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Spaced Out
NASA's vision for human exploration needs some hard questions and perhaps an entrepreneurial boost.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"SHOOT FOR THE moon," goes the old saying. "Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." Lately, this seems to be NASA's strategy. Its vision for human space exploration, the Constellation Project, envisions landing on the moon by 2020 and on Mars by 2037. Devised after the commission investigating the Columbia shuttle disaster found that the space program suffered as much from a lack of vision as from technical failure, this lofty mission sought to fill the vision vacuum and encourage a new generation of Americans to look upward. The vision came at a price. Although proponents noted that the Constellation Project was small in the grand scheme of the federal budget, the plan would cost billions of dollars.

So it is little wonder that the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee has been expressing concern. If the committee's public comments are any indication, its findings will be grim: NASA's recent budget cuts render the current manned mission plan impossible. This is not the first time NASA's plans have suffered from lack of fiscal foresight: Once the international space station is completed next year, the current budget calls for deorbiting it by 2016. Maybe it's time to take a step back to assess the right role for a manned space program that requires billions of dollars annually -- and for what? Certainly, boldly going where no man has gone before is an American creed. But with the advent of increasingly complex and precise instruments, science in space requires less and less input from astronauts. Groundbreaking research can occur without humans -- witness the Mars Rover and Hubble telescope. NASA should not have to sacrifice programs that are truly ground-breaking -- researching dark matter, black holes and gravitational fields of space objects -- to keep the international space station manned and supplied.

Now that the station is nearly complete, this might be an optimal time to open space to entrepreneurs. Many companies claim they possess the capacity to transport humans and payloads into space; the review committee found their reports convincing enough to suggest that these space entrepreneurs could take over the transport of astronauts and supplies to the space station after the shuttle program ends.

It's time to boldly go where no man has gone before. That means opening space to the kind of private-sector competition that revolutionized cyberspace and making sure the next human exploratory efforts are based on real scientific need.

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