Budget Cuts Hit NASA

Last Friday night at the Drescher Planetarium here at Santa Monica College, a show was presented by Jim Mahon, a former rocket engineer, entitled "NASA's Human Spaceflight future."

The show was predicated on the recently-conducted "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee," colloquially known as the "Augustine Commission" for its chairman, Norman Augustine, former Under Secretary of the Army from 1975 to 1977. The commission released a report about the state of US-manned space exploration recently, though no action has yet been taken.

The commission's report is expected in light of the supposedly imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle Program that has been the focal point of NASA, and therefore US space operations, for the more than three decades.

Adding urgency to the report are some disturbing realities about the Space Shuttle Program and the long-term effects that have built up to a breaking point.

The third paragraph of the report released by the commission in early October states in plain words what's wrong with the space program at this time: "The U.S. Human Spaceflight Program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today."

A recurring theme of the Planetarium show was the perpetuating decline of US superiority in space. There is a good chance that the commission advocates cutting back on the current programs and essentially start from scratch and overhaul NASA's current work, which draws criticism from a variety of sources in the field, particularly Mahon.

However, such a plan meets with serious resistance across the spectrum.

The earliest motivations for going to space in the 1960s was a reactionary response to the Russians being the first to break the barrier of space by launching the iconic Sputnik in 1959.

Though the International Space Station does represent a major step forward in international space cooperation, those with national pride would argue that the United States lacking the ability to project into space would have political consequences internationally.

Senator Richard Shelby (R–Alabama) emphasized this point in a speech he gave on the Senate floor a few weeks ago. "As we are losing global market shares in most industries, we are still the world leader in human space flight. I will not support a NASA that squanders that lead." He would go on to emphasize keeping the current program moving forward.

NASA's Space and Rocket Center is located in Huntsville, Alabama, and is an integral part of the current space exploration program and consequently receives a noticeable amount of funding to conduct its operations. As such, it is unsurprising to see a representative of a state keep his constituents in mind when debating a national issue.

Another intriguing option for the future of space exploration is the private sector. SpaceX is a local company, founded in El Segundo in 2002 and now operating out of Hawthorne. It is a private space transport company that has developed two rocket designs, the most recent of which is the Falcon 9, already completed and nearly ready to launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Some might question the overall importance or significance of human space exploration. The argument could be made that the US Government has higher priorities than dumping money into a program that produces limited tangible results. However, most experts argue that sustained human life on earth is not in fact possible, at least in the long term (possibly very long term). One of Steven Hawking's most famous quotations is: "I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space."

The importance of human space exploration was particularly accentuated at the Drescher Planetarium Friday evening. One of the last things presented to the audience was a quote by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian expert of astronautics, on whose work the Soviet space program achieved early successes in the space race: "The earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever."

For more information on the shows presented by the Drescher Planetarium should visit the SMC planetarium website and attend a show.