Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Planetary Society Takes a Stand

The Planetary Society has written a letter expressing concern about the four NASA appropriations bills currently before Congress, noting that they make short shrift of the manned space program specifically for exploration and that they are unfocused and scattered. The bills, according to The Society, which is populated with people a lot smarter than me -- or our Congresspeople, for that matter (people like Jim Bell, Bill Nye, Louis Friedman, Dan Geraci and Neil deGrasse Tyson), dwell too heavily on the continuation of low-Earth orbit missions to the detriment of real astronomical research.
Its particular complaints are laid out in the letter to House and Senate leadership (which you can find here):

• None include a plan to restore U.S. technical capability to launch astronauts to space once the shuttle is retired. At best there are directions that -- even if followed -- will likely lead to a “launch gap” years longer than was planned, even with Ares, and certainly longer than could be expected from the commercial launch industry, if they are supported.
• Instead, we support government – private partnerships to develop U.S. designed and built commercial launch vehicles, proven ones like the Atlas and Delta, and new ones like the Falcon.
• No exploration goals are set other than vague citations of building capability to ultimately fly to destinations beyond Earth orbit. Instead, we support identification of specific targets such as going beyond the Moon for the first time, then to a near-Earth asteroid, then to the orbit of Mars, and then to Mars itself. As Gemini and the early Apollo missions engaged the Nation on the way to the Moon landing, so too can steps into the solar system engage the Nation on the way to Mars.
• The various bills push to start “heavy-lift launch vehicle” development sooner than proposed by the Administration, despite having no destinations or flight goals for such a rocket for at least a decade. We strongly support American development of a deep-space rocket, but we believe that premature development through political legislation rather than technological studies could result in huge waste and eventual delays. Thus, we suggest support for a technology program to develop and evaluate competing approaches and to complete a preliminary design before committing to the final selection. A shorter actual development time will lead to a lower-cost project.
• The Administration’s proposed exploration and space technology programs are deeply cut. This exacerbates the situation of the past decade when NASA technology programs were eviscerated and the agency was unable to develop new technologies that could reduce cost or enhance performance. We support restoration of NASA’s proposed technology funding.

But that's not the only problem. Emily Lakdawalla, The Society's Science and Technology coordinator, believes that few are paying attention to the incredible research that is being accomplished by unmanned spacecraft. She writes:
I'm sick and tired of people equating "NASA" with the manned space program, and failing to realize the bounty of amazing discoveries being made through the eyes of the 20-odd robots that we Americans have built and are currently operating across the solar system. Like the Planetary Society's leaders, I believe that our (and this time "our" means "humanity's," not just America's) space program must include both manned and unmanned components, and that the two must work hand in hand. But I'm frustrated again and again by the lack of respect and recognition for what our robotic missions -- and all the men and women who work for NASA and universities and aerospace contractors who make contributions to our unmanned program -- are accomplishing.

And to prove her point, she links to this amazing chart.

When you think of the astounding discoveries of the last several decades, not adequately funding NASA makes no sense. The low-Earth orbit stuff is great (how else would we see the ISS fly over every now and then?), but we (and by "we," I, like Emily Lakdawalla, don't mean Americans; I mean humanity, need to reach beyond the successes of the Space Shuttle era to find that next Earth that Garrett talked about in the interview below.