The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent federal agency responsible for developing and implementing the nation’s space program. This includes planning long-term civilian and military aerospace research, development of manned and unmanned missions into space, and the training of astronauts. Because of its space-based mission, NASA is one of the government’s best known operations, going all the way back to the 1960s Apollo program and its grainy television footage of the first men landing on the moon. While NASA has captured the imaginations of millions of Americans, it also has produced some of the greatest tragedies in recent U.S. history, specifically the loss of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. With the Space Shuttle program now in retirement and other space programs—including planned lunar missions—brought to a halt, NASA and Congress are considering a controversial five-year initiative proposed by President Obama that would implement development of new technologies to enable lengthier and deeper space travel, including International Space Station operations, and manned trips to an asteroid by the mid-2020s and to Mars by the mid-2030s. In spite of these lofty goals, a sense of gloom prevails in the industry and among members of Congress—that the future of the U.S. space program is in fact in decline—due to budgetary concerns, NASA’s recent failures and ill-defined plans, its extensive workforce layoffs, and an overall lack of popular support. NASA’s reduced footprint in coming years, which comes at a time when foreign nations’ space aspirations are on the upswing, could portend a shift in the U.S. toward more military than exploratory investment in outer space.
On October 4, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 1 into orbit. This man-made satellite made it possible for the United States’ cold war enemy to spy on its military installations all over the world. A second satellite, Sputnik 2, was launched on November 3, 1957, with a dog named Laika serving as the first living passenger in space.
Alarmed by this threat to national security, Congress worked with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to find a non-military solution. They created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to assist in this goal.
The U.S. launched its first satellite, called Satellite 1958 Alpha (aka Explorer 1), on January 31, 1958, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed on July 29, 1958, when the National Aeronautics and Space Act was signed into law.
NASA’s formal operations began on October 1, 1958. It consisted of four laboratories and approximately 80 employees transferred from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Wernher von Braun, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Germany, became the de facto leader of the new space program. His Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Naval Research Laboratory were quickly folded into NASA and charged with the same goals.
The “space race,” as it came to be called, pitted the U.S. against the Soviets for supremacy of the sky. Project Mercury, begun in 1958, was the first space mission manned by American astronauts. Its mission was to discover whether humans could survive in space. Representatives from the Army, Navy and Air Force were chosen to assist in the development of this project. The NASA Space Task Group coordinated their efforts with existing U.S. defense research and infrastructure and received assistance from both experimental aircraft and an accompanying military test pilot program in the 1950s.
Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American in space (May 5, 1961) when he piloted Freedom 7 on a 15-minute suborbital flight into the Earth’s atmosphere. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962, when he piloted Friendship 7 on a 5.75-hour flight.
The Mercury program proved that humans could survive in space, given support for atmospheric and gravitational changes. Project Gemini was launched shortly thereafter to determine whether flight to the Moon was possible. Gemini 3, flown by astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young, was launched on March 23, 1965. No more Gemini missions followed, as the initial flight proved that vehicles in space could dock successfully.
In the late 1960s, the Apollo program was promoted to land humans on the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth. Apollo 1 ended in tragedy, as all three astronauts (Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee) died in a command module fire during an experimental simulation. The U.S. space program pulled back, testing a few unmanned spacecraft before men boarded any new missions. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 orbited the moon successfully, returning photographs and related data.
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed the first man on the Moon. Neil Armstrong became famous overnight for uttering the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Millions watched him take the first few steps on the Moon’s surface. Apollo 13 suffered a malfunction and did not land on the Moon. It was able to return photographs, as did six additional Apollo missions. Other data gathered included more than 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments measured soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic activity, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind activity.
During the 1970s, the U.S. space program became involved in designing and launching the first space station that could provide a semi-permanent base in space and which would conduct constant experiments on the changing conditions of space. In 1973, the U.S. launched Skylab into orbit. It remained in orbit from 1973 to 1979 and was visited by crews three times, in 1973 and 1974. Originally, Skylab’s mission was to measure the shifting gravity of other solar systems, but it was cut short due to lack of interest and funding. A space shuttle, which had been planned to dock with and elevate Skylab to a safer altitude, was not completed in time. As a result, Skylab entered the Earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed in 1979.
