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The US Space Program Isn’t Close To Over

By Taylor Marvin

Juno lifts off. Photo by NASA.

Juno lifts off. Photo by NASA.

The end of the Space Shuttle program has sparked a crisis of confidence in the American space program. CNN reports that 50% 0f Americans think that the end of the Shuttle program is bad for the United States. At the Huffington Post, Bob Burnett morns the end of the Shuttle program as the “decline of the American spirit.” In the Washington Times, Mark J. Albrecht is echoes this pessimism. Specifically, he traces this decline back to the fall of the Soviet Union:

“Yet our space program has been in a slow and steady decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Well, of course. The entire motivation of the US space program was the Cold War competition with Russia. Arguing that the manned space program is funded by the federal bureaucracy’s devotion to scientific research is disillusion — the US government did not devote 2.2% of federal spending to the Apollo program for the love of exploration. Similarly, President Nixon funded the original development of the Space Shuttle program in an attempt to restore American prestige after the debacle of Vietnam, and President Reagan pushed for aggressive launch schedules during the 1980s to stimulate domestic national pride after the Carter malaise. Just as US defense spending declined in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR, so did NASA’s budget. Albrecht sees this a Democratic conspiracy to destroy the American lead in space exploration. It isn’t: rather it’s the simple reality that space program funding is a low federal priority unless it can be framed in terms of national security.

Burnett and Albrecht are also wrong to argue that the American space program has been in decline since 1990. Yes, NASA funding levels have fallen, and the US Congress has been unable to fund the completion a manned replacement for the shuttle. But this doesn’t mean that the US space program is declining! Despite the despair over the end of the shuttle program, the US continues to innovate in space, as dramatically illustrated by last week’s launch of NASA’s advanced Juno spacecraft, bound for Jupiter.

Despite this pessimism, NASA has made huge strides in the last two decades: both in manned flight, like the construction of the enormously ambitious International Space Station, and unmanned exploration. The debate over the relative merits of manned and unmanned exploration is a complicated issue, but even dedicated partisans of manned spaceflight like Burnett and Albrecht should admit that the United States has fielded an impressive list of unmanned spacecraft in the last two decades:

  • The Hubble Space Telescope, which has made enormous contributions to human understanding of the universe and brought images of deep space into the American public consciousness. Among other achievements, Hubble has helped estimate the age of the universe, provide evidence that the universe’s rate of expansion is increasing, and has resulted in over 9,000 scientific papers.
  • The Ulysses solar probe, which utilized an orbit outside of the ecliptic plane to observe the Sun from high solar latitudes, unlike the low latitudes Earth-based observatories or near-Earth spacecraft. Ulysses has contributed valuable scientific information about the solar magnetic field and volume of deep space dust entering the solar system.
  • The NEAR Shoemaker probe, which orbited and intensively studies the asteroid Eros. At the end of its mission, NEAR became the first spacecraft to make a controlled landing on an asteroid.
  • The Mars Global Surveyor, which broke the United States’ ten-year absence from Mars. The spacecraft exceeded its original mission requirements, mapped the Martian surface in detail, and pioneered the use of aerobraking in extraterrestrial atmospheres.
  • The Mars Pathfinder Mission, which was the first successful Martian lander since the 1970s, and the first use of a rover on Mars. The mission was extremely successful, captured the public imagination, and demonstrated many innovative technologies used in later Mars missions.
  • The Mars Exploration Rover program, which landed two advanced rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on Mars. Both rovers functioned over 25 times longer than their designed lifetimes, and Opportunity is still actively exploring today, 8 years after it was launched. The Mars Exploration Rovers have contributed extensively to human knowledge of Mars’ geology and climate, and Opportunity has traveled over 30 km over the surface of Mars over the course of its mission.

    The view from the Opportunity landing site. Both Mars Exploration Rover missions have returned large amounts of unprecidented images from the Red Planet.

    The view from the Opportunity landing site. Both Mars Exploration Rover missions have returned large amounts of unprecedented images from the Red Planet.

  • The Cassini-Huygens Saturn probe is an ambitious spacecraft that traveled to Saturn, the second largest planet in the solar system. The Cassini probe is an advanced orbiter that has spent the last seven years — again, much longer than its designed lifespan — observing Saturn, its moons, and its unique and poorly understood ring system. The Huygens component of the mission is a unique lander that landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in 2005. Titan is entirely unique in the solar system — it is larger than the planet Mercury, and unlike all other terrestrial objects in the solar system besides the Earth and Venus has a thick atmosphere. This atmosphere necessitated the Huygens lander: because of its thick clouds, the surface of Titan is completely hidden from Earth. The Huygens probe successfully landed on Titan and returned images showing large lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on the surface, some larger than the largest lakes on Earth. This discovery is especially significant because Titan, the only other body in the solar system knows to sustain liquid bodies on its surface, is thought to be similar to the environment of the early Earth and is thought one of the most likely candidates to house extraterrestrial microbial life in the solar system.

