Thursday, January 15, 2004

To Boldy Go...

A quick pause in my musings about our European holiday for a few words about the future of space exploration. President Bush made some bold statements about what American science should focus on for the next few decades in space. In short, he wants to shut down the shuttle program in 2010, put men back on the moon by 2020 for more than just a few days, and even send men to Mars.

So I've admitted to being a space junkie a couple of times already, and I'll say it again. The idea of a frantic push to new frontiers excites me, but I'm not really sure what to make of this just yet. The moment a person sets foot back on the moon or on Mars for the first time, we'll probably look back in hindsight and think very highly of Bush and his boldness. Right now, however, there are many questions yet to be answered.

So while I've got some politically cynical thinking behind this, I'll reserve that for the moment. Looking at Bush's proposal more closely, and you realize that most of this bold move is setting up future adminstrations to fund it. For the time being, only $1 billion more dollars will be pumped into NASA. While that's a lot of money that could used for many other things, it's not really much when you consider that a "simple" robotic explorer can cost $500 million. The rest of the funding for this program would be shifted from existing programs. Most likely, money will go from programs supporting robotic exploration. So things like the Mars Explorer would be put to the side in order to develop not just a mission to the moon, but a new space vehicle.

I personally am amazed by the unmanned missions that NASA has been sending out. It's mind blowing to consider the amount of information that can be gathered from so far out with a few robotic instruments. Manned missions are clearly more about ego than about scientific discovery, but they're still quite important achievements in the progress of mankind.

So I've got some reservations about this. I'll be interested to see what falls to the wayside in order to fund manned missions. I'll also be interested to see what shape the new manned vehicles take. We may no longer has re-useable spacecraft like the shuttle; we may go back to rockets and men packed into pods - 21st Century versions of the Apollo rockets. Who knows. I'm definitely interested to learn more.

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