Several years ago in these pages [March 2003] we said that what NASA really needed was a big vision for human space exploration and for its own role in that grand mission rather than a set of excuses for space travel. Now it seems the agency has one.
Announced in December, NASA’s ”Global Exploration Strategy” calls for a return to the moon by 2020 at the latest, as well as the establishment of a permanent base there from which to explore the outer planets, with Mars first on the list. The underlying idea behind the base—in addition to its being the place from which to actively explore the moon—is that lunar-based launches to the rest of the solar system could ultimately be less expensive than those launched from Earth.
Also, as part of this plan, the space shuttle will continue to operate until the International Space Station is completed. A new vehicle to replace the shuttle, dubbed Orion, will go into development by 2008.
NASA’s not getting much extra cash to do all this. It is reallocating US $11 billion from its $86 billion dollar five-year budget to get the plan—literally—off the ground. NASA administrator Michael Griffin has a big job in front of him, because all too often enormous projects like these get ballyhooed and then shipwrecked on Washington’s treacherous political shoals. But it is reassuring to have NASA return to its real mission, despite the obstacles that lie ahead. And how refreshing not to have to pretend that these are profit-making ventures but to see them as they really are: attempts to expand our knowledge and understanding of the universe and to meet the human need to explore new vistas.
If you believe that space exploration is a big waste of time and money (or even a giant hoax), there will be no persuading you that this is a good plan. But we will continue to argue that great periods of exploration have inspired human beings since the beginning of recorded time. The urge to see what else, or who else, might be over the next horizon seems to be built into our genome.
Technology has driven and has been driven by great explorations. The invention of mapping and navigation technology, from Ptolemy to Mercator and beyond, was spurred by the desire to investigate the world around us. The space program, a technology driver in the past, could certainly be one again.
The current plan calls for international collaboration, and some 13 other space agencies participated in its creation. Work on the space station has shown that it is possible for nations to collaborate over long periods of time on a project for the greater good. How auspicious to begin the New Year with that possibility before us. And how remarkable to think that our children and our children’s children could have whole new worlds to understand and explore.