Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The End of Constellation

One of the big news items of the day is that President Obama's proposed budget for FY 2011 includes a cancellation of NASA's Constellation program. The program was meant to create a multipurpose vehicle that would replace the soon to be retired space shuttles. Additionally, Constellation was meant to carry astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars by 2020. While disappointing, I think cancelling this program is for the best.

With the nation's fiscal woes, NASA's budget isn't going to grow much larger (although the 2011 budget does propose a slight increase). Cost overruns for Constellation would have cut into the rest of NASA's budget, thereby forcing the agency to sacrifice more and more worthy projects in the name of manned space flight. Don't get me wrong, I think it would be incredible to send people to Mars. But is it worth it? Look at just some of the incredible work being done by unmanned probes: Cassini has been sending us breathtaking images and measurements of Saturn and its moons. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been tottering about Mars for the past 6 years (Spirit recently became stuck, but it can still conduct scientific measurements from where it's at). Kepler might locate other Earth-like worlds around other stars. New Horizons will provide us with our first up-close images of Pluto. And that doesn't even touch on NASA's aeronautical and meteorological research. All told, these sorts of missions provide far more data and benefit than sending a handful of people to the Moon and Mars for brief periods of time.

Sure, the shuttles are nearing their retirement, so NASA won't be able to send humans into space by itself. However, without the huge money hole of the shuttle, NASA can shift funding towards unmanned exploration of more places, finding more efficient means of carrying humans to the stars, and understanding our own planet better. Once space travel becomes more cost effective, or we find something we truly must see first hand (alien life, perhaps), then it will be worth the cost of sending people. Until then, let's cast a wide net and examine as much as we can with our available resources.

1 comment:

  1. I deleted the comment previously here because it was spam...in Chinese. Weird.