Science to Suffer at NASA
The focus on manned spaceflight is widely seen as a distraction from some of the important science currently taking place at NASA, including further exploring our solar system by sending probes to various planets, working to better understanding the makeup of our universe, and searching for conditions hospitable for life in our solar system and beyond. According to The New York Times, science funding at NASA will be reduced by $3 billion dollars in the coming years to make room for more manned missions.
Although sometimes criticized as more PR than science, manned missions surely play an important role in the space program, spurring the development of new technologies, performing various scientific experiments, and, of course, shoring up public support for the space program in general. Still, a disproportionate amount of science takes place in unmanned missions for the amount of funding they receive, and sacrificing this science seems misguided at this point.
Griffin argued that insufficient funding is the primary obstacle holding back NASA’s new human spaceflight program:
Dr. Griffin said that the new spaceship to carry humans, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, should be ready by 2014, and that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was looking at ways to speed its development to deliver it a year or two sooner. The main limit to flying the new ship, which could take crews to the International Space Station and later to the moon, is money, he said.
Regardless of whether this is true, it is clear that this is not the case for manned flight in general at NASA, as The New York Times reported earlier this week that money is the least of the worries for the embattled space shuttle program:
A string of distracting accidents, safety incidents and tough technical questions have complicated NASA's efforts to get the space shuttle program back on track.
The shuttle Discovery is to fly again in July, in only the second mission since the Columbia disaster in February 2003. But there are continuing questions about fuel-tank foam, which doomed the Columbia and bedeviled the Discovery's return-to-flight mission last year, and about other parts on the aging shuttle fleet.
And this winter, there were so many accidents — a robot arm damaged by a moving work platform, a dropped film canister that damaged heat tiles on the shuttle Endeavour, a small fire in the assembly building — that last month the director of the Kennedy Space Center stopped all work for two hours and lectured employees on safety.
When work resumed the next day, a worker was killed in a fall from a warehouse roof.
Hopefully NASA will be able to overcome these tough obstacles so the space shuttle can safely fly as soon as possible. In the meantime, though, it is ill-advised to sacrifice more fruitful scientific programs for something of much less scientific significance. Although manned space flight is a great source of national pride and its further development should be encouraged, NASA needs to reevaluate its priorities.