Saturday, August 15, 2009

NASA Funding is Spread too Thin

I've always known that NASA has been underfunded since the end of the Apollo program but that has been brought to extremes lately as NASA's budget has shrunk and inflation has reduced it further.

Early in Obama's first term as United States' president, he set out a group of people to do a review of NASA and in particular, the Constellation program.

The Constellation program was created in 2005 and initiated by the Bush administration to move humankind back to the moon, Mars, and beyond. It consists of the Ares I which launches the Orion crew capsule into space, the Ares V heavy cargo lifter, the Altair moon lander, and a whole new set of space suits, rovers, and other gear. The first moon landing is currently planned for 2020.

The budget required to develop the new Ares I and Ares V rockets was 108 billion dollars over 10 years. This budget has been hacked at and cut down by 30 billion dollars!

Obama's panel found that the Ares V won't be completed until 2028 on the current budget and moon landings won't be possible until early 2030s at the earliest. NASA was hoping on launching manned missions to Mars by the late 2030s.

Sally Ride, a former astronaut and one of the panel members concluded, “We can't do this program in this budget. This budget is simply not friendly to exploration.”

The panel's final review is due out by the end of August.

NASA has already put nine billion dollars into the Constellation program and is ready to test launch a mock-up of the Ares I crew launcher by October 2009.

Personally, I think that NASA should continue to develop the Ares I and use it until SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy Launcher is ready for crew. Then, NASA should scrap Ares I and continue development on the Ares V heavy cargo launcher. The Falcon 9 will cost around 50 million dollars per launch (the regular Falcon 9 costs only 27 million dollars per launch) while the Ares I will cost many hundreds of millions of dollars per launch.

The reason NASA needs to continue development of the Ares I if they want to launch the Ares V is because the Ares V requires many of the technologies that are being developed for the Ares I.

Another area where NASA's budget is stretched far too thin is the search for potentially hazardous asteroids. NASA has been mandated by Congress to find 90% of all Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that are 140 metres wide or larger by 2020.

Congress hasn't even approved any extra funding for NASA to do this, not one cent! This has lead to NASA taking money from other programs within NASA to help cover searched costs. Even with the NEO search program “stealing” money from other programs, NASA will finish the search by 2030, ten years late!

To give some perspective on how powerful an asteroid impact can be, think of Beringer Crater in Arizona. It is believed that the asteroid that impacted there was only 20 metres across, but hit so hard and so fast that the impact had the force of at least 150 times that of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. That single atomic bomb released more energy than ALL of World War I and World War II COMBINED.

These two extremely important programs aren't even close to being adequately funded yet Congress acts as if it's business as usual. More money is spent every year on pizza ($27 billion) or underage drinking ($23 billion) than the entire American space program!

It all comes down to this: stop cutting NASA's budget and instead cut or restrict spending (just a little bit) on something such as the defense program (the Americans' defense budget is more than half of the world's defense spending).

Start spending on science, new technology, and exploration and move humankind off of this tiny blue dot!

The Ares I-X test rocket shortly after completion in August 2009.

Check out to follow the Ares I-X test launch and to keep up to date with the Constellation program.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What's Up? 40 Years After the "Giant Leap for Mankind"

Welcome back to What's Up?

It was last month, on July 20, 40 years ago, that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another world.

The Apollo program was the greatest burst of technological development since human civilization began, yet it took only five percent of the yearly federal budget to accomplish this great feat. NASA's current budget stands at less than 17 billion dollars, half of a percent of the entire federal budget.

Other than beating the Soviets to the moon, the Apollo program produced much more than pretty pictures and a few hundred kilograms of moon rocks.

At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 workers and used 20,000 businesses and universities. The Apollo program provided a great economic boost for the United States and provided many technological benefits. Spin-offs from Apollo include improved kidney dialysis (basically a blood filter), fire resistant materials used in firefighters' suits, hazardous gas detectors, insulation used in oil pipelines, and the first flight guidance system, just to name a few.

The Moon landings inspired the next generation of scientists and engineers who have allowed for the many scientific discoveries and technological innovations made in the last few decades.

About 380 kilograms (840 pounds) of soil and rocks were returned from the Moon. What were they made of and what could that possibly tell us about the Moon?

While there was no mozzarella or cheddar, there were many similarities to Earth's composition. The amount of oxygen and iron in the rocks strongly supports the idea that the moon was formed when the Earth was hit with an object the size of Mars. The impact splashed material into orbit around the Earth. The material eventually cooled and clumped together to form the Moon.

The idea of going to the Moon has been around for hundreds of years, if not thousands, but actual plans to visit the moon weren't finalized until the early 1960s. John F. Kennedy set a goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the decade. Meeting this goal was one of the greatest challenges that a single nation has ever faced.

The rocket required for the mission, the Saturn V, was not even finished on paper yet, let alone a working model. The parts for the computers that were needed to guide the astronauts to the Moon were not even invented yet, the engineers just had to hope they would be invented in the next few years. The United States had barely even placed an astronaut into space before Kennedy backed Apollo in 1961.

Apollo spurred many great innovations in technology, inspired millions around the world, and did some great science along the way. Who knows what the next generation of Moon landings and maybe even Mars landings will bring.

Looking up at the Moon this month we will remember when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon 40 years ago.

While we're looking up at the Moon, it will be full on August 5 and then become a New Moon by August 20.

The Perseid meteor shower, the best meteor shower of the year with up to 100 meteors visible per hour, will be best seen on the night of August 11 and the very early morning of August 12.

Jupiter will be fairly low in the South-East during most of the month after sunset. It will appear brighter to the naked-eye and larger through a telescope than it has been since October 1999.

The Athena Community Astronomy Club will continue to be on the Summerside boardwalk every clear Wednesday evening showing anyone interested views through telescopes and answering any questions that may be asked.

To finish off the month is the astronomy club's monthly meeting on the last Sunday of the month, August 30, at the Wilmot Community Center.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...
On July 15 Jupiter got smacked with a large asteroid or comet. No one actually saw it before or when it hit. What astronomers did see was a big darkened patch in Jupiter's clouds after it hit. Something like this happened only fifteen years ago when a comet came in, broke up into little pieces, and one after another, smashed into Jupiter. If one heads our way hopefully we will have a bit of warning so we can get rid of it, scientists will just have to be sure to keep their eye on the "ball!"