Will NASA’s Future Look Bright? | Out Of This World Weekly

The ability of NASA to launch large missions is not looking good.  NASA is known for it’s flagship missions that cost billions of dollars, yet provide incalculable insights into the universe.  Missions such as the Voyager missions, the Hubble telescope, or the Cassini probe are considered flagship missions and only come along every 5 to 10 years.  To be more specific, these multi-billion dollar missions used to come along every 5 to 10 years, today these missions can only occur every 20 to 30 years.  That’s right, funding for these missions is getting harder to come by.  This is part of the reason for NASA’s smaller, better, cheaper design philosophy which has become more popular within the past two decades. 

It’s not only funding that is jeopardizing our ability to explore space.  Plutonium 238 is currently fueling NASA’s Curiosity Rover on it’s way to Mars and has been powering robots and probes for over 50 years.  This isotope of Plutonium gives off heat that can be converted to electricity and this process is the reason that the U.S.A. is the only country that has sent a science mission beyond the orbit of Mars.  It is simply too cold and dim beyond the orbit of Mars to be able to use solar panels and batteries do not provide enough power.  So, how much Plutonium 238 do we have?  According to NASA, we have enough for the next 10 years only and after that we will lose the ability to travel beyond Mars.  Production is not expected to start up until after 2020 and then it will only be a fraction of what is necessary, even now funding has been turned down three years in a row due to Congress.  Even if production is started as scheduled, only a couple pounds per year will be produced and this is only enough to power a very few space probes or robots. 

One of the biggest flagship missions is the James Webb space telescope.  The James Webb telescope is the successor to the Hubble telescope and it barely received funding from Congress this year due to several cost overruns.  This project has been in development since 1996 and isn’t going to be launched until 2018, when it will search for the very first stars and galaxies in the universe.  One of the major missions that have recently been cancelled due to budget cuts include the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which was to actually image Earth-like planets around other stars.  Such less publicized missions as the Space Interferometry Mission, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, the International X-ray Observatory, Microarcsecond X-ray Imaging Mission, Single Aperture Far-Infrared Observatory, Space Ultraviolet-Visible Observatory, and Submillimeter Probe of the Evolution of Cosmic Structure have also been canceled due to budgetary restraints.  Of course we can’t forget about the Space Shuttle, undoubtedly one of the coolest spacecraft ever known to man – also recently cut.  We have to realize that all of these programs were needed to continue discovery at our current pace, without them it will take many more decades to make discoveries within our reach. 

NASA has been trying to set up commercial spaceflight so that they can focus on the business of exploration.  Not having to pay for the highly expensive Space Shuttle is supposed to free up funding for these other programs which are being cut anyways.  I worry that if NASA doesn’t get their act together and get some funding, their budget will slowly be cut to smithereens.  This would have the effect of cutting back space exploration to what we were doing 50 years ago, basically looking through ground based telescopes into the sky.  All of these cut missions would have yielded significant scientific discoveries while increasing our understanding of the universe and now they are gone.  These projects were worked on by the best minds that we have – now all that time, money and effort has been wasted.  NASA is not only losing the funding for present and future projects, but also the ability to reach for the stars.  If these changes are not turned around soon, NASA and the U.S. are looking at a very dim and different future in space. 

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