U.S. Space Program Mothballed?
Peter Debruge, a movie reviewer in Toronto, released an article about the upcoming hard scifi thriller, The Martian. I’ll start off by saying that I very much enjoyed his treatment of the movie and look forward to seeing it for myself.
However, near the end of the article, in reference to the upbeat tone that the movie sets regarding the future of space exploration, he says…
“But instead of trying to scare people off space travel, Scott and company combine these elements in hopes of inspiring a generation for whom the moon landing and Shuttle missions are ancient history, practically nostalgia, while the American space program sits mothballed.”
Au contraire mon frere.
Yesterday’s (Tuesday) headline on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory website reads…“Cassini Finds Global Ocean in Saturn’s Moon Enceladus” (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4718). Cassini, one of many ongoing NASA missions, currently orbits Saturn, as it has for years. It takes cool pictures of things for us to see and performs cool, unrivaled science that most of us don’t see. Scientists have long suspected that Enceladus had an ocean, due to the amazing geysers spouting out of its southern pole. Now, they’ve decided that a global ocean is the only explanation for the wobble that Cassini’s gravity measurements have found in the moon as it orbits Saturn. Liquid water is one of the criteria that is used to determine if a world can support life. Cassini is only the most recent of three spacecraft that NASA has sent to Saturn. NASA remains the only space agency on earth to fly any probe there.
Another headline on JPL reads…“Mars Panorama from Curiosity Shows Petrified Sand Dunes” (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4716). We can call Mars the Skeleton Coast of exploration spacecraft, since it is littered with the bones of failed missions. Curiosity, nearly the size of an SUV, has been operating on the planet for two years now…gathering scientific data that can currently be obtained no other way. While the European Space Agency has successfully orbited a spacecraft at Mars, no other space agency has successfully placed functional equipment, gently, on the surface. NASA has done several times and currently operates two rovers there.
Here is another… “Telescopes Find Galaxy Cluster with Vibrant Heart” (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4715). This discovery regarding vigorous old galaxy growth and star formation at the center of galaxy cluster, involved NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes. Hubble has been declared by many to be the most successful spacecraft in history. It’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will operate from a Lagrange Point for the best ever view of Intergalactic space.
And another…“Ceres’ Bright Spots Seen in Striking New Detail” (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4714)…is research brought about by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Dawn uses a high-specific gravity ion engine, allowing it to carry enough fuel to fly to one body, orbit it, study it for a while, then leave orbit and go study something else. Ceres is the second dwarf planet Dawn has orbited, making it the first spacecraft ever to study two separate, distant planetary bodies from separate stable orbits. No one even knew that those highly unusual reflective craters were there until Dawn photographed them on approach…and no one else except NASA has sent a probe there either. NASA is the leader of space propulsion research and you can look forward to seeing them launch more ion thrusters into deep space in the future.
Even though these robotic spacecraft carry no humans aboard, they are definitely not “ancient history” and operate as part of “America’s space program”. I should also admit that these are, in many ways, International efforts, since other countries have contributed instruments to fly on these spacecraft.
Now I know that Mr. Debruge really meant to say that NASA’s human space flight program sits mothballed. Sorry, but the International Space Station flies in space with NASA astronauts on board. NASA’s human spaceflight program is very active. Granted, they launch to the ISS and back aboard Soyuz, but Peter didn’t say “space launch program” he said “space program”.
Oh, oops. Saying that America’s human “space launch program” sits mothballed would also would be somewhat off, since NASA is currently very actively developing, and testing components of, the Space Launch System and the Orion orbiter for deep space exploration of the solar system. They also assist and/or sponsor the development of several, rapidly growing, U.S. based, commercial space launch systems for the purpose of lowering the cost of human space flight to make space commonplace worldwide. One of whom, SpaceX, even has deep-space aspirations of their own. My 11 year old son will leave college and enter the workforce during a time when private corporations will orbit more folks than governments do today. At that same time NASA intends to plan and fly human missions to deep-space targets like Europa, Jupiter’s largest moon.
The Space Shuttle sits mothballed, a monument to human achievement. However those center four engines in the above video are Shuttle engines, and the infrastructure that built the shuttle now builds the first SLS Rocket and Orion. The people who do that work would take great exception to being called “mothballed”.
America’s space program sent people to the moon, a long time ago, and needs to do it some more, but America’s space program continues, even today, be the first at most things, the leader of many things, and with some things the one and only.