Space is for Science
Some of the greatest advances of human knowledge in the present age have occurred in the space sciences. There are those wonderful pictures of the planets returned to us by robot spacecraft, resolving what had been fuzzy blobs or mere points of light in the telescopes of just 50 years ago into landscapes and skies, mountains and rock-strewn plains, volcanoes and storm systems. Just as sensational, and perhaps more important in the long run, have been the results returned from robot telescopes in orbit or in the stratosphere, observing the weird and mysterious objects that inhabit extrasolar space, or peering back to the remotest regions of the universe in search of understanding about our ultimate origins. Practically all of this progress has been paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, the funds being disbursed through NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA's budget proposal for fiscal year 2007, released February 6, was therefore scrutinized with keen interest by space scientists and interested citizens. The overall reaction has been shock and dismay. The cries of pain can be heard on space-science websites like Universe Today and in astronomy-hobbyist print magazines like Sky & Telescope. Rick Fienberg, editor-in-chief of the latter, sums it up in his June editorial: "Astronomers' worst fears about President Bush's 'Vision for Space Exploration' are coming true … Faced with the skyrocketing cost of returning the shuttle to flight and completing the international space station, NASA is cutting billions of dollars from science."
The "Vision" Fienberg refers to is the one set out by the president in January 2004, proposing a return of astronauts to the moon and a manned mission to Mars. The net effect of the Vision so far has been to suck even more of NASA's funds away from real science. Expenses for the space shuttle and the International Space Station (the first a ghastly 1960s-era blunder of negligible scientific value that no one has the courage to cancel, the second a diplomatic extravaganza, also for the most part scientifically worthless) were already unbalancing the budget. The Vision has capsized it. In the 2007 budget proposal, 37 percent of the total $16.8 billion is designated for the shuttle and the ISS, 24 percent for the Vision, and 32 percent for real science, with a small remainder for aeronautics and climate work. Hidden in those percentages are major reallocations from science projects to the scientifically nugatory man-in-space programs. Science spending over 2007—2011 is to be reduced by $3 billion, even as the overall NASA budget is projected to increase.
This flies in the face of NASA chief Michael Griffin's vow, back in September of last year, that "we do not take one thin dime out of the science program" to fund NASA's other projects. Nobody is blaming Griffin, though. The fundamental problem, as everyone knows, was the one identified in a report issued by the National Academies of Science on May 4: "NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little." Griffin, a capable and well-liked man, has simply been ground down by the bricks-without-straw environment he works in, with too many grandiose ideas chasing too few budget dollars. President Bush's Vision has not only added to these problems, but has failed even to accomplish its intended objective of providing clear direction to our nation's manned-space efforts. Skepticism that the Vision will ever amount to anything is widespread. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin recently voiced it. Come the next presidential election, Aldrin said, the Vision might be scrapped for partisan reasons. "Do we align [behind the Vision] or do we not?" he asked. The question was widely taken to be rhetorical.
The pain and anger among space scientists would be less if it were not that some of the projects being canceled are near completion. SOFIA, for example, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, features a large telescope mounted in a suitably rigged Boeing 747 flying high enough to collect infrared light that is absorbed by the lower atmosphere. As Sky & Telescope's Fienberg points out, this arrangement can be maintained and updated at far less cost than the Hubble space telescope. Just before the president unveiled NASA's 2007 budget proposal, the SOFIA team issued a statement celebrating the completion of all major aircraft modifications and announcing the start of flight tests this fall. SOFIA was allocated nothing in the budget proposal, though a review is now taking place. Similarly with the NuStar X-ray spectroscopic telescope, which was well advanced, within budget, and without technical problems. NuStar has been canceled. The February budget even canceled the Dawn program to send robot spacecraft to major asteroids Ceres and Vesta, the most interesting of the cis-Plutonian bodies still unexplored. That decision saved just $30 million from a $370 million project that was near completion. Protests from space scientists were so vigorous, however, that Dawn has now been reinstated.
It's the same with all the pure-science budget. Ingenious projects with high rates of scientific return, designed by dedicated people working for low salaries, and always with a watchful eye on expenses, are being canceled in favor of the shuttle, the space station, and the Vision. Space-science reporter Jonathan McDowell groans, "Morale is plummeting in the U.S. space-science community as senior scientists see years of work evaporate with a stroke of the financial pen, and young astronomy Ph.D.s are wondering whether a career in the field is even possible."
There is of course a libertarian argument to be made that pure-science funding is no business of government. The consensus in Western civilization from the late 17th century has been otherwise, and support for pure space-science research on the taxpayer's dollar has been robust in the U.S. for the past few decades. In this context it is ironic that while there is little prospect for private-sector funding of the pure-science projects that are being cut, the man-in-space efforts on whose behalf they are being cut are increasingly the province of entrepreneurs. It is already two years since the successful maiden flight of SpaceShipOne, paid for by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and at least five other private ventures are in development or design. Of course, none of these missions is nearly as ambitious as President Bush's Vision, but this is probably a mammal-versus-dinosaur situation. Evolutionary metaphors are in fact hard to avoid when writing about manned space flight. The Economist, reporting on these private ventures, quoted Peter Diamandis, founder of the $10 million X-Prize for a successful, privately financed suborbital flight, as saying that a "Darwinian explosion" of commercial-spacecraft designs is developing.
Further, while near-earth manned space flight offers opportunities for entrepreneurs, human travel into deep space, and human residence on the moon or Mars — the very things on which NASA is betting the farm — may not actually be possible. Deep space is a very hostile environment for living tissue. A spacecraft in unpowered flight (we have no technology for prolonged powered flight at anything remotely approaching the necessary accelerations) has no gravity; and the human body deteriorates in unpleasant ways after a long spell in zero gravity. There are conceivable, though expensive, fixes for that. There are also conceivable fixes — though now the expense is multiplying by quite large numbers — for the hazards posed by fluxes of dangerous particles emitted from storms in the sun's atmosphere. Astronauts in near-earth orbit are largely protected from these dangers by the Earth's magnetic field, and earthbound life has the additional protection of our atmosphere. Alas, neither the moon nor Mars has a significant magnetic field; and the Martian atmosphere is a mere wisp compared with Earth's.
And there is a known hazard beyond these for which we have no fix at all. Cosmic rays — particles from beyond the solar system — are also plentiful, and can have stupendous energies. One such slammed into the Earth's upper atmosphere over Salt Lake City on the evening of October 15, 1991. From the subsequent shower of secondary particles — fragments of shattered atmospheric atoms — the energy of what has been called the Oh-My-God particle has been estimated at one-third of a ZeV ( i.e., zetta electron volt, the prefix "zetta" indicating a billion trillion). In layman's terms that means that the particle, likely a humble proton, was traveling so close to the speed of light that, thanks to the Special Theory of Relativity, it had the kinetic energy of a well-pitched baseball packed into its sub-microscopic volume — a lethal, tissue-destroying super-bullet. Such extraordinary particles are presumably rare; but we don't really know, and our current theories cannot account for them. Even less energetic cosmic rays, which we know to be plentiful, could wreak terrible destruction on human tissue over the periods — two years and up — needed for a Mars mission, and we have no way to protect spacefarers from their effects.
Research into these survivability issues is critical to the accomplishment of the president's Vision program. Funding for that research comes under the "Microgravity Life and Physical Sciences" section of the NASA science budget … which the February proposal slashed by 69 percent. Apparently pure science must yield to the lumbering, murderous Shuttle, the pointless Station, and the dubious Vision, even when relevant to them. Our nation's space program is seriously out of balance.