The Voyager Mars Program grew out of the Apollo Applications Program, between 1966 and 1968, and was planned to send a series of unmanned NASA probes to Mars. A manned mission was estimated to launch in 1980. However, funding for the program was cut in 1971. Development of the Viking program in the mid-1970s incorporated much of the Voyager Mars program’s mission. This program was cheaper and simpler than Voyager and was able to be completed using the funding already appropriated. Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes were launched to Mars in 1975, and reached Mars in 1976. The Voyager name was recycled for the Mariner 11 and Mariner 12 probes to outer planets. The orbiter portions of the probes photographed the surface of Mars, and the lander studied the planet’s surface. Information received was instrumental in designing subsequent missions to Mars.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) unified the U.S. and Soviet space programs under one mission. It launched in July 1975 and signified the last Apollo flight for the U.S. The test project included several scientific missions, including an engineered solar eclipse by Apollo for Soyuz to take pictures of the corona. It provided useful information on how to sync the two space programs and served as part of the formation of the Shuttle-Mir Program, which would help to relax tension caused by the space race. This was also the last U.S. manned space launch until April 1981.
Although a space shuttle program was in the planning stages in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it was successfully launched. On April 12, 1981, Columbia was sent into space. Designed to be part of a four-vehicle fleet of spacecraft, Columbia was to be frequently launchable and entirely reusable.
However, the Columbia flights were much more expensive than NASA had projected. Pubic interest in space traveled waned again, and the Challenger disaster of 1986 further illustrated the dangers of space travel. On January 28, a civilian joined a crew of professional astronauts for the first time. Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, completed NASA’s training program before being chosen to accompany the flight into space. But 73 seconds after Challenger was launched, an O-ring seal failed on the craft’s right solid rocket booster (SRB). This ignited an enormous flare that burned the rocket’s propellants and completely disintegrated the craft live on national television. All seven members of the crew were killed.
NASA was criticized for its lack of openness with the press in the wake of the disaster. Speculation ran rampant, with The New York Times and United Press International running stories suggesting that an external fuel tank had caused the explosion. The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, also known as the Rogers Commission, was charged with investigating the disaster. The commission worked for several months and published a report of its findings. Conclusions about the design flaw that allowed the faulty O-ring to remain placed blame at the feet of NASA and its contractor, Morton Thiokol’s, failure to address the design flaw. Two of Morton Thiokol’s own engineers had warned that the rocket boosters could fail in cold weather because the O-rings might not seal properly. Additional conclusions faulted communication between Thiokol and NASA regarding the design flaw.
During the rest of the 1980s, the space program worked quietly on the Space Station Freedom, but some scientists at NASA wondered if unmanned missions such as the Voyager probes would return more useful scientific data. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST, or Hubble), named after American astronomer Edwin Hubble, was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in April 1990. It served as an important research tool and helped to repair damaged public relations following the Challenger disaster. Building of Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, was partially completed when a House appropriations panel cut its funding—along with that of other NASA programs—in July 2011.
The U.S. space program again worked with the Russians in 1995 as the Shuttle-Mir missions were launched. An American craft again docked with a Russian craft, and together they created the largest space station ever built—the International Space Station (ISS). But costs over $100 billion made it hard for NASA to justify ISS to constituents, who remain unimpressed by scientific experiments in space.
NASA faced budget cuts throughout the 1990s, but adopted a “faster, better, cheaper” method of doing business and began the Discovery Program during this time. Although the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander were both lost in 1999, NASA made 116 successful launches between 1995 and 2006.
The Space Shuttle Columbia had flown 27 successful research missions when it was launched on February 1, 2003. But then the spacecraft disintegrated over Texas when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Subsequently, it was found that a piece of foam insulation had broken off during launch and damaged the craft’s thermal protection system (TPS). All seven members of the crew were killed.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, convened to investigate the disaster, recommended technical and organizational issues and set the space program back two years as a result of its findings. Construction of the International Space Station was put on hold indefinitely, and the station was forced to rely on the Russian Federal Space Agency for re-supply and crew rotation until the “Return to Space” Space Shuttle mission was launched in July 2005.
