To the Point: Astronomer discusses NASA's future

University Park, Pa. – After more than a half-century of involvement sending humans into space, the United States is now preparing for the shut down of NASA's human space flight programs.

Findings from the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, known as the Augustine Commission, report that the current human space program, the Constellation program, was underfunded, behind schedule and over budget. Because of these findings the program was not included in the 2010 U.S. budget and the program is winding down.

Chris Palma, senior lecturer in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, whose specialty is education and outreach in astronomy, explains the implications of the end of this NASA program.

Can you explain more specifically why the human space program is coming to an end?

Palma: The U.S. has been involved in human space flight for decades. They sent capsules on rockets into space, then shuttles. The shuttles have been reused for decades now, and the technology they rely on is just as old. They are very expensive to launch and maintain. With the loss of Columbia, folks at NASA became even more worried about the increasing dangers to astronauts. The program was reevaluated after the Columbia explosion, because they needed to determine if the program should continue or if NASA should ground them permanently while working on the next generation of human space flight vehicles.

While most people would expect new technology and improvements to the vehicles that might make them unrecognizable compared to past NASA missions, the next generation of vehicles appear very similar to the capsules from the Apollo missions. The plan also was similar -- to use these new vehicles to send astronauts back to the moon. NASA has been working on this program for a number of years and it’s where most of the funding has gone recently. One of the big issues is that NASA spends a lot of money on the human space flight program and the panel reviewing it -- the Augustine Commission -- said that based on the funding they are getting and the pace they’re working, they probably won’t meet the goal to get astronauts to the moon in 2020. So, at this point, a decision has been made to end the shuttle program and also to end development of the next generation vehicles, too.

Why would the Obama administration support the ending of the program and instead support the commercialization of flights to the moon?

Palma: NASA is a federal organization. When President Bush was in office, he said we should send astronauts to the moon and Mars, and NASA made internal changes to pursue those goals. But based on the Augustine report, the real issue now is that if NASA is going to continue to work on those goals, it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of money. Right now NASA doesn’t have the money to do this. Listening to what the report recommended, the Obama administration is giving NASA a boost in funding but canceling the Constellation program and reallocating NASA’s resources to hopefully achieve the same goals.

There are a number of private companies who are pursuing the business of human space flight. Examples include Virgin Galactic, which is a project of the founder of Virgin Atlantic, and there is another company called Space X that also is making progress. A number of years ago there was a competition called the “Ansari X Prize,” which challenged private industries to build their own rocket or vehicle that could be launched at least 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth’s surface, and the prize for the successful effort was $10 million. Incidentally, this is near the limit NASA uses to define an astronaut -- if you fly above this limit, you earn your astronaut wings. In 2004, Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne vehicle won the X Prize by flying above 100 km twice in two weeks. Now, more private companies may be getting into the business of human space flight, but so far none are far along enough to replace the shuttle flights that NASA was doing routinely. So now, the intention is for NASA researchers to work on the research and development, and private companies can participate in the funding and building of those vehicles.

On one hand, some people think President Obama has made a bad decision and that this is a terrible plan for NASA. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have studied this and agree that NASA was on an unsustainable course and this decision is best. One common criticism of the current plan to end work on the next generation of vehicles is that once the shuttles have flown their last flight and are retired, the U.S. and NASA will not have the capability to launch astronauts into space on any vehicle. But at the same time, other people are saying, 'Look, if we want the U.S. to maintain its lead in space exploration, NASA needs a huge investment of money and this is a bad budgetary time to boost NASA’s budget by enough to make a difference.' So Obama decided to go ahead and cancel the program, which made people who want to maintain our space program’s superiority angry.

What’s next for NASA and its employees?

Palma: NASA is huge. Most people think of the space shuttle program as NASA, but the organization supports science, education and aeronautics like airplane technology. While this will affect the space shuttle team, and the Constellation program has supported a lot of people, NASA is going to try to keep them and reassign them in the direction of research and technology development. They will work on building bigger rockets that use less fuel. But instead of building them, from what I’ve heard, they will partner with private industry to build them.

What will this change mean for the public?

Palma: One of the arguments related to this topic is that space has been a huge inspiration for people to get into science and technology careers. When I ask the astronomers who taught me astronomy why they got into astronomy, most of them say they became interested in the space program in 1950s and '60s, when it was just starting out; they got involved in science around when the space race began with Sputnik, or later with the advent of the Mercury and Apollo missions. Since we know that space inspires people, one of the arguments is that without the human space flight program, people will lose interest and not aspire to become an astronaut. There may be less NASA in the news because of the cancelation of human space flight, which may impact student interest in science all over the country at a time when we want more students to become interested in science.

From my point of view, though, the temporary stop in human space flight may not have that large of an effect. Human space flight is a completely separate endeavor by NASA than astronomy. Astronomy is done by unmanned robotic telescopes; the budget for astrophysics is just a teeny tiny piece of NASA compared to human space flight. However, the results of these missions inspire people -- the images you see on the Internet and featured on TV on the Discovery and History channels have nothing to do with human flight; most of these were taken by cameras on board the Hubble Space Telescope. There are plans to launch a replacement for Hubble in a few years and there will be other space astronomy missions down the road. Those will continue to inspire students even if we don’t make it back to the moon by 2020.

What will this mean for academic astronomers?

Palma: It could mean more funding for us, actually, but to be honest we never know. If NASA reallocates funding from human space flight within the other divisions, we might benefit. We have lost funding in the past to human space flight, for example, when President Bush said we were going to send astronauts back to the moon. Astrophysics funding has been flat for a number of years. I would guess there are astronomers hoping we see more because of this change of plans, but we never know. Decisions get made in the highest rungs of the ladder in NASA and take a while for us to be made aware of the implications for funding of astrophysics research.

Last Updated May 16, 2011