Monday, June 27, 2011

NASA, NASA News, The Future of Manned Space Flight, Last Space Shuttle

The manifest price of destiny

Next week the US space shuttle is scheduled to take off for the 135th and last time. Atlantis will carry a crew of four to the International Space Station and lower the curtain on a 30-year era of manned space flight. For the next few years Nasa will rely on Russian rockets to take astronauts into space – an uneasy dependency for many Americans steeped in the old rivalries of the cold war space race.

Logically, this pause would be an opportunity for the US to rethink the whole purpose of sending people into space – an environment so profoundly hostile to the human body that immense sums have to be spent making travel beyond Earth acceptably safe. But too many Americans still feel a compulsion to spend billions of their tax dollars on manned space flight for a complete re-evaluation to be politically feasible.

The Obama administration’s partial reassessment has produced a more realistic blueprint for the future of Nasa than the one inherited from the Bush administration, which was absurdly over-ambitious given the resources allocated to Nasa (about $19bn a year). Many questions remain, however. No one knows how long it will take the private sector to develop safe new vehicles to carry crew and materials up to the space station in low Earth orbit, the main destination for astronauts at least until 2020.
Nasa’s strategy for developing a heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicles for longer flights into deep space – possibly to visit an asteroid or even Mars in the far future – remains murky, though there are worrying signs that this will depend too much on old Apollo-era technology rather than imaginative, novel ideas.

Manned spaceflight is grossly extravagant on any rational evaluation of the scientific benefits, which are often mentioned as its justification. If the funds had instead been invested in unmanned exploration and space science, we would know far more about our solar system and indeed the universe.
The real reasons for manned spaceflight are quite different. Advocates talk about the benefits of international collaboration and inspiring the young. But above all, there is the human spirit of adventure, the idea that our “manifest destiny” is to move out from Earth to explore – and eventually colonise – the solar system and the galaxy. This long-term vision lay behind Apollo in the 1960s and, while many people now will regard it as more absurd than inspiring, it remains the best justification for sending people into space.

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