By July 2003, an Associated Press poll showed that 66% of Americans still favored space exploration. On January 14, 2004, ten days after the Mars Exploration Rover Unit landed, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which called for the retirement of the space shuttle fleet by 2010, the completion of ISS, and the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle. It also called for a return to the Moon by 2018 in order to set up outposts for potential future missions to Mars. Congress provided start-up funds for the first year of the new space program in late 2004.
Various delays ensued, but on July 26, 2005, Space Shuttle Discovery was launched, returning the U.S. to space. Although the flight was successful, a piece of foam similar to the one that caused the Columbia accident was dislodged, grounding the shuttles until the problem was solved. The flight’s re-entry was delayed by two days due to adverse weather. But the entire crew returned safely on August 9, 2005.
In late August 2005, the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the external tanks were constructed, was damaged in Hurricane Katrina. This delayed subsequent flights by several months, while damage from the hurricane was assessed. STS-121, the second “Return to Flight” mission, was launched on July 4, 2006, after two previous launches had been scrubbed. Severe thunderstorms and high winds around the launch pad made the launch a safety hazard, but it was made over the objections of the mission’s chief engineer and safety head. Discovery touched down successfully on July 17, 2006, after increasing the ISS crew to three.
Later, it was found that STS-121 had shed more foam than NASA engineers had expected. Although this did not delay the next mission, weather problems and other technical glitches continued to stymie scientists. Atlantis was the next successful space mission in September 2006.
On December 4, 2006, NASA announced that it was planning to build a permanent base on the Moon, with construction to commence in 2020 and projected completion in 2024. However, these plans were shelved when, in January 2010, President Obama canceled the program in favor of a new five-year, $100-billion initiative focused on developing new technologies, including advanced spacecraft engines and extraterrestrial rocket fuel development factories. The means to pay for this was created through the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program—the development of spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle—which had been underway for four years at a cost of $9 billion, and would now cost an additional $2.5 billion to shut down. The plan, which would shift the role of NASA away from operating its own spacecraft to relying solely on commercial companies, was met with mixed reaction, including sharp criticism from several former astronauts, including Neil Armstrong.
In the new millennium, NASA has also shifted its focus to surveying Mars and Saturn (the Cassini probe), as well as deepening its studies of the Earth and Sun. The agency has sent spacecraft to Mercury and has Jupiter missions in the planning stages. The New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched in 2006 and will arrive in 2015.
In August 2007, the Phoenix Mars Mission was launched. As a joint project of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, its lander took up where the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander left off. Sturdier and fitted with better imaging equipment, the Phoenix lander explored the northern Martian planes and provided extensive data during its five-month mission. Its operations ended on May 25, 2010, when communications failed after it suffered severe solar panel ice damage. Mars Science Laboratory launched its new rover, Curiosity, onboard an Atlas V rocket, on November 26, 2011, for a Mars landing on August 6, 2012.
July 21, 2011 marked the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program as its final mission came to an end with the landing of the Atlantis STS-135.
President Obama’s call, in 2010, for new technology development was made with an eye toward advancing International Space Station operations, and establishing goals of accomplishing lengthier, deep-space travel, including manned trips to an asteroid by the mid-2020s and to Mars by the mid-2030s. Within 18 months of the President’s speech, a consensus has formed that the future of the U.S. space program may be bleak. During the past two decades, NASA has failed in three separate attempts to develop a new launch capability. Thousands of NASA employees have been laid off and highly experienced shuttle scientists are retiring, the agency’s plans for meeting its newly ascribed mission appear to be vague, there exist serious budgetary concerns, and a sense that there is currently little popular support for the nation’s space program. The absence of a concerted, heavily supported, and well-executed overall NASA mission in the future would leave a vacuum that could be easily filled by the already heavily budgeted military and national security outer space operations.
With retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA must now pay $63 million to Russia for the privilege of sending a U.S. astronaut to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. As the U.S. space program is in decline, other nations are advancing their space plans; China has a program estimated to be funded at more than $5 billion, India’s is at $1.3 billion, and Iran—which has launched satellites and has attempted to send animals into space—plans to put a manned craft into orbit by 2021.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is responsible for carrying out space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. Presently, the agency manages orbital and off-planet missions such as Opportunity and Curiosity, the Mars Exploration Rovers; Cassini, a satellite in orbit around Saturn; the Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth that helps scientists explore the deepest reaches of space; the International Space Station, which is extending the permanent human presence in space; and Earth science satellites that send back data on oceans, climate, and other features.
