What should be the next step for the U.S. space program?

NASA is delivering its fleet of space shuttles to various sites for public display. The retirement of the shuttles leaves the United States without a vehicle for sending people into space. Today’s Question: What should be the next step for the U.S. space program?

  • Doug Sherman

    It might be worth pointing out, since this is the end of the “space plane” era, that the idea of rocket-powered airplane that could fly into space, and glide back to Earth got its first serious start with the Boeing Dyna-Soar project. Boeing actually got most of the design work done and was to the point of building a prototype when it was canceled. This was 20 years before the Space Shuttle. Dyna-Soar may well have run into the same design problems as the shuttle, and ended up succumbing to the deadly kludge of the solid rocket boosters.

    As much as we try, it seems like multi-stage rockets are still the cheapest way to go. All the extra stuff to provide re-usability ends up costing even more than the expensive disposable hardware we were trying to do away with. It’s a disappointing outcome, but engineering is like that more often than the public realizes. “Breakthroughs” and “innovation” are great when you get them, but the laws of physics are brutal and irresistible, and the longer smart people have been working hard to find a breakthrough, the less likely it is that one exists.

    I hope we (mankind at least — the US is probably too old, poor, and risk-averse now) can continue some sort of manned space exploration, but I have real doubts about it. When they junk the ISS in 10 years or so, with nothing of significance to show for it other than to prove that it could be built, it will be hard to believe humans will ever muster everything it takes to back to space, much less to the Moon or Mars.

  • James

    Unfortunately, it’s time to turn off the lights on manned space flight.

    The moon is barren. Mars is too far away. Humans need too much room and support to spend more than a few months in space.

    It was really fun while it lasted. But it’s over.

  • Todd

    If you look back to the glory days of the US space program, it was realistically little more than a civilian arm of the military out to perform a one-upmanship against our adversary in the place of bombers or missiles. The program has obviously suffered in garnering support from both the public and lawmakers as it attempted to transition into a purely civilian agency like Commerce or Agriculture.

    Strange as it may seem, as a proponent of the space program I think the best chance to revive and secure the future of the space program is to remilitarize it. Reducing mlitary budgets is always a boogey-man in Washington. I would propose redirecting military spending into the space program and have it run by the military. This would allow us to reap the benefits of the technological advances that the program tends to bring with it, advance exploration, and act as a reservoir against the next time we feel the need to increase military spending – just flow those resources back from the space program. The space program was born out of national pride, and there its justification should remain.

  • Ann

    Get rid of the program. Some of us who are older and unemployed have nothing but poverty ahead. Doesn’t anyone have any fresh ideas? Everyone can’t go into the medical field!

  • Ann

    Get rid of the program. We need real jobs. Doesn’t anyone have any fresh ideas? Those of us who are older and unemployed have nothing but poverty ahead.Everyone can’t go into the medical field.

  • Ann

    I am sorry about the multiple postings. The computer message said that the first ones failed.

  • Jim G

    Whereas we as a species will eventually become extinct on this planet Earth, we propose using our incomplete knowledge and science to “seed” the nearby cosmos with the DNA of our living biomass. We could even include our own humble species. Maybe… just maybe this DNA will grow and flourish on other worlds. This space program could be called “ The Gift… pass it on.”

  • I think we should continue working towards a return to the moon.

    @Ann – huh? How would laying off rocket scientists create a job for you? A lot of the technology we enjoy everyday is because NASA discovered/developed it, and these products/innovations have gone on to create jobs for people around the world.

  • Marsha

    Send robots to Mars to plant Cannabis/hemp and a few of the other most utilitarian plants, fungi, microbes etc … to prepare for our arrival and colonization.

    Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere! – George Washington, First U.S. President

    The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. – Marcel Proust

    The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world. – Carl Sagan

    “The best hemp and the best tobacco grown on the same kind of soil. The former article is of first necessity to the commerce and marine, in other words to the wealth and protection of the country. The latter, never useful and sometimes pernicious, derives its estimation from caprice.”

    -Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. President, Jefferson’s journal entry / March 16, 1791

    “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s culture; especially a bread grain. next in value to bread, is oil.”

