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.

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