Find hope in this, NASA, science and Mars fans: President Obama's new stance on NASA's funding will likely pump no less than $6 billion into the agency to create a new heavy rocket sooner than we'd hoped. Mars is its target.
Over the previous few weeks we've heard rumors about what NASA's future might look like. All of them seemed attractive compared to the grim reality we'd assumed would happen: The Space Shuttle grounded, the Constellation moonshot program canceled, big delays in getting private space ventures ready to fire humans into space, and huge job losses in NASA and its supporting industries.
Now there's word that during a big space event tomorrow, Obama will unveil a new vision that includes $6 billion of extra cash for the space agency, on top of its original budget plans, phased over five years. This money has very specific purposes: Firstly it's going to create 2,500 additional jobs in and around NASA's Florida installations, and secondly it'll result in a new large rocket that'll be key in taking humans to Mars. Spin-off work will include continuing to develop the Orion manned space capsule to act as an emergency escape vehicle for the international space station.
Reuters quotes White House officials on the matter, so we can assume this is an "official" leak, and the positive PR spin is unmistakable: "This new strategy means more money for NASA, more jobs for the country, more astronaut time in space" is one fabulous line, and, "This is a rocket that is going to happen two years earlier than would've happened under the past program" is the other. It looks like the President's office really wants the public to buy in to this new strategy—and with good reason, as it's got that shiny public relations gleam that all exciting space research has, as well as banging the U.S.A drum a little too.
But what exactly will $6 billion buy us in 2010 and the next several years? The emphasis seems to be on "new" rocket research, distanced from Constellation's Ares I and V vehicles, and that implies a different approach. Ares V, the heavy-lift component of Constellation, was based on sparingly few Space Shuttle tech derivatives, and was an expensive and long-term project, needing research into new engines and other rocket systems. So maybe those rumors we heard last week of the Space Shuttle C derivative rocket are being given a boost by this news: It has the potential to be cheaper than Ares V, uses much more of the Shuttle tech that's already familiar, and since the design has been knocking around since the 1970's, it has the potential to arrive in service a little sooner than Ares V would've blasted into the skies. And its capacity to hoist heavy pieces of a space-borne vehicle, destined for Mars, is perfectly aligned with Obama's plan for NASA's future.
It's exciting stuff, sure enough. But the year is 2010, folks, and one science genius has already explored the kind of space tech we would've hoped to be flying in right now. Arthur C. Clarke's follow-up novel to 2001, A Space Odyssey, the wonderful 2010: Odyssey Two, has NASA and the Russians assembling giant vehicles in orbit, each with exotic drive technology capable of propelling them not just to Mars, but to Jupiter. The craft (The "Alexei Leonov," and "Discovery 2"—the original "flew" in 2001) have simulated gravity and equipment to place astronauts in suspended animation for long-duration space trips. They've got deployable robot and manned probes for experimentation, and are constructed in orbit because they're not designed to ever enter an atmosphere. This is fantasy, of course (though highly possible, in the dim future). So it's a little sad that whatever NASA's new plans are, they're not comparable to Clarke's vision for today. But, and this is something that should be highlighted, it does seem that Obama's plan is not to let NASA wither on the vine, but to inject more drama and excitement into its manned space program. That's exciting.
Update: Three famous astronauts have just written to the President about this...and boy are they unhappy.
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