NASA's successful launch of the Orion spacecraft was an important step, but it is only like dipping a toe in the cosmic ocean. In fact, the future of U.S. space leadership is being starved by lack of funding. Continued neglect will harm our national security, and our economy.
Orion is the first vehicle in history capable of taking humans to multiple destinations in deep space. As capable as the Apollo spacecraft was, its longest round-trip mission to the Moon took just 12 days. Orion is designed to be part of a long-duration spacecraft that will eventually enable human missions to Mars, a trip lasting nearly three years.
NASA has also been developing a brawny new rocket known as the Space Launch System. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history, and it will enable the launch of Orion and its supporting systems to explore the asteroids, the Moon, and Mars.
Many of you might say, so what?
Space leadership propelled our nation forward in the latter half of the 20th Century. It's easy to forget the impact President Kennedy's vision of landing on the moon had on America's economy, educational system, and national psyche.
His determination to lead spurred a whole generation of children to study math and science, and earn degrees in engineering and science. Furthermore, NASA investments led to "space spinoffs" that rapidly accelerated technology development in key areas such as electronics, medicine and safety. The engineering needed to go to the moon drove the development of the first integrated circuits, shrinking the size and greatly increasing the power of computers. This space-driven demand for miniaturized circuits spawned the semiconductor industry and gave the U.S. a big lead in electronics that lasted for decades.
Today, we tend to take the benefits of space exploration for granted - even as we rely daily on weather satellites, global communications, and even GPS-equipped phones. Yet in our complex and competitive world, U.S. space leadership is suffering from decades of shrinking national investment.
For instance, two U.S. rockets (one Air Force and one commercial) now use Russian engines because of decisions made after the end of the Cold War to save money by using cheaper Russian hardware. The result is that our space propulsion industry has atrophied, and our critical launch needs are now dependent on problematic Russian imports. Plainly, we need to rebuild our space capabilities.
Doing so won't break the bank. Many of our citizens overestimate the size of NASA's budget, saying in surveys that it's 30 or 40 percent of federal spending. Even at its Apollo-era peak, NASA's share was only four percent of the federal budget. Today it is just 0.2 percent.
Even at these low levels NASA has landed numerous robotic missions on Mars, built and operated the International Space Station, gained unprecedented knowledge of our own planet, and re-written the astronomy textbooks with the Hubble Space Telescope.
So far NASA has been tasked with two major goals by the President. The first is to conduct a crewed mission to an asteroid "by the middle of the 2020s." Experience gained on such deep space missions can help us realize the second goal, expeditions to Mars some ten years later.
However, the first astronauts won't fly Orion until 2021, and there are so few missions approved that the SLS will only fly at two-year to four-year intervals. During Apollo there were two or three missions per year.
Growing NASA's budget at just 5 percent annually would enable us to regain our lead in space technology and put America at the forefront of space commerce and exploration.
Possible deep space candidates include:
- Large-Aperture Space Telescope - with a 45-50 ft. mirror (vs. 8 ft. on Hubble) it could characterize Earth-like exoplanets, and discover the stellar history of hundreds of galaxies.
- Deep Space Habitat - attached to the Orion this crew habitat three times the diameter of space station modules could serve as a proving ground for long-term human missions to Mars.
- The Europa Clipper - a mission to explore the subsurface ocean of Jupiter's icy moon Europa. SLS could deliver it in 3-4 years, vs. eight years via current launch vehicles.
It might be too late for President Obama to move forward on this roadmap, but the next President and Congress must reinvigorate space exploration as a national priority.
The wise words of President Kennedy still apply today:
"Now is the time to take longer strides. Time for a great new American enterprise. Time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth."
Tom Jones is a four-time astronaut, a planetary scientist, and a senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.
Fred Gregory is a three-time astronaut, served as NASA's Deputy Administrator and is now retired.