to boldly go. maybe. if it’s in the budget.
With the looming retirement of the space shuttle next year, NASA is busy trying to figure out how to continue its human spaceflight program. After September 2010, the U.S. may no longer have a way to get astronauts to the space station it spent many years and billions of dollars building without paying $51 million per seat to Roscosmos. Amazing, isn’t it? In just 40 years, NASA went from reliably landing humans on another world to buying flights from a foreign space agency because it no longer has the means to get there. Ouch.
Yes, it’s true that the problem would only be temporary as the Constellation program steps back in time to modify Apollo designs and builds rockets that should be able to reach the Moon once again. However, the program has been riddled with setback and heavy criticism, so much so that NASA had to come up with an official plan B based on the existing shuttle launch system. While not perfect and alarmingly late in the game, it does seem like a better and more flexible plan than recycling blueprints from the 1960s with modern alloys and electronics.
The funny part in all this is the fact that while we love to talk about how advanced our space faring technology is, when it comes to manned missions, we’re still using stuff that was state of the art in the early 1980s. Even in the most rosy and optimistic scenario which involves the government suddenly shelling out billions in emergency funding to NASA, there will be a significant gap in our capabilities and that gap will come as a direct result of eschewing improvement and updates to our launch vehicles. And not only will this gap hurt NASA’s pride and become a rather sad scuff mark on America’s reputation as the leader in manned space exploration, it will actually set back the space program for many years to come.
All the effort that could’ve gone into brand new technologies and ambitious, efficient plans that have been on the drawing board since the late 1970s, went into the ISS. Even those who proudly and erroneously proclaim that the U.S. is number one at everything as the nation slides down international rankings in everything from healthcare to education, can’t ignore something as big as this. You see, it’s not enough to go around chanting that you’re number one. You have to put the time and effort into maintaining your status. If you don’t, you risk not only losing your leadership, but your ability to do what put you in that leadership position in the first place.