The Apollo 16 command and service module over the moon. Photo courtesy NASA.
Ever since President Obama announced his budget plans for NASA, there has been quite a bit of worry from supporters of the space program that by curtailing our return to the moon, the U.S. was downsizing its extra-terrestrial ambitions. Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin writes on the Huffington Post today that the truth is quite the opposite, that Obama is positioning us to be better able to pursue our goals in space and to reap the rewards of the burgeoning private space investment that has stolen NASA's thunder.
The embracing of private space activities (including spending money to give U.S. astronauts rides on private spaceships) is causing consternation among two groups: people who think space should be strictly a public enterprise, and people who have made careers working in NASA-funded industries.
As I've noted here before, I'm thrilled with the private space activity. It gives me a feeling of "at last, we have traction." Things are really happening, and it's getting exciting for the non-astronaut, because our horizons are opening up. But I also think it makes financial sense. Let private industry do the investment. Government has to do certain things that private investment won't or can't sustain (including occasionally stepping in to save our necks when private financial firms nearly wreck the world economy, but that's another issue). But it needn't do everything, and it can wisely step aside when private initiative has its own momentum.
Anyway, we space enthusiasts no longer need to see NASA or the ESA as the standard bearers for the long-term project of ensuring that humanity isn't stuck on one planet forever. That's good news, because Western governments will be suffering long-term financial hangovers from this economic crisis of the past two years.
Furthermore, NASA's glory has been tarnished somewhat by the underwhelming performance of the space shuttle, slow progress on the international space station, and other issues. Part of the problem with NASA's operations and goals as set during the Bush administration is that ambitious goals of reaching Mars and of returning to the moon were combined with typical Bush tactics of not providing funding. Writes Aldrin of the moon project:
First, the President failed to fully fund the program, as he had initially promised. As a result, each year the development of the rockets and spacecraft called for in the plan slipped further and further behind. Second and most importantly, NASA virtually eliminated the technology development effort for advanced space systems. Equally as bad, NASA also raided the Earth and space science budgets in the struggle to keep the program, named Project Constellation, on track. Even that effort fell short.I can't predict how well the Obama administration will carry out its plans. Our budgetary constraints are going to be severe in coming years, and American's don't seem to be looking to the skies for inspiration these days. Richard Branson might be helping to change that, and now Buzz Aldrin promises to pitch in his support.