The second decade of the 21st century brings some imposing challenges for NASA. The space shuttle program has ended, flagship programs such as the Hubble Space Telescope are aging and in their final years, and budgets have flat-lined. Manned spaceflight will continue in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station, but in the short term United States astronauts will have to rely on the Russians for a ride up.
Trends are toward commercial companies such as ULA and Space-X taking over low-Earth orbital missions, but a steep learning curve exists for these industries. It remains to be seen how interested these entities will be in exploration unless a tangible short-term benefit exists. That said, here are the top five challenges facing NASA today.
5. A Lack of Funding
NASA’s budget has dwindled from a high of 4.4 percent of the national budget during the Apollo era to an all-time low of 0.57 in 2006. Current budget forecasts call for annual funding of almost $19 billion through 2016, but this may not come to pass with the current budget woes. Even if it does, a flat five-year budget could plunge the percentage of NASA’s funding to an all-time low in the coming years, and NASA would also lose ground against inflation. Projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope are already on the potential chopping block, and development of the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle may be years from reaching the pad. As Gus Grissom said in The Right Stuff: “No bucks, no Buck Rodgers…” a lack of funds may mean NASA is in for another “lean decade” such as occurred in the 1970s.
4. Public Apathy
Some space buffs lament the fact that the U.S. shuttle program was largely overlooked by media coverage with the exception of the Columbia and Challenger tragedies and the Lisa Nowak-astronaut love triangle affair. The battle to sway public opinion is a difficult one, as many argue we have more urgent needs on Earth. But if we turn away from exploration, will those dollars then go toward solving problems at home, or be used for something else?
3. Nuclear Fuel Shortage
One unheralded problem NASA may face in the coming decade could be a shortage of fuel, namely Plutonium238. NASA has historically used this radioactive isotope as a power source for its deep-space missions to the outer solar system; beyond the asteroid belt, utilization of solar energy becomes problematic, as huge panels are needed to create energy from an increasingly faint Sun. The Voyager, Cassini, and New Horizons spacecraft all contain Plutonium-based power plants that enable them to remain active decades after launch. This element is manmade, a product of uranium enrichment from weaponized Plutonium239 during the Cold War, which ceased in 1989. And no, the weaponized stuff can’t be used the same way, except perhaps by the brute method of exploding them to the aft of a spacecraft as a means of crude propulsion, as proposed by the Orion Project in the 1960s. At best, NASA has enough plutonium for maybe two final missions to the outer solar system, following the Mars Science Laboratory set to launch at the end of 2011. A restart in plutonium production may take a decade for any of it to reach the launch pad. NASA will soon be faced with the dilemma of exploiting exotic and unproven technologies such as fusion reaction to continue exploration of deep space.
2. The Perils of Space Travel
Again and again, space has proven itself to be much more difficult for humans to operate in than imagined. It’s true that early fears of how humans cope with a weightless environment didn’t come to pass; blood could still circulate, the structure of the eye didn’t change shape, and astronauts didn’t succumb to “space madness.” If anything, astronauts report that they prefer working in a weightless workplace, and that gravity is the real enemy. Long-term human spaceflight still presents some tough challenges, however. Unlike robots, fragile water bags like us demand food, water, and a return ticket home. This all costs in mass and fuel. The toughest step in any mission is the first, as spacecraft have to use enormous boosters to simply leave the Earth’s gravity. We’re also vulnerable to radiation; the astronauts aboard the ISS get a higher than sea-level dose but are relatively shielded from the really hazardous stuff in deep space. Even the Apollo astronauts made relatively short journeys to the Moon at times when the Sun’s activity was at a low.
1. Science vs. Militarization/Commercialization of Space
Finally, probably the biggest problem NASA faces in the near future is competing interests. It’s true that competition in the private sector is often a good thing; cooperation may have put the “International” in the Space Station, but it was Cold War rivalry that sent us to the Moon. Science has always been “along for the ride” in most of these endeavors, but as NASA launches are declining, military payloads are on the rise. Commercial ventures such as Elon Musk’s Space X may reach the ISS soon, but these missions may still be years off. President Obama has mandated the move to get NASA “back in the business of solar system exploration,” leaving near-Earth orbit interests to the private sector.
Our national security interests are vital, and private competition in space can be a good thing. Still, it’s tough to say just how interested the military or private companies will be in scientific exploration, unless there’s a tangible short-term payoff. In addition, running a zero-defect business such as NASA in a cost-cutting corporation style has proven to be disastrous in the past. At the end of any discussion, what most space pundits fear most is a future with no clear mission. Most would agree that if you give NASA a tangible goal, whether it is aiming for the Moon, Mars, or an asteroid, the agency has the drive and determination to do the job.