A conceptual design for NASA's now-abandoned Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, which would have searched extra-solar planets for chemical signs of life.  (Image courtesy NASA)

A conceptual design for NASA's now-abandoned Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, which would have searched extra-solar planets for chemical signs of life. (Image courtesy NASA)

10/12/2006

NASA's Moon Shot is a Blank

By Eric Bland

“All NASA has done over the past 25 years is fly around in circles,” said Wendell Mendell, Managing officer for the Human Exploration at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.    NASA is in the middle of an identity crisis.  To some politicians, scientists, and citizens NASA has not lived up to its potential as a national inspiration.  But to many others NASA’s mission has changed to focus on scientific exploration.  In January 2004, President Bush tried to change NASA’s image when he announced a new and improved goal: the Vision for Space Exploration, which aims to have a permanent moon base, and after that, manned missions to Mars.

Manned missions are very expensive (estimates range between $350 and $500 million per flight), and NASA didn’t have the money to complete the planned 17 shuttle missions to service the already over-budget International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.  Something had to give.

Science gave.  In his 2007 budget request, NASA administrator Mike Griffin shifted $3.1 billion from the science budget to the manned space flight program.  This is especially shocking since only two years ago there was a projected $1.3 billion increase to the science budget.

This comes at a pivotal time.  The space shuttles, which recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, are crippled and set to retire in 2010.  The International Space Station needs to be completed.  The James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble’s successor, is billions over budget already.  While U.S. space science declines, other nations hope to fill the vacuum.  The European Union, Japan, India, and China are all pushing into space.  China wants a man on the moon a year by 2017, a year before NASA.  Should the agency that brought America the moon bring it back again?

Since Bush's announcement, 16 scientific missions have been canceled, delayed or deferred indefinitely.  These missions cover everything from finding new Earth-sized planets to better monitoring and prediction of El Niños.  What is more galling to scientists is that many of the projects were high priorities set by a peer-review process.  NASA requested many of these projects.

Six earth science programs are set to be sacrificed this year:  Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), Atmospheric Soundings from Geostationary Orbit (ASGO), Ocean Vector Winds (OVW), Landsat Data Continuity Bridge Mission, Glory, and the Wide Swatch Ocean Altimeter, measuring precipitation, temperature and water vapor, wind speed and direction near the ocean’s surface, land cover, solar irradiance, and sea level height, respectively.  Together these missions would paint a highly detailed and in-depth look at many factors related to climate change that would be invaluable not only to climate science but to humanity at large.

These missions would bring a myriad of tangible benefits.  GPM would help to better predict dramatic weather events like floods, droughts and hurricanes.  OVW would give ship captains better warnings about severe ocean storms and give farmers better forecasts to plan which crops to plant.  Landsat would help to monitor deforestation and identify new mineral resources.  WSOA would track coastal currents, which affect fisheries, navigation, and ocean climate.  After 2012 no earth science missions are planned at all.

Other missions to be canceled or delayed include the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), Terrestial Planet Finder, Orbiting Carbon Observatory, Mars Sample Return, Space Interferometry Mission, and the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE).  SOFIA would have a huge safety benefit for airlines like Delta.  When flying over the poles aircraft must go into radio silence.  SOFIA would enable them to communicate wherever they fly.  NuSTAR would examine high-energy X-rays, while WISE’s four satellites would map the entire sky.  The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) would search for earth-like planets, while the Terrestrial Planet Finder would image them.  A congressionally mandated mission to Europa, which could harbor extraterrestrial life, has been canceled.  The Joint Dark Energy Mission, which will search for elusive dark energy in the universe, is scheduled to be completed, but will also compete for funds against Constellation X, which would map the high-energy X-ray universe, and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, which would detect gravitational waves theorized by Einstein.  The latter two projects are now deferred indefinitely.  Billions of dollars have already been spent on both the earth science and physics projects, money that should not be wasted.

While plenty of scientific data will be lost, in the long run decreasing the science budget will hurt manned space missions as well.  There are still unknowns about long-term exposure of humans to radiation and microgravity.  To live on the moon, and eventually Mars, will require more research into astrobiology and space life science, two areas which received particularly severe cuts.  “When they come back to their senses and decide that space biology might be appropriate, they might not have the people to develop the research in this area,” said Patrick Masson, a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin who studies the effects of microgravity on plants.  Masson had two grants, worth $700,000 combined, cut and had to lay off two grad students and several lab technicians.   “I’d have to think seriously and carefully about taking additional money from NASA,” said Masson. 

The U.S. is not alone in its goal to reach the moon.  A new space race has begun between NASA and its counterparts in the European Union, China, India, and Japan.  To some, manned space flight, including a presence on the moon, is a matter of national pride; others, national defense.  Japan, India, China, and Europe have or are launching new satellites to the moon.  The Chinese, whose space missions are run by their highly secretive military, are planning on landing a taikonaut (their version of astronauts) on the moon by 2017.  India’s space agency already employs 20,000, almost as many as NASA.
 
The U.S. has already been to the moon.  We don’t need more manned moon missions.  America won the space race decades ago.  The debate over manned versus unmanned space travel is one that goes back to the creation of NASA.  Manned space missions are certainly valuable, but NASA should put its limited resources to better and more practical uses.

Exploration fundamentally drives humans.  Space is the last frontier.  But explore space with less costly unmanned probes.  The biggest spaceship of all, Spaceship Earth, still has a lot to teach us, and these missions are the most cost-effective way to understand our own world and the universe at large.