NASA operates 10 field centers and a variety of installations that conduct the day-to-day work in laboratories, on airfields, in wind tunnels, and in control rooms. These include the White Sands Test Facility, Wallops Flight Facility, Goddard Institute of Space Studies, Ames Research Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dryden Flight Research Center, Johnson Space Center, Stennis Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Kennedy Space Center, Langley Research Center, and the Glenn Research Center.
NASA also maintains four mission directorates under which most agency operations fall. These are:
Aeronautics—NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) works to enhance the state of aeronautics by conducting cutting-edge research in traditional aeronautical disciplines and emerging fields. ARMD addresses research challenges that must be overcome in order to create the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) (pdf). The directorate helps find solutions for increasing the capacity, efficiency and flexibility of the country’s national air space, while also examining ways to help address substantial noise, emissions, efficiency, performance, and safety challenges that must be met in order to design vehicles that can support NextGen.
Exploration Systems—This directorate will use the International Space Station as a stepping-stone for sending humans deeper into space, beginning with landing on an asteroid and then on Mars. The directorate includes these key divisions: International Space Station, Commercial Space Transportation, Crew Vehicle and Launch System, Human Health and Safety, Analog Missions and Field Testing, and Human Exploration Technology.
Science—The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) sponsors scientific research and develops and deploys satellites and probes in collaboration with NASA’s partners around the world to answer fundamental questions about the Earth and space. SMD seeks to understand the origins, evolution and destiny of the universe and to understand the nature of the strange phenomena that shape it. SMD also seeks to understand the nature of life in the universe and what kinds of life may exist beyond Earth; the solar system, both scientifically and in preparation for human exploration; and the Sun and Earth, changes in the Earth-Sun system, and the consequences of the Earth-Sun relationship for life on Earth.
Space Operations—This directorate provides technologies for much of the rest of NASA through the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and flight support. The Space Operations Mission Directorate also oversees requirements for development, policy, and programmatic oversight. The directorate is similarly responsible for agency leadership and management of NASA space operations related to Launch Services, Space Transportation, and Space Communications in support of both human and robotic exploration programs.
From the Web Site of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Budgets and Plans
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spent more than $125.5 billion on 253,487 transactions during the past decade. According to USASpending.gov, NASA paid for a variety of services, from engineering and technical services ($21.4 billion) to basic research ($15.9 billion), to support its goals.
The top contractors include the nation’s largest defense contractors and aerospace companies, including:
California Institute of Technology $20,653,904,876
Lockheed Martin Corporation $12,241,755,049
United Space Alliance LLC $11,475,310,276
The Boeing Company $8,981,407,451
Alliant Techsystems Inc. $4,598,508,391
The California Institute of Technology (CalTech) provides various research & development services for NASA, including the Deep Space Network and the Mars Science Laboratory. The Deep Space Network networks communication facilities supporting interplanetary spacecraft missions, radio, and radar astronomy observations and exploration of the solar system. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a research center responsible for building and operating unmanned spacecraft, is fully staffed and supported by NASA.
Scientist Claims Bacterial Alien Life Found in Meteorites
A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist created a stir in March 2011 by claiming to have found indications of alien life in an old meteorite.
Astrobiologist Richard Hoover wrote in a paper published by the Journal of Cosmology that filaments and other findings inside a 146-year-old space rock appeared to be fossilized alien microbes.
It was not the first time Hoover had made such a claim. But that didn’t stop many scientists from dismissing the assertion. One expert called Hoover’s conclusion “garbage” and added that it made as much sense as claiming he had found a rabbit in the meteorite.
NASA Scientist Claims to See Alien Life In Meteorites, Controversy Ensues (by Rebecca Boyle, Popular Science)
NASA Chief Conflict of Interest
Charles Bolden, the first African American to head NASA, came under scrutiny in June 2010 after he cancelled a $10 million biofuels project. Controversy arose because Bolden consulted on the project’s merits with Marathon Oil, where he served on the board of directors and still held up to $1 million in company stock. Marathon Oil had its own stake in the project as it was trying to develop biofuels technology to sell to NASA, which some suggested was the reason Bolden killed the project. Bolden’s actions triggered an investigation by the space agency’s inspector general.
