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Space exploration is being postponed indefinitely by the new direction of the U.S. space program.
Late last January, President Obama unveiled his plans for the future of U.S. spaceflight. Though the plan included a budget increase, most of the plan was focused on cuts. Obama called for the retirement of the space shuttle, the cancellation of the Constellation Program, and the removal of NASA as the primary spaceflight developers. Instead, the development of new ways to get into space will fall to the private sector.
This plan has met with criticism from the space community, notably Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Retiring the space shuttle is a smart move, considering that the ships were designed in the 1960s and built in the 1970s. But with no replacement yet designed, that leaves the U.S. without any means to reach space. This was the point of the Constellation Program, to replace the space shuttle with more modern, safer designs.
Obama justified the cancellation of the program by pointing out that over $9 billion has been spent since 2005 on Constellation, with the 2020 being the next projected moon landing. Several billion dollars are still needed to make the dreams of Constellation a reality, and that just seems like far too much. Constellation’s development of new rocket boosters has become overpriced and behind schedule. But what Obama has failed to realize is that this is the case for every spacecraft previously built by NASA. It is a complicated science, and placing time restrictions on the development of spacecraft inhibits the ability to create the best ship possible.
But, because Constellation is taking longer than promised, it has been canceled.
However, the development of new spaceflight technologies will take even longer, and will likely end up costing just as much in the end, if not more. The earliest credible date for reaching beyond the moon without Constellation is the mid-2020s.
With the Constellation Program gone, and NASA no longer serving as the prime developers of spacecraft, Obama has called for the private sector to begin taking responsibility for reaching space. Allowing private companies would free the future of spaceflight from annual budget scares, quadrennial presidential campaigns and congressional meddling, also known as politics.
Doing so would allow spaceflight to develop through competition, and theoretically would synthesize the best spacecraft possible.
Obama said that the plan is not so radical, since NASA has outsourced construction of the spacecraft before, which is true. Before, it was always NASA designers who created the ships and concepts, then hired a firm or company that was capable of making those plans realities. If development is left solely in the hands of companies, packs of developers will build what they want and force NASA to choose from what is offered.
In the past, NASA provided a unifying vision of what was needed, it also provided a unified use of budget. Obama has proposed a budget of $6 billion for use by the private sectors, but that money will be spread thin for the several companies under contract.
Obama’s new plan for space travel has its merits, but it trusts the future of space to young companies that need time to develop into reliable sources of spaceflight. And his plan leaves the U.S. grounded indefinitely, with no true replacements in the near future. His policies might pan out in the distant future, but it won’t be in our lifetime.
What does all this mean for CU?
CU has been recently chosen as one of eight universities to participate in a Federal Aviation Administration program aimed at researching potential problems with the development of commercial space flight. This includes safety concerns, launch sites, how to schedule commercial space travel, how to deal with air traffic, etc.
Essentially, CU will be offering checks and balances to make sure the private sector’s space programs are on the level, which has the potential to ensure safer and more efficient space travel. CU has invested a lot in space. The future of the university is tied closely to the future of space.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer David Blackwell at David.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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