Without a successor to the space shuttle or a clear road map for manned spaceflight, what will our scientific future look like?
That's the question famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explores in an article titled "A Case for Space," in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, hitting newsstands today (and online with a subscription).
Although the lack of a coherent road map for the future of manned spaceflight is the end result of a space program in jeopardy, Tyson zeroes in on politics and a lack of resources for NASA as the cause for the space agency's current predicament. How NASA can get itself back on track is the subject of Tyson's book, "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier."
NASA is undeniably facing tough challenges with regard to the future of manned spaceflight. The space agency doesn't have anywhere to send its astronauts or any means of getting them there. But there are still reasons to be optimistic about our future in space.
The shuttle program may be gone, but that doesn't mean Americans were happy to see it go. In a CNN poll released as the final shuttle mission came to an end, half of all respondents agreed that the end of the program was "bad for the country." Three-quarters of those surveyed stated they would like to see a replacement for the space shuttle.
A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll taken around the same time found that 52 percent of Americans believe the cost of the space shuttle program was worth it. Fifty-six percent opposed the idea of ending the program, and nearly 80 percent of those surveyed believed that the United States should "maintain its leadership role in space."
Space shuttle nostalgia may have influenced some of these responses, but other opinion surveys have found similar results. According to a poll taken by Gallup since 1979, Americans have increasingly come to believe that the space program is worth the cost. And according to the last poll, taken in 2009, younger respondents, between the ages of 18 and 49, were more supportive of the space program than their older counterparts.*
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest most Americans value the space program. Take the example Tyson uses in his article: the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has provided an unprecedented glimpse into our universe and even managed to save lives along the way [see Tyson's article for details]. As Tyson points out, when Hubble's fate was in jeopardy in 2004, "the loudest voices of dissent were not those of scientists but rather those of everyday Americans."
Although the recently scuttled joint U.S.-European mission to Mars may push back against this idea, international cooperation among the space agencies has been important to sustained space travel.
Individual nations have been responsible for hitting major milestones throughout the history of space travel. The Soviets were the first to launch a man into space, while the United States was the first country to land a man on the moon.
However, as the United States proved after the moon missions came to a close with Apollo 17, once those major milestones have been achieved, a space-going country may decide to pack up and go home when its national priorities change.
By comparison, the International Space Station, another major achievement in human spaceflight, is sustained by international cooperation among five space agencies. Currently in its 12th year, the space station has hosted more than 200 astronauts from 15 countries. The ISS may not take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, and it hasn't yet helped humans physically explore our universe, but since 1998, it has been our foothold into space.
Whether future spaceflight innovation should be left primarily to the government or private industry has been a matter of debate. Regardless of who should take the lead, the fact is that private companies are working on launch vehicles to take astronauts into low-Earth orbit and beyond.
SpaceX has tested rockets to launch astronauts into space and has the technology to maneuver spacecraft while in Earth orbit. Astrobotic Technology has been working on a lunar lander that could be ready as early as December 2013, according to this report from last year. And Virgin Atlantic's SpaceShipTwo is due to begin test flights this year beyond our atmosphere, ahead of the company's plan to take tourists into space. And those are just a handful of recent developments in private spaceflight.
Even with private companies providing what are essentially taxi rides into space, NASA would still be leading the missions and calling the shots.
*Correction: This post originally incorrectly stated the year of the last poll. It was 2009, not 2005.
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