Tuesday, June 20, 2006

NASA and Bush's Mission

Any serious inquiry into science funding invariably ends up with a discussion about NASA and the relevance of the space program. Most of what is discussed encompasses the lunar missions and manned space flight, but these are really just the flashy, and often scientifically inconsequential, missions funded by American taxpayers.

Where do most of our extraplanetary data come from? The programs which provide the bulk of information for scientists are the unmanned orbiters, planet landers, flyby missions, and ground based telescopes and radio telescopes. Remember Hubble? Hubble has provided more data, and for a longer period of time than was ever imagined at its conception. Can people survive in space? Yes, they can, and they are needed to maintain equipment in Earth's orbit, but it is costly, risky and provides relatively little information. Take a look at the NASA webpage and especially this link, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/exploration/main/vision_video.html/ for a look at Bush's vision for the space program. Pay close attention to the section on mining the Moon and the robotic dogs which wil be exploring Mars. What you won't see in this clip is the list of programs which have been cut, underfunded, or put indefinitely on the back burner to support the inititives listed there.

You see, NASA used to be divided into two groups, an implementation arm and a science arm. Today, they are merging together at the expense of the science arm. Real projects, long on the drawing boards, are being shelved in favor of new technologies, investment in aeronautics, and human life support systems. A program at NASA takes roughly five to fifteen years from the first planning stages to implementation. The people and resources which have been working on projects soon to go up have been doing so for their entire careers in some cases, they are experts. Under the new intiatives outlined by Mr. Bush, this work, effort, and real dollars are lost in the shuffle of new programs.

Previous eras at NASA have been marked by the most visits ever to one of our planetary neighbors, Venus, the extremely successful Mars Rover missions, and the Cassini mission to explore the outer planets and beyond. If you pick up a current text book about our solar system, it will amaze you how much we understand about each planetary body in the solar system, and with the exception of the Moon, all without the use of human exploration missions. One of the major reasons we explore space is to find out if we are alone, if there is life out there. An inherent danger in doing this type of exploration with human missions is that we, and our space vehicles, no matter how hard we try, are teaming with Earth microbes. How interesting is it if we land on Mars and can't distinguish our microbes from Martian microbes? Getting to other planets which may have or have had life present without contaminating them is a real challenge, complicated by human-based missions. Planets like Enceledus, a moon of Saturn, potentially harbor life because of their chemical make up, stable orbits, the presence of water (yes, there are other planets with water out there), and their temperature (Enceledus is heated by a form of heating known as tidal heating, and can generate temperatures much hotter than those near the Sun). (See below for a NASA photo of another moon of Saturn, Dione, from the spacecraft Cassini.)

The study of life outside of planet Earth, which you may be surprised we have not yet found, despite countless sci-fi movies which would have you believe otherwise, is encompassed in what was a growing field called astrobiology. Astrobiology combines current knowledge and techniques used to study the solar system and systems outside our own for the right conditions for life as we know it to exist. In addition, extreme climates on Earth are studied to find out just what kind of environments can harbor life, and the results are surprising. Some of the most successful forms of life are thermophiles, bacteria living off the chemicals emitted by ocean floor vents, and if life can survive there where else might we find it? You see, not only can astrobiologists use our planet to predict where life might be found in space, but they can provide much information about our own planet. Under the new NASA initiative, the astrobiology budget, largely from the federal government, has been cut to almost nothing, crushing what was an expanding and promising field.

A graph showing NASA's budget and the proportion of missions involving human space travel would show a decrease in the total number of missions with an increase in those involving humans. This is a waste of a shrinking national science budget, and our research institutions and unviersities are feeling the pinch. This is an extension of a more widespread reduction in national science funding from the NSF and NIH, the two biggies.

If we are to find life outside our planetary confines, we must understand where to look, and send pinpointed missions to those locations. Humans are far from the ideal tool for this or countless other extraplanetary explorations.


Post a Comment

<< Home

HP Shopping Coupon