Did you hear? NASA’s found a new Earth 2.0. Or maybe you’ve heard the rumor shared around the Internet about the killer space rock set to wipe out humanity next month (and it’s always next month). Work in space journalism long enough, and you hear the same misconceptions repeated over and over again. These ideas have traditionally been derived from science fiction, but today, falsehoods are eagerly promoted in the click-bait Internet world, where many people don’t bother to give what they share an even cursory read. Here are just a few popular myths about the U.S. space program.
5. The U.S. Space Program is Over
We’ve encountered this curious sentiment frequently since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, even among folks over on the Florida Space Coast. This is a bit strange, as rockets still routinely depart Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral in plain sight. The shuttle program ended when Atlantis landed on July 21, 2011. Since that time, Americans have been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard the Russian Soyuz, to the tune of more than $70 million a seat. SpaceX has been busy as well, flying cargo to the ISS under a NASA contract; it may start crewed flights using its Dragon spacecraft in 2018.
Beyond manned space travel, we’re experiencing a golden age of planetary exploration, as NASA probes are traveling the solar system from Mercury (Messenger) to Pluto (New Horizons) on a relatively shoestring budget. A dwindling budget also means longer time scales for missions: for example, NASA won’t carry out more than one Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket flight every few years once the program gets underway. Still, the fact NASA has invested more than $18 billion on this launch vehicle in the past few years proves as much as anything that the agency is looking to the future.
4. NASA Gets a Huge Budget
There’s a misconception that NASA is a huge drain on the U.S. budget, though NASA spin-off tech is a great return on the investment. The U.S. Department of Defense almost gets more funding in one year than NASA has received in its entire existence. The U.S. DoD received $598 billion in fiscal year 2015, while NASA had been budgeted around $596 billion from 1958-2015. For more perspective, the DoD spends more on air-conditioning annually than the entire NASA budget, which was $19.3 billion for FY 2016. NASA’s budget peaked at more than 4 percent of the total U.S. federal budget during the Apollo era and has languished at less than 1 percent annually for the past few decades.
Here’s another thought to consider: when we build a rover and send it to Mars, all of that money on research and development is spent right here on Earth. An uneasy tug of war always exists between crewed spaceflight and robotic missions; while robots are cheaper and require no life support (or a return ticket home), humans in space, while more expensive, seem to captivate the public imagination. In the words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “They’ve never named a high school after a robot.”
3. U.S. Couldn’t Launch a Lunar Mission Today
It’s a common misconception we hear all the time: “The U.S. sent men to the Moon almost 50 years ago, but that would be impossible to do today.” Sure, we couldn’t do that in 2018, or even 2020 probably, but the U.S. could, if it dedicated the money and a program to that end, send humans back to the Moon. It’s just not a priority — because we have been there, done that, right? Apollo represented the very edge of what was possible in the 1960s, using primitive computer technology compared to what’s available today. Today’s technology would make such a mission infinitely easier in many respects. NASA’s SLS heavy lift rocket promises to finally get astronauts out of low Earth orbit in the 2020s and even entrepreneur Elon Musk is planning to send two as-yet-unnamed, high-paying customers around the Moon late next year.
2. A Crewed Mission to Mars is Only a Decade Away
In the early 1970s, everyone assumed that human missions to Mars would soon follow flights to the Moon. Such a dream has never materialized, however, as human spaceflight has instead loitered in low Earth orbit for the past 40-plus years. A crewed mission to Mars is exponentially more challenging and has instead — like a cure for cancer or the promise of nuclear fusion — become a moving target always 20 years distant; NASA’s current goal for a Mars mission is the 2030s. Such a journey still poses many dangers to humans, and is not a given. Radiation exposure alone may be a showstopper. Plus, even a Mars flyby or a brief flag-planting mission would involve an almost two-year trip, longer than any single spaceflight yet.
Current long-duration stays on the International Space Station are working to address this in terms of the effects of long-term space missions on human physiology, but even the ISS is heavily dependent on periodic resupply. Perhaps, we’ll need to figure out how to survive long term in places less inhospitable and nearby such as Antarctica and the Moon before heading to Mars.
1. NASA Has Developed Faster-Than-Light Travel
Not exactly, despite the sensational headlines you might have read in recent years, such as “NASA May Have Accidentally Discovered Faster-Than-Light Travel.” True, NASA does have departments dedicated to exploring exotic propulsion technologies, but warp drive and Star Trek’s starship Enterprise are still a long ways off, if even possible at all. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity does not exclude the possibility of travel faster than the speed of light — it just sets some pretty serious barriers on reaching close to 186,282 miles per second. For example, not only does time reach a standstill at such high velocities — a strange state of being, as photons of light see the Universe as “timeless” from their perspective — but mass from the perspective of a spacecraft moving at light speed becomes infinite, requiring infinite energy for propulsion. Nothing says, however, that we couldn’t achieve an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, making interstellar travel possible. NASA did research just such an idea in the 1960s with Project Orion, which would’ve relied on the detonation of atomic bombs shot to its aft to accelerate the spacecraft to a fraction of the speed of light.