re-engage in space exploration when it is ready in the next decade.

It was originally scheduled to fly in 2014. That won’t happen.

  • BenCh

    To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The first human to set foot on Mars has already been born, and they are Chinese.”

    America is very rapidly declining in scientific importance and advancement. I remember hearing (I think also from Tyson) that the ENTIRE budget for NASA throughout its entire existence still doesn’t add up to one year of going to war in Iraq. I wish I had the figures to back it up, but I am sure they are out there.

  • JackU

    it took them quite awhile sailing around near coastal areas before they developed the technology to just leave land behind and head out into the deep blue.

    From what I’ve learned in the last couple of months researching some of that technology, the big thing was that they needed to develop the guts to go out into the open ocean as well. I suspect it will require political leadership that sees that exploration as a good thing and explorers that want to go no matter what the risks.

  • John P.

    I have yet to hear a clear vision of why we want to go to Mars. What do we want to do that can’t be done with a probe? Learning is a great joy in itself, but when the money is short I would rather see it go to projects on our home planet.

  • Jim Shapiro

    BenCh – Yup, the figures are there, and they’re interesting.

    ($790 billion adjusted for inflation, entire history of NASA (OMB). Total cost thus far, Iraq and Afghanistan wars: $4 trillion ( Brown University study)

    But think of all the good things that came from the war in Iraq!

    And we’re all Chinese now! (The Tibetans can tell you how great THAT is.)

  • John P II

    According to the CBS article, it’s a .3% decrease in funding for NASA and much of the spending continues a trend shifting from current space missions to developing the next generation of rockets and capsules for flights out of Earth’s orbit to an asteroid or even to Mars.

    My takeaway was that Obama wants to transition the shuttle and lower orbit flights to the private sector and get NASA focused on building the kind of rocket that could take us to Mars and beyond (the Space Launch System.) Doesn’t sound like someone content to look through a telescope to me.

  • Tyler

    Read up on SpaceX – they are something that could not happen in China, and if the promises come true, will be flinging things into orbit for the cheapest cost ever. Cheap rockets = far more trips and far more materials put up into space.

    SpaceX has turned rocket science into rocket engineering, and Elon Musk (SpaceX founder) claims to have a design for a Mars-oriented heavy lift rocket. My fingers and toes are crossed for him and his company!