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Whither NASA?

BU profs weigh in on agency’s post-shuttle purpose


When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight—and when “there” is in outer space—you might try Moon Express. The Silicon Valley start-up hopes to be, in the words of the New York Times, the “future Federal Express for moon deliveries.” Moon Express bought its prototype vehicle from NASA, which will face private competition now that its 30-year-old Space Shuttle program has ended. And Moon Express is among dozens of companies angling for the $30 million that Google has offered to the first company to manage a lunar landing.

The shuttle’s demise and the private race to space raise the question of what NASA should do next. At BU, that question is more than academic, because researchers here received $4.4 million in grants from NASA in fiscal year 2011. Most of the money went to four entities: the College of Arts & Sciences geography and environment and astronomy departments; the Center for Space Physics; and the Institute for Astrophysical Research.

President Obama, for one, has proposed that the space agency rocket humans to an asteroid and into Mars orbit. BU Today asked some professors around the University who’ve done NASA work for their views. Their suggestions range far and wide, figuratively and literally, from boldly going where no one has gone before to focusing NASA’s eye on a place we’ve all been: Mother Earth.

Paul Withers - Professor of astronomy, Boston University College of Arts & Sciences and the Center for Space Physics

Paul Withers

Assistant professor of astronomy at the College of Arts & Sciences and the Center for Space Physics

NASA’s main mission should be the broad-based exploration of space, near and far. It should encompass humans traveling through space, robots voyaging to other planets, and farseeing telescopes watching distant galaxies. However, NASA’s activities will remain unsettled until the next generation of spaceships is reliably carrying humans into space.

The destination for those astronauts is not, in my view, terribly important. What matters is that a true commercial space transportation system arises: some means of moving people and cargo from Earth’s surface to orbit 100 kilometers above our heads that operates routinely, reliably, and inexpensively, and whose customers are not just the U.S. government. That’s why I’m so excited by the recent achievements of entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. If, and it’s a big if, they can make money going into space much more frequently than the Space Shuttle’s fastest pace of nine launches per year, then we might soon see the barriers that currently impede access to space drop dramatically.

Once it becomes significantly easier to send rockets into space, then all kinds of space exploration will really accelerate humans’ traveling beyond low-Earth orbit to a range of destinations, fleets of satellites spreading out over our entire solar system and beyond, and legions of sentinels vigilantly surveying the sun, stars, and galaxies.

Mark Friedl - Professor of geography and environment, Boston University Center for Remote Sensing, College of Arts and Sciences

Mark Friedl

Professor of geography and environment at CAS and the Center for Remote Sensing

For me, the answer to this question is straightforward. Throughout human history, and in particular over the last 150 years, humans have transformed the Earth. Most people think of climate change and global warming. However, what many don’t appreciate is how dramatically and rapidly humans have affected nearly every aspect of the Earth system; in addition to changing the greenhouse gas composition of the atmosphere, human activity has led to enormous changes in the Earth’s biosphere, cryosphere, and oceans.

NASA has the capacity to contribute solutions to the pressing environmental issues that confront society. If NASA fails to take up this challenge, the global change science and policy community will lose one of its most important tools.

To better understand how our planet has changed, how it might change in the future, and what the implications of these changes are for society, high-quality Earth observations acquired from spaced-based platforms are essential. Data collection networks on the ground, in the atmosphere, or in oceans provide an important and complementary basis for global change science. However, satellites provide a unique and powerful vantage point for studying how our planet functions and how it is changing. For the last 40 years, NASA has led the world in satellite-based Earth observations and systems science. NASA continues to have unique capabilities and expertise in this domain, but resources at NASA supporting this mission are stretched thin, and the agency can and should do more to maintain its leadership in global change science.

Through greater investment in satellite technology, instrumentation, and basic research, NASA has the capacity to not only improve how we study and understand our planet, but to contribute solutions to the very real and pressing environmental issues that confront society. If NASA fails to take up this challenge, the global change science and policy community will lose one of its most important tools. NASA needs to rediscover and reinvigorate its “mission to planet Earth.”

Joshua Semeter - Associate professor, Boston University College of Engineering; former director of the Center for Space Physics

Joshua Semeter (ENG’92,’97)

College of Engineering associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; former director of the Center for Space Physics

With each new administration, NASA faces a reset button. In scrapping NASA’s current manned spaceflight program (the Constellation program), President Obama has made a defensible call. After six years and $10 billion, the cost and timeline of Constellation remain rapidly moving targets. It is time to try something different.

The NASA scrap yard is filled with programs that failed to ignite before the next administration. This is a feature of our democracy, but utterly confounding for a manned space program, which requires a development timeline that far exceeds a two-term presidency. There are two solutions that offer some immunity to government whim: international consortia and the private sector.

NASA was formed in response to the Soviet space program, but manned space travel beyond the moon cannot be approached as an American venture. Star Trek had it right. This must be a planetary venture with a multinational crew manning the bridge. A hundred years from now, the Cold War motivations that drove us to the moon will seem quaint.