Bolden at Center of NASA Biofuels Controversy (Orlando Sentinel)
NASA Studies Deliberately Minimize the Effects of Global Warming
According to a 2008 report released by NASA, political appointees in NASA’s press office “marginalized, or mischaracterized” studies on global warming between 2004 and 2006. NASA’s Inspector General called the distortions “inappropriate political interference” and “found no credible evidence suggesting that senior NASA or administration officials directed the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs to minimize information relating to climate change.” Scientists involved with climate change research believe the actions taken by the NASA Office of Public Affairs came at the expense of understanding unfiltered research findings and the benefit of public scientific debate.
NASA Office Is Criticized on Climate Reports (by Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times)
NASA Contractor Sabotages Endeavor Launch Box
On July 26, 2007, NASA confirmed that at least one space program worker intentionally tried to sabotage a computer that was due to be flown on the shuttle Endeavour. The worker allegedly cut wires inside a data relay box that was to be added to the space station’s Destiny Laboratory. The data box was designed to be like the space station’s backbone, assisting in the transmission of data back to the United States. Endeavour was launched on March 11, 2008, and returned safely after a 16-day mission to the International Space Station.
NASA Uncovers Attempted Computer Sabotage (by Michael Hoffman, Daily Tech)
Interviews Reveal NASA Allowed Astronauts to Fly Drunk
In July 2007, independent investigation panels revealed that their research had uncovered a pattern of NASA allowing astronauts to fly missions while visibly under the influence of alcohol. According to flight surgeons and astronauts, crew members preparing to fly raised questions about efficacy, mental health issues and overall leadership. One impaired astronaut was launched aboard a Russian Soyuz aircraft while another involved a scrubbed space shuttle flight.
NASA Knew About Preflight Drinking Among Astronauts (by Marc Kaufman, Washington Post)
Dismantle NASA and Replace It with a Deep Space Exploration Agency
As debate over the future direction of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) raged inside and outside the agency, one former astronaut offered a radical suggestion: Shut it down and start over.
Harrison Schmitt, member of Apollo 17 and former Republican U.S. senator from New Mexico, wrote in a 2011 essay that the government should do away with NASA. Schmitt suggested giving some NASA duties to other federal offices, and fold the rest of the agency into a newly created National Space Exploration Administration (NSEA), which would focus on deep space missions.
The ex-astronaut explained that NASA was too much of a bloated bureaucracy ever to be effective again. It also had become hampered by lawmakers in Congress more concerned with preserving jobs in their districts than helping NASA carry out missions for the nation’s good.
“Rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable ‘pork barrel spending’ in states and districts with NASA Centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors,” wrote Schmitt. “Neither taxpayers nor the Nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program.”
Obama’s Privatization of Space Program
With Congress itching to shrink the federal budget and little to show for recent space endeavors consuming billions of dollars, President Barack Obama decided to alter the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Gone went a plan to return to the moon in favor of deep space missions, while the government placed more purpose in the development of private space companies. Entrepreneurs hailed the administration’s decision, while former astronauts blasted the new policies.
Administration officials insisted NASA’s existing and costly program, Constellation, was behind schedule and over budget. The latest projections showed a return trip to the moon wouldn’t be possible before the mid-2020s, and that was assuming NASA could get the monies it needed for the program from a stingy Congress. So NASA was ordered to cancel a new rocket intended for Constellation and begin working on going deeper into the solar system, while partnering with private space explorers to handle shorter missions. At least one company, SpaceX, has already demonstrated some success, sending its Dragon capsule into orbit for multiple trips around the earth and bringing it safely back down, and all for less that $1 billion. Many observers were impressed with the achievement at that cost.
Some stalwarts of NASA’s early days rejected the idea that commercial rockets will help the agency succeed. The first man to step on the moon, Neil Armstrong, criticized the administration’s new direction for space. He doubted private companies could be counted on to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Armstrong was joined by fellow Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan who derided the decision, saying it “presents no challenges, has no focus and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.”
