Time to give up on manned space travel for a while?
I have been thinking a lot about this since the Augustine report was issued a month ago. The report, commissioned by the Obama administration to examine the future of the "Space Program", was unusually blunt in its assessment of the nation's direction in space. In essence the answer was "nowhere." The commission came to the conclusion that given typical levels of funding, NASA was simply not going to be able to achieve any of the lofty goals of getting back to the Moon or on to Mars. Since the levels of funding are not likely to get higher anytime soon (especially in this economic climate) the comission seemed to say something like "figure out something else to do but stop pretending we can have both grand and achievable goals."
As someone who is part of the NASA astrophysics research universe I have always wondered why the humans-in-space part of the NASA budget seemed so essential when the robots-in-space part was doing so well. Its hard to argue that the Hubble Space Telescope has not had a huge impact on the public perception of NASA and US science. While I certainly want to see a permanent human presence in space, the lack of clear direction (the Space Station is clear example of a clear lack of direction) of that very expensive effort made it difficult for me to understand the never-ending cuts in the astrophysics/space science aspects of NASA's work.
Now, with the Augustine commission's report, it seems like the potential to at least address the issue realistically will hover out there for a bit.
What would it mean to give up, for a while, the manned program? Would it be a loss of something mythic and necessary? Would it be the first step in giving up completely like the Chinese fleets poised to discover the new world and then called back to be burned by a xenophobic emperor? Could it, on the other hand, be the first step in figuring out a rational, realistic plan for a human presence in the extended solar system (rather than just low earth orbit).
I for one think it would be better to have a long term workable plan than another pie-in-the-sky vision that everyone knows will never be funded. And in the meantime we could use a fraction of that money to find extra-solar planets, search for gravitational echoes of black-hole collisions, watch new stars being born, drill for life on Europa etc etc etc. All the cool things possible from space via telescopes and robotic probes.
I for one am ready for that kind of trade off.
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