Opinion: NASA: 2022

Brian Reimer

Brian Reimer

Brian Reimer is a senior anthropology major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].

In light of the recent passing of the American cultural hero Neil Armstrong and the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover, it is becoming clear that our nation’s space program is at a crossroads.

The annual budget of