The United States Senate approved an amendment to the 2011 FAA authorization bill that spared NASA for the time being from the spending cuts that are sure to be debated in this new session of Congress.[i] This bodes well for the future of NASA as it prepares to develop a replacement for the aging space shuttle, among other programs. NASA’s budget was actually increased last year through legislation pushed by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), whose state is the home of Cape Canaveral, the launch site for NASA vehicles[ii].
An American company, ATK, and a European company, Astrium, have put forth a proposal for a two-stage Liberty rocket that combines technology from the shuttle’s boosters and the European Ariane 5 rocket.[iii] The space shuttle program is due to retire in a few months, so NASA is seeking a replacement vehicle to launch astronauts to the International Space Station and deliver satellites. The Liberty project marks a move by NASA to begin contracting out some of its space work to private companies, with the vision of one day developing a large-scale space transportation system. NASA is also working on other projects including improving the fleet of Earth observation satellites and developing vehicles for exploration to asteroids, Mars, and beyond.
The recent steps forward in the space-going world raise questions about the future of our endeavors in space. Certainly private companies will increase their involvement, with several private companies having started developing their own spacecraft over the past decade. The ATK-Astrium project may also herald an increased level of international cooperation in spaceflight. Pooling the resources of the entire world would be the most effective route to a large space mission such as a manned Mars mission or the development of a deep-space vehicle to follow the Voyager probes out of the solar system. However, development on new propulsion systems powered by nuclear fusion, which would be necessary for any future interstellar travel, is currently stalled and would likely require a significant R&D push similar to Cold War-era efforts in order to succeed.
Some might question the wisdom of throwing billions of dollars of resources into space when our government is running a deficit and have quite enough problems to deal with right here on Earth. For starters, much of the research NASA does has quite tangible benefits, from the communication satellites that most of modern society depends upon to the high-tech materials produced for the space program that have found their way into our homes. But can there really be a value assigned to pushing the limits of human civilization, off of this tiny rock we call home into the vastness of space? Our species is by nature inquisitive and adventurous. The price of knowledge and understanding can never be too high. (In fact, it’s not even that high – NASA’s $19 billion budget for this year is less than the total revenue of the flavors and fragrances industry.[iv]) The quest to send humanity into space is beginning of the next chapter in the story of human civilization.
Besides, who else is going to stop those asteroids from wiping us all out?[v]