Is space travel profitable? Going into space is at least as entertaining as going to Disney World, and that enterprise is quite profitable. If the price point drops, space travel could easily become the vacation du jour.

BU is very active in space science and space engineering. Space exploration has an inherent seduction that is difficult to match. Designing a computer chip may be of interest to our engineering students, but designing a chip that will orbit the Earth elevates student motivation to new heights. Manned space exploration is both irrational and irresistible. It rests on the dispassionate principles of engineering and physics, but excites the imagination deeply. It embraces the very definition of what it is to be human. This should remain as NASA’s central objective.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

5 Comments on Whither NASA?

  • Nelson Bridwell on 09.12.2011 at 11:37 am

    “Is space travel profitable? Going into space is at least as entertaining as going to Disney World, and that enterprise is quite profitable. If the price point drops, space travel could easily become the vacation du jour.”

    Ah, yes, the urban myth that NASA needs to get “out of the way” and let the private sector open up space for the rest of us.

    The reality, however, is that NASA has never been in the way, and the commercial sector, which is profit-driven, has accomplished almost nothing over the past half-century. But if you can come up with a way to make money, please go ahead and put out your shingle, attract private investors, build your spacecraft, and the sky is the limit! Good luck.

    As as far as commercial space opening up LEO to ordinary people like us, just how much can you realistically afford to spend on a 1-week joyride in LEO? Do you have credit card debt or student loans? Is your house and car paid of? Are you saving up enought for retirement, considering the bleak prospect for social security?

    Can you afford $50M today? Maybe $5M in 25 years? The answer is not in our lifetime. Maybe for a few billionares. Maybe the children of millionares in 50-100 years. But not ordinary people.

  • dan on 09.12.2011 at 5:09 pm

    “Is space travel profitable?” Um yeah, are you kidding me? I hope that is rhetorical. If we got any good at it maybe we could tap into the resources of other planets/asteroids and stop destroying ourselves from the inside out.

    • Cam on 10.06.2011 at 3:04 pm

      It’s not that simple Dan, To get to space is expensive and to harvest materials and Get them back is also expensive, so Is space travel profitable…. for right now the answer is no until we can improve technology to make it more cost effective.

  • PhillyJimi on 09.16.2011 at 4:17 pm

    NASA is an example of corporate welfare. Or a government jobs program gone wild. This new rocket can lift 70 tons and it is going to cost $18 billion just to fly a test flight in 2018. We all know how solid a NASA budget is. We can usually say it is under budget if it only cost 2’xs that amount first quoted. After 2018 there will be additional on going costs (in the billions) tied to this rocket once the program get established. For a point of reference, $18 billion is actually $18,000 million. There is an upgrade planned for this rocket so it can eventually lift up to 140 tons but there is no solid budget for that and that takes us into 2020’s.

    Now a small commercial company SpaceX, is going to launch a new rocket called Falcon Heavy it can lift 50 tons in to orbit. They have a fixed price, (I’ll round it up) at $150 million per launch. It is scheduled to launch in 2012. Well ask any 2nd grader what is a better value?

    For $18 billion or $18,000 million you can buy 120 Falcon Heavy’s @ $150 million.

    I think any 2nd grader would know what is better value, if you put it into terms they could understand. Ask them if they would option A) A single 70 ton ice cream cone that requires them to wait an extra 5 years. Option B) For the same price get 120, 50 ton ice cream cones and you can start eating them 5 years earlier.

    ($18,000 million/$150 million per flight = 120 flights @ 50 tons = 6,000 tons). The answer is obvious as to what is the better value for the tax payer. But since this isn’t considered the unpopular type of welfare no one blinks an eye.

    The issue is congress people do things to get reelected even if it makes no financial sense. No congress person is going to refuse a $5 billion federal program for their state or ask to have it sent to another state because the other state could do it for $4.7 billion and save the tax payer’s $300 million. The powerful space states got $18 billion directed to their states so they can yell that they “Fought for your jobs! and I created new jobs! Vote for me!”. To who do you think the large contractors are going to be making reelection contributions to?

    Who loses? The rest of us. Who is to blame? Everyone, we need to change this. I am not saying privatization is the cure all but it does address the spending money just for the sake of spending money in order to score points with voters. At some point the spending is more important then actually flying a rocket. These congress people only want tax payer money spent in their states, if the rocket ever fly that is only a bonus. If it gets canceled in 5 years that only means another new rocket will be suggested and they’ll make sure their state gets the contract.

  • dan on 10.17.2011 at 5:02 pm

    Space travel is INCREDIBLY expensive. Have we abandoned the international-space-station? To ship a lunch to the space-station, you not only have to get into ‘space’, but you have to get into ORBIT – going somewhere in the vicinity of 17,000 miles per hour relative to sitting here on earth.
    Where goes NASA?

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