Briefly: Budget Turmoil, 2012 Lobbying (Space Politics)
Former Astronauts Blast Obama's NASA Changes as a 'Mission To Nowhere' (by Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel)
SpaceX Could Hasten NASA's Reform (by Robert Black, Standard-Examiner)
NASA Involvement in Polar Ice Cap Melting Debate
NASA stuck its nose into the hotly contested issue of global warming in March 2011, releasing a scientific study that said greenhouse gases generated by human activities (and not changes in solar activity) were the primary cause of global warming. NASA scientists also warned that the ice sheet in Antarctica was melting faster than previously estimated, an assertion that produced even more debate about the findings.
The NASA paper concluded that ice loss from both Greenland and Antarctica was accelerating, and that this development would substantially impact the rise in sea levels in the first half of the 21st century. In 2006 alone, the two ice sheets lost roughly 475 billion metric tons of ice, according to the space agency. NASA’s calculations meant global sea levels were likely to rise six inches in the next 40 years. Another study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not project as high a rise in ocean levels. NASA also made it clear that global warming was being caused by man-made carbon emissions, something many businesses and conservatives have refuted.
Some scientists continued to reject the idea that global warming was happening at all. Around the same time NASA released its study, 16 experts published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, saying there’s no need to “decarbonize” the world’s economy. They even argued that there was no proof of global warming taking place over the previous 10 years. As for NASA’s claim that Antarctica was experiencing a net loss of glacier ice, one scientist within the agency challenged this point. Jay Zwally, a glaciologist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the estimate of the ice loss was “much too large.” Zwally said increased snowfall on the continent was making up for the amount of ice melting off, keeping things in balance.
Polar Ice Loss Is Accelerating, Scientists Say (by John Collins Rudolf, New York Times)
NASA: Global Warming Caused Mostly by Humans (by Wendy Koch, USA Today)
Should We Go Back to the Moon?
Following the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, officials within the Bush administration debated over what to do with the three-decade old program. The conclusion was to retire the space shuttle following the completion of the International Space Station and focus National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) again on manned missions to the moon and beyond. Taking a page from his father (George H. W. Bush), President George W. Bush declared in January 2004 to send astronauts to the moon. The idea ran into trouble right away once lawmakers realized the program would cost $400 billion or more. Opposition became even stiffer once the economy tanked and Republicans took over the House, calling for large reductions in the federal budget. But that didn’t stop one Republican congressman from pushing the idea to go back to the moon.
Declaring “space is the world’s ultimate high ground,” Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 1641 in 2011, calling for a return to the moon. Posey represents part of Florida’s “space coast,” where NASA jobs are pivotal. But the congressman’s argument focused on “reinvigorating our human space flight program” because he said it was a matter of national security. He pointed out that technologies developed by NASA have been proven critical to other facets of American life, especially the military. Also, China and Russia are interested in colonizing the moon, and the U.S. can’t afford to be left back on earth if these countries follow through on their plans. Other supporters of new moon missions argue that a new endeavor will set the stage for an eventual manned trip to Mars.
REAL Space Act (H.R. 1641) (Representative Bill Posey)
President Bush Announces New Vision for Space Exploration Program (White House)
Bush: Moon Return by 2015: Space shuttle to be retired (by Earl Lane, Newsday.com)
Many of Posey’s Republican colleagues, as well as President Barack Obama, insist the nation can’t afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars right now on moon missions. For some it boils down to “been there, done that.” That’s why the Obama administration decided to redirect NASA on new space exploration, such as visiting a distant asteroid, which some say would be a better springboard for getting to Mars. Even if China and Russia are serious about putting their astronauts on the moon, that’s not reason enough for the U.S. to invest in a lunar program. Other critics have argued that if getting back to the moon is really important, let private companies figure out how to do it, and keep NASA focused on deep space missions.
Congress to NASA: Go to the Moon (Discover Magazine)
NASA pundits launch debate over space flight (by Stefanie Olsen, CNET)
Dissent Grows as Scientists Oppose NASA’s New Moon Mission
(by Joe Pappalardo, Popular Mechanics)
President Obama chose a former astronaut and Marine Corps aviator with strong ties to the defense industry to lead NASA in its transition from the Space Shuttle era to the next phase of space exploration. Born in the Jim Crow South, retired Marine Corps Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr., faced questions about his ties to the aerospace and defense industries, but was confirmed as NASA’s first permanent African American Administrator on July 15, 2009.