For NASA, Mars someday, but nothing much today

Does the Obama space plan make sense, an an era of fiscal austerity? Or does manned space flight and your fear of Russian dominance in rocketry make you want more money for NASA?
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

Comedian Dave Chappelle's 2003 turn as "Black President Bush" spawned a host of blogger copy, usually headlined with the bit's punchline about Mars:

"Write this down. M.A.R.S. That's right! Mars, b*tches!"

As one way to deflect from his NASA cost-cutting, President Obama has brought the line back. He wants to go to Mars in his lifetime, in the 2030s.

The Shuttle program is ending, the Ares rocket aimed at the Moon won't be funded, but the president said private enterprise can fill the gap and that NASA should focus its attention on deep space, where less-costly basic research needs to be done in the near term.

Republicans jumped on what was being cut. The ranking member of the Senate committee on space, Richard Shelby of Alabama, said, "There is now no hope for a bright future in human space exploration."

But the plan echoes criticisms laid down by science fiction writer Allen Steele back in 2001. The author of such books as "Orbital Decay" and "Clarke County, Space" suggested creation of what he called a Commercial Space Administration, which would regulate the private space business and give "seed money" to promising technologies.

Since then much space activity has gone that way, albeit in slow motion, with the first "flights" of Virgin Galactic still on the drawing board. Critics like The Space Review call it "market romanticism."

The reversal of political roles, a Democratic president touting private enterprise and Republicans descrying lost opportunities, may partly be mere contrariness -- though in Shelby's case, it might also be related to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which could lose out.

Shelby's influence may make Alabama, not Florida, the center of America's future space development.

What we are finding is that space is harder, and harsher, than 20th century optimists like Arthur C. Clarke and Steele ever imagined. The relative ease of the short Apollo missions obscured this.

Spaceref estimates the cost of getting a pound of anything into low-Earth orbit at roughly $4,000, and that's the low estimate. Advocates for a space elevator claim their way is cheaper, even if diamonds are used, but as I wrote last year, the material strength needed for one is still years away from being made.

As we learn more about the hazards of space flight, moreover, the news just gets more-and-more grim. Radiation could increase astronauts' risk of cancer.  People lose bone and muscle mass while in space, and there are mental health risks -- even if there's no monolith out there.

While a coalition of small companies called Next Step in Space is applauding the new policy, the fact is the Administration will no longer fund all the costs of new rocket development. Congress may also decide to continue development of new rockets despite the Administration's protests.

What comes next is a battle in Congress between defense contractors who have dominated the past and entrepreneurs who want to develop the future. Which means the space business is heading to where the health industry just left with its tail between its legs -- Washington D.C.

Does the Obama space plan make sense, an an era of fiscal austerity? Or does manned space flight and your fear of Russian dominance in rocketry make you want more money for NASA?

Either side could be right. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin supports the president. The pilot of that mission, Neil Armstrong, opposes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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