    Titan, shrouded in its mysterious atmosphere, imaged by Cassini.

    Titan, shrouded in its mysterious atmosphere, imaged by Cassini.

  • The Deep Space 1 probe, which performed a difficult flyby of a comet and served as a testbed for several innovative technologies, included advanced solar panels and an ion drive system instead of conventional chemical rocket propulsion. Because of the success of the Deep Space 1 mission, highly efficient ion drives are now being considered for other, more expensive, spacecraft.
  • The MESSENGER probe, which is the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. The spacecraft employed an innovative trajectory to decelerate around Mercury, and has contributed to our understanding of Mercury’s surface features and geological structure.
  • The Stardust probe, which studied an asteroid and returned samples from a comet to Earth for further study. The Stardust mission was also the first spacecraft to return cosmic dust to Earth, which provides clues about the chemical makeup of the early universe.
  • The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which is currently examining the Martian surface for evidence of liquid water and volcanic activity. Mars Odyssey is still operational, and has served above the Red Planet for over nine years, making valuable contributions to human understanding of the Martian geology and climate.
  • The Deep Impact probe, which studies the interior composition of comets by releasing an impactor to smash into comet 9P/Temple, allowing Deep Impact to study the resulting crater. After completing its primary mission, Deep Impact has assisted in the study of planets outside our solar system.
  • The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, another advanced Martian orbiter designed for a long-term mission to survey the Martian climate and surface conditions, as well as serve as a relay for other current and future Mars missions. Notably, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned more scientific data to Earth than all previous US interplanetary missions combined.
  • The New Horizons deep space probe, which will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto when it arrives there in 2015, after a 9 year flight. After exploring Pluto New Horizons will continue on past the solar system, studying the Kuiper belt — a vast region of icy bodies believed to extend far outside the solar system — before exiting the solar system and heading into deep space.
  • The Phoenix lander, a stationary Martian lander that successfully completed numerous experiments and observations on the Martian surface. Phoenix substantially improved our understanding of Mars geological history, and demonstrated the presence of sub-surface water ice outside of the Martian poles.
  • Finally, Juno, which will extensively study Jupiter’s composition, magnetic field, and moons once it arrives at the giant planet in 2016.

This is an extremely impressive list, and Americans (and the rest of the world) should be proud of NASA’s ability to launch missions that consistently exceed their original requirements and return a huge amount of valuable scientific data. Unlike the manned space program, the US derives little international prestige from its unmanned exploration programs — indeed, most Americans probably cannot name one unmanned NASA mission. This makes the American record in unmanned exploration programs even more impressive, and it is a record the public should be proud of.

Despite it’s thirty years of service, the ultimate value of the Shuttle program is debatable. The Space Shuttle never came close to achieving the frequent launch schedule its designers intended, and it is unclear how much scientific value it returned despite the estimated $170 billion cost of the entire program. Additionally, the airplane-like Shuttle orbiter is increasingly seen as something of a technological dead end — the Constellation program intended to succeed the Shuttle (before its repeated downsizing by the Obama administration) returns to the venerable expendable capsule designed used by 1960s era Apollo and modern Russian Soyuz spacecraft. However, despite the uncertain legacy of the Shuttle commentators are wrong to dismiss the accomplishments of NASA’s unmanned exploration efforts. It is difficult to say when America will return to manned space flight on a domestic launch vehicle. However, NASA’s ongoing unmanned exploration efforts show that the US has a bright future in space.

Update: The Atlantic has a great gallery of ongoing NASA missions.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Everyone complains about the Government doing nothing, but in reality it’s us doing nothing. If the people of this homeland would make a stand and make a demand for what is correct then things would finally change. It’s tiring hearing about what’s incorrect with our land without action. Stand up for what you believe in.

    August 9, 2011
  2. The kind of technology that America has is unrivaled. Although other countries are increasing investment in their space programs, still they are way behind as compared to America. Another thing that is advantageous is that the country has a large number of high quality universities. The present economic conditions maybe a hurdle but the country will overcome it.

    August 25, 2011
  3. Hello, I find the mechanism of the Hubble Telescope really interesting. It gives us a great insight of our galaxy.

    December 21, 2011

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