A visionary new plan for NASA

I’m a little slow on the uptake here, but I guess I thought everyone understood that the Obama administration’s new plan for NASA was not an abandonment of a return to the Moon but rather replacing it with a much more visionary approach, restoring the agency’s leadership in human exploration of the Solar System.

NASA’s work has made it possible for commercial ventures to take humans into Earth orbit and perhaps even to the Moon. So it is time for NASA to turn the “local” transportation over to industry and focus on more ambitious missions worthy of NASA’s heritage.

This is not a partisan plan, so don’t let your feelings about the administration, whether positive or negative, get in the way of seeing its possibilities.

NASA can still contribute astronauts and advanced instruments to upcoming lunar missions, but I agree with The Planetary Society (TPS), of which I am a member, that canceling the Constellation program makes sense.

To quote from TPS’s statement on the new plan for NASA:

President Obama has charted a course that could launch the United States on a new path to historic “firsts” in space — first astronauts to travel beyond the Moon, first astronauts to touch down on an asteroid, first astronauts to reach a Lagrange point, first astronauts to reach Mars.

The Planetary Society’s leadership believes this new plan will take humans beyond Earth orbit to interplanetary space sooner than was possible under the old program, and it will take us farther and to more destinations than was ever planned with the Constellation program.

We commit our energy and resources to help turn this NASA plan from words to reality. Congress must now act upon the President’s proposal. We recognize that it will be a long, hard fight, that there are entrenched interests that must be overcome, that business-as-usual must be surmounted, and, and that it will require breaking through technological barriers. But if human space explorers are to reach their destination of Mars within the next few decades — a cherished dream of Society Members — this is the only realistic way to get there.

If you agree, please tell your representatives in Congress. And if you want to contribute to TPS’s public information campaign to mobilize support for the new plan, click here.

As the statement at that link notes: “The possibilities are thrilling… if Congress can resist narrow interests and approve this budget in the next few months!”

When I was 16, a young president (JFK) set a goal of sending humans to the Moon and returning them safely within the decade of the 1960s. It inspired NASA and the nation, and the goal was achieved.

Now a young president (Obama) has set a goal to send humans to the surface of Mars and return them safely in his lifetime. Will we be similarly inspired?

If I live into my 90s and NASA achieves that goal, I will be watching astronauts who are the same age as present readers of my Astrobiology (“Cool Science,” Lerner, 2008). Perhaps, they’ll even remember that book’s dedication: “To the first Earthlings on Mars, who may be reading this book. Are you one of them?”

Fred Bortz

5 thoughts on “A visionary new plan for NASA”

  1. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous, but I disagree.

    The plan does not abandon the presence of U.S. astronauts in space for a decade or more. It just changes how we get to the International Space Station (ISS) and other destinations. We will hail a space taxi instead of using our own vehicles. And we may send specialists to the Moon in a Chinese or Indian spacecraft and participate in creating an international permanent presence there.

    Since budgetary constraints always come into play, we have to decide where our money has the best return. The new plan bets on American innovation rather than putting money into something as (relatively) pedestrian as another big rocket.

    If we learn anything from the history of the Space Shuttle program, it is that we temporarily abandoned great ambitious goals for a practical transportation system. We ended up with a flawed vehicle that never lived up to its promise and a vastly scaled-down ISS.

    In an upcoming book for middle grades, I will have a chapter on the ISS. One of my themes is that its greatest value has been demonstrating what can be accomplished by international cooperation. My readers will see it as a great technological achievement. But it will not be appropriate to discuss the downside in the book, namely that the ISS has been a too-costly project if measured by the scientific knowledge it has produced.

    Fred Bortz

  2. The United States has never lagged in its leadership of exploring the solar system. No other nation or conglomeration of nations sends the number of probes into the solar system as does the U.S., and those that come close – like the ESA – usually do so in some cooperative venture with the U.S. or a university here. The issue is that while other nations develop and begin sending people into space, we’re abandoning that effort for at least a decade if not longer. There’s no shuttle and no clear plan to return to any heavenly body (like the Moon, where we need to establish a permanent base to launch humans into the rest of the solar system). I’m all for the Obama administration’s plan to increase funding for the number of probes into the solar system – indeed, it’s about time. But I don’t understand why he’s abandoning the United States’ human presence in space exporation for the next decade – which likely means we won’t be sending astronauts into space for much, much longer than that.

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