    – Thomas Jefferson Memorandum of Services to My Country, after 2 September 1800

    We shall, by and by, want a world of hemp more for our own consumption. – John Adams, 2nd U.S. President

    Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?

    – Henry Ford

  • Gary F

    If we are not going to explore space then shut the agency down.

    Remember folks, we don’t have any money. The government is borrowing millions from China every day.

    Use it or lose it.

  • Bill

    Promote global awareness of our vast resource in space and on Earth. Shortage of money is a farce. We need to end the prohibition of nature and legalize it lest we exploit the Earth and it’s inhabitants to our fattened/famished extinction.

    Simply legalize Cannabis/hemp, the world most utilitarian plant, and there will be most than enough resource to do all that we need and want to do (unless it’s at the expense of the people and the planet).

  • JasonB

    I think we are already taking that step with private development. The foreseeable future is to refine and improve the technologies we have, and let private entities find ways to do it cheaper, competitively, and productively. And of course as safely as possible.

    But as the first commenter alluded to we need a technological breakthrough to truly advance space exploration. But as he states “when you can get them”, it’s something you can’t easily plan on happening, and certainly not on a set time frame.

    It’s like that cartoon where a chalkboard shows a lengthy equation and in the middle it says ‘then a miracle happens’. We may yet discover that breakthrough, but for now it’s best to not hold our breaths.

  • georges

    And that, folks, is why we don’t let the weedheads run the planet.

  • George

    georges is a good example of conservative close-mindedness that ignores the root problem of cannabis prohibition.

    If weedheads and psychonauts ruled the world there’d be better cybernetic and eco-tech developments that would serve all beings, not just the 1% and their fattened and stupefied chattel.

  • Mark in Freeborn

    Instead of exploring outer space, what about changing the focus to preserving our home planet? There are far too many unsolved problems in THIS world, and I’d rather see resources spent on making human and other Earth-based lives better, longer, safer, and more productive. We won’t be getting a second chance.

  • @George – is Obama another “good example of conservative close-mindedness that ignores the root problem of cannabis prohibition?”

    And cultivating hemp on Mars would be difficult as the hemp crop requires a considerable amount of water, which Mars has in short supply. Hemp on Mars would require a colony of humans to tend it. While I think it’s great enthusiasm for hemp cultivation is growing, it needs to be grounded in facts. Maybe before we cultivate hemp on Mars, we should work to get it cultivated in America. Just a thought.

  • George

    @Drae – Obama is another example of bought RepubliCrat that misdirects the root problem of cannabis prohibition. “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our nation’s marijuana laws.” – Barack Obama, January 21, 2004 debate.

    And cultivating hemp on Mars would be possible in a controlled robotically managed environment, you’re not thinking possibility wise. And absolutely we should work to get it cultivated in America. Just do it.

  • George

    @Drae – Obama is another example of bought RepubliCrat that misdirects the root problem of cannabis prohibition. “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our nation’s marijuana laws.” – Barack Obama, January 21, 2004 debate.

    And cultivating hemp on Mars would be possible in a controlled robotically managed environment, you’re not thinking possibility wise. And absolutely we should work to get it cultivated in America. Just do it.

  • Greg

    I would love to see us as a nation begin manned space flights again. And not just to the moon (just aiming for a goal we reached 50 years ago isn’t aiming very high, it seems), but farther – mars perhaps? Perhaps even farther?

    I would love to see us dream again about the future, about all the possibilities the universe offers us, about what we can make of ourselves. I would love to see us curious and questing and questioning – able to look up out of our computer monitors and phones and miscellaneous gadgetry to see what’s out there in the real universe.

    The argument I’ve heard before, and have heard here as well, that space exploration doesn’t solve problems “here at home” seems silly to me. As though these things are mutually exclusive. As though dreaming of the stars won’t lead us to solutions for the earth. As though the science and engineering and knowledge developed won’t be applicable in other ways as well. How many technologies were invented on our way to the moon?

    Beyond the inevitable earthly applications of technologies developed on the way to space however, what we all gain is a bit of sated curiosity. Can we get there? What will be there when we arrive? What can we do with what we find? We will also find new things about which to be curious and more avenues of future exploration. Because if we as a species aren’t explorers and wanderers and wonderers, what are we?

    It seems to be that if we can find trillions of dollars to spend developing new and ever increasingly effective methods of slaughtering one another (sometimes, admittedly, with good reason), we can shake our communal piggy bank to find some cash to poke our heads out into the great beyond to see what’s out there and find perspective and wonder and awe in the universe.

  • David

    Outsource it. Then we can put this ridiculous idea of Mars and Moon colonies behind us once and for all. You have to be pretty delusional *cough Newt Gingrich* to think that would be a pragmatic idea. The Moon has no atmosphere, and Mar’s atmosphere could never ever be habitable by anything. It’s just too thin because Mars has no magnetic field (no magma core). Any atmosphere is constantly stripped away by solar winds. I think that would make it too radioactive too. That and it’s just to damn cold. Average temp on Mars is like -68C, makes Minnesota winters look outright balmy.

    Let competition drive the cost of putting satellites up there, and save funding for grants to do the same thing with people and laboratories (orbiting space stations) by competing public (i.e universities) and private sources until they can pay for themselves.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Legalizing cannabis won’t solve all of our problems, only the ones we’ve created by prohibiting it. The money we spend trying to enforce unenforcible laws and incarcerating harmless pot smokers would be better spent exploring space (or just about anything else, for that matter).

  • Steve the Cynic

    Space exploration is an excellent test case for the proposition that anything worth doing will be done by the Free Market. The idolatrous worshipers of the Invisible Hand hold as a religious tenet that anything the Free Market won’t do, anything requiring collective effort, amounts to the sin of socialism. Well, the Free Market won’t cure malaria, because it can’t make enough profit from it. Neither will the Free Market explore the universe for signs of alien life or colonize the galaxy in preparation for the day when our sun turns into a red giant and incinerates this planet.

  • @Steve the Cynic – nobody said cannabis legalization would solve all our problems.

    And I think you’re misrepresenting the Invisible Hand principle. In space program terms, the Invisible Hand created businesses out of advances in technology created by NASA, where NASA had no intention to create these businesses when they made these technological advances. The Invisible Hand has unintended consequences that benefit society despite selfish interests.

    Milton Friedman suggested there was an inverse Invisible Hand in public policy, and used the drug war as a prime example of negative unintended consequences. In this sense, your contention that ending prohibition would only solve the problems created by it isn’t quite true. For example, alcohol prohibition ended the practice of farmers making their own alcohol fuel from bio-waste, and thus made farmers dependent on petroleum – a problem that ending that prohibition didn’t solve. Ending cannabis prohibition could bring with it a host of beneficial consequences that solve problems you and I haven’t even considered.

  • GregH

    Develop the standards (legal, egnineering, social, spatial, etc.) for a private sector based space-faring system. Better to get that done now – before the cats are running loose in space and establishing “prior” rights under the current poorly defined system.

  • Steve the Cynic

    “….nobody said cannabis legalization would solve all our problems.”

    True, but the weedhead who appears to be repeatedly posting substantially the same comment here under a variety of names sure sounds like like that.

    As for the Invisible Hand, it’s a useful metaphor, as long as it’s just a metaphor. For lots of folks, though, it’s an ideology, bordering on a religion. When you regard something as a key to your happiness, the source of salvation, and the solution to all or most of the world’s problems, you are worshiping a god. GWB treated the Economy as a God when, in a time of national crisis, when historically the king would urge his subjects to “pray to your gods and offer whatever sacrifices they command,” he told us all to “Go shopping!” and called for tax cuts. Those who expect the Invisible Hand to cause Utopia to emerge soon after we adopt laissez faire capitalism are worshiping a false god (which is especially ironic, given that many of those folks share the Republican Party with evangelical conservatives).

    The metaphor of the Invisible Hand is useful for explaining how free markets tend to promote general prosperity. However, totally unregulated free markets also produce sweat shops and economic servitude for large numbers of people. And there are some things the free market simply won’t do, like find cures for diseases that mainly afflict poor folks who can’t pay, or send space probes to outer planets.

  • georges

    “…we can shake our communal piggy bank to find some cash to poke our heads out into the great beyond to see what’s out there and find perspective and wonder and awe in the universe.”

    Ahhhh, spoken like a true Statist.

    A Statist believes all wealth, all power, belongs to the Central Government.

    There is no “communal piggy bank”. You have your piggy bank, I have mine, and never shall they be co-mingled.

    You want to sate your curiosity about what is out in the Great Beyond of Space? Then grow your Piggy Bank to the point you can set sail and find out. Or, convince some private business to finance your enterprise. But don’t try to force me to pay for your bicurious Dreaming.

    The USA space programs have wasted Trillions of middle class taxpayer dollars. A very expensive entertainment for Florida geezers. And any others who live vicariously through the money of others.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Hey, georges, don’t try playing any team sports. That kind of radical individualism tends to get in the way.

  • @Steve the Cynic –

    “When you regard something as … the solution to all or most of the world’s problems, you are worshiping a god.”

    But when it comes to cannabis, there is good reason for its supporters to have this passionate regard. However, this thread is supposed to be about the space program, so I won’t write that defense here. Maybe at my blog in the future.

    Don’t private aerospace companies disprove your assertion there is no private investment in space exploration?

  • the Invisible Hand

    @Steve the Cynic and other duped dopes.

    “….nobody said cannabis legalization would solve all our problems.”

    but of course it will solve plenty:


    Popular Mechanics

    February, 1938

    Note: There was so little public attention and notice to the need for a ban on marijuana, or the resulting legislation (Marihuana Tax Act of 1937), that the editors apparently did not realize that it had already been outlawed when they published this article.

    AMERICAN farmers are promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine has been invented which solves a problem more than 6,000 years old. It is hemp, a crop that will not compete with other American products.

    Instead, it will displace imports of raw material and manufactured products produced by underpaid coolie and peasant labor and it will provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughout the land.

    The machine which makes this possible is designed for removing the fiber-bearing cortex from the rest of the stalk, making hemp fiber available for use without a prohibitive amount of human labor. Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products, ranging from rope to fine laces, and the woody “hurds” remaining after the fiber has been removed contain more than seventy-seven per cent cellulose, and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.

    Machines now in service in Texas, Illinois, Minnesota and other states are producing fiber at a manufacturing cost of half a cent a pound, and are finding a profitable market for the rest of the stalk. Machine operators are making a good profit in competition with coolie-produced foreign fiber while paying farmers fifteen dollars a ton for hemp as it comes from the field.

    From the farmers’ point of view, hemp is an easy crop to grow and will yield from three to six tons per acre on any land that will grow corn, wheat, or oats. It has a short growing season, so that it can be planted after other crops are in. It can be grown in any state of the union. The long roots penetrate and break the soil to leave it in perfect condition for the next year’s crop. The dense shock of leaves, eight to twelve feet above the ground, chokes out weeds. Two successive crops are enough to reclaim land that has been abandoned because of Canadian thistles or quack grass.

    Under old methods, hemp was cut and allowed to lie in the fields for weeks until it “retted” enough so the fibers could be pulled off by hand. Retting is simply rotting as a result of dew, rain and bacterial action. Machines were developed to separate the fibers mechanically after retting was complete, but the cost was high, the loss of fiber great, and the quality of fiber comparatively low.

    With the new machine, known as a decorticator, hemp is cut with a slightly modified grain binder. It is delivered to the machine where an automatic chain conveyor feeds it to the breaking arms at the rate of two or three tons per hour. The hurds are broken into fine pieces which drop into the hopper, from where they are delivered by blower to a baler or to truck or freight car for loose shipment. The fiber comes from the other end of the machine, ready for baling.

    From this point on almost anything can happen. The raw fiber can be used to produce strong twine or rope, woven into burlap, used for carpet warp or linoleum backing or it may be bleached and refined, with resinous by-products of high commercial value. It can, in fact, be used to replace the foreign fibers which now flood our markets.

    Thousands of tons of hemp hurds are used every year by one large powder company for the manufacture of dynamite and TNT. A large paper company, which has been paying more than a million dollars a year in duties on foreign-made cigarette papers, now is manufacturing these papers from American hemp grown in Minnesota. A new factory in Illinois is producing fine bond papers from hemp. The natural materials in hemp make it an economical source of pulp for any grade of paper manufactured, and the high percentage of alpha cellulose promises an unlimited supply of raw material for the thousands of cellulose products our chemists have developed.

    It is generally believed that all linen is produced from flax. Actually, the majority comes from hemp–authorities estimate that more than half of our imported linen fabrics are manufactured from hemp fiber. Another misconception is that burlap is made from hemp. Actually, its source is usually jute, and practically all of the burlap we use is woven by laborers in India who receive only four cents a day. Binder twine is usually made from sisal which comes from Yucatan and East Africa.

    All of these products, now imported, can be produced from home- grown hemp. Fish nets, bow strings, canvas, strong rope, overalls, damask tablecloths, fine linen garments, towels, bed linen and thousands of other everyday items can be grown on American farms.

    Our imports of foreign fabrics and fibers average about $200,000,000 per year; in raw fibers alone we imported over $50,000,000 in the first six months of 1937. All of this income can be made available for Americans.

    The paper industry offers even greater possibilities. As an industry it amounts to over $1,000,000,000 a year, and of that eighty per cent is imported. But hemp will produce every grade of paper, and government figures estimate that 10,000 acres devoted to hemp will produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of average pulp land.

    One obstacle in the onward march of hemp is the reluctance of farmers to try new crops. The problem is complicated by the need for proper equipment a reasonable distance from the farm. The machine cannot be operated profitably unless there is enough acreage within driving range and farmers cannot find a profitable market unless there is machinery to handle the crop. Another obstacle is that the blossom of the female hemp plant contains marijuana, a narcotic, and it is impossible to grow hemp without producing the blossom. Federal regulations now being drawn up require registration of hemp growers, and tentative proposals for preventing narcotic production are rather stringent.

    However, the connection of hemp as a crop and marijuana seems to be exaggerated. The drug is usually produced from wild hemp or locoweed which can be found on vacant lots and along railroad tracks in every state. If federal regulations can be drawn to protect the public without preventing the legitimate culture of hemp, this new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry.

    “Popular Mechanics Magazine” can furnish the name and address of the maker of, or dealer in, any article described in its pages. If you wish this information, write to the Bureau of Information, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope.


    “Weedheads” are simply the most vocal as they are seeing the need to rectify the injustice. Psychonauts simply work quietly prepping the world for what’s to come. Speaking on psychedelics (entheogens), Jobs said, “Doing LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” Beautiful tech followed, Jobs was but a neophyte. More people and nations need to catch up, and ending Cannabis/hemp Prohibition is an essential step here on Earth making way for true Space (Inner and Outer, for they are inseparable) Exploration. Something that, for most, is beyond what can be possibly imagined within the box of the prohibition of nature. “Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.” – Abraham Lincoln

  • @the Invisible Hand – better yet:

    “The smuggler … is a person who, though no doubt blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.”

    -Adam Smith


  • georges

    I think we can get Obama to issue an Executive Order providing for a daily dose of LSD to be distributed to the weedheads of the nation, at taxpayer expense, of course.

    So they can, you know, explore inner and outer space, and invent the beautiful technology that will propel us forward into the Great Beyond.

  • Timothy

    @georges I like that idea, however the “expense” of true space exploration is considerably less than you’d think.

  • *

    Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Human Enterprise. It’s ONGOING mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no ONE has gone before.

  • ?

    @* I wonder if “Mind” would be more appropriate than “Enterprise”.

    Perhaps … well, have you heard, “In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network’s mind there are no limits. However, that while there are no absolute limits in the province of the mind there are real and definite limits in the province of the body.” – Dr. John C. Lilly, M.D. ??