Controversial New Plan for NASA

Meanwhile Russian Scientists Move Ahead With Plan to Detect Ateroid

by Stephanie Sykes, age 17

In late April, President Obama outlined a new direction for NASA that would significantly alter our country’s space exploration program.

His plan calls for the end of the Aries Rockets and Constellation program. NASA’s budget would be reallocated to technology development in the short term, effectively ending the United States’ longstanding tradition of being a leader in space exploration.

The proposal would officially end President George W. Bush’s goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. This “vision for space exploration” was developed after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Obama’s long-term goals for NASA include the completion of new spacecraft for long journeys by the year 2025 and landing on an asteroid.  Obama also wants to orbit Mars by the year 2035 and eventually land on Mars.

The proposed federal budget asks for $18 billion over the next five years to develop new types of engines to accelerate spacecrafts in space and robotic factories that could churn soil on the moon into rocket fuel. Under these new proposals, the overall NASA budget would increase to $19 billion in the 2011 fiscal year, up from $18.7 billion in the previous year. NASA would receive a total of $100 billion over the next five years.

Although Obama’s plan includes traveling to Mars at some point in the future, no space exploration will be added to President Obama’s plan for NASA in the near future. Instead, the budget allows for $6 billion to finance the proposed space taxi services of private companies. Under this new plan, the space agency would essentially buy its astronauts tickets instead of operating its own spacecrafts.

This is, of course, very controversial. Many scientists are disappointed and critical of the Obama plan. Some are not so critical.

John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, called the proposal, “a dramatic shift in the way we’ve gone about human spaceflight over the past almost 50 years.” Logsdon recognizes that the proposal is risky, but points out that, “we’ve been kind of stuck using the technologies we’ve developed in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

In order to pay for the development of all this new technology, the plan requires the abandonment of the Constellation program. This means that the rockets and spacecrafts that NASA has spent four years building will no longer have funding.

However, there is no guarantee that Congress will support NASA’s restructuring. Over the past four years, the United States has spent $9 billion on the Constellation program. Canceling contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alliant Techsystems, and other companies would alone cost $2.5 billion.

When initial reports about the cancellation surfaced, members of Congress expressed their concern. The cancellation of the Constellation program could be devastating to the economies of several states, especially Alabama, Florida, and Texas. These are states most involved with the program.

Interestingly, Russia’s space agency recently announced their plan to knock the large asteroid Apophis off its present course. The aim is to make sure this asteroid doesn’t hit Earth. Russian scientist Anatoly Perminov told Golos Rossii radio that they are considering launching a spacecraft to complete this task.

Russia proposed the plan despite the fact that NASA estimates the chances of the asteroid hitting Earth at 1-in-45,000. When the 885-foot asteroid was discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated a collision with Earth at 1-in-37. Since this first estimate, astronomers have continually reduced the odds of such a collision.

Don Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, is certain that more accurate calculations over the next few years will remove any chance of a collision with Earth. He added, however, that, “While Apophis is almost certainly not a problem, I am encouraged that the Russian science community is willing to study the various deflection options that would be available in the event  of a future Earth-threatening encounter by an asteroid.”

When Perminov announced the plan, he ignored NASA’s estimates and instead said, “I don’t remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032.” Although he did not release details about the Russian project, he assured the public that the mission wouldn’t require nuclear explosions.

Russell L. Schweickart is a former Apollo astronaut and chairman of the B612 Foundation, a group located in California that promotes efforts to deflect asteroids. Although he approved much of the proposal, he objects to using Apophis to test deflection methods.

“It takes a very small change in the Apophis orbit to cause it to impact the Earth instead of missing it,” Scweickart warns. “There are a million asteroids out there. Find another one.”

[Sources: The New York Times; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Chicago Tribune; www.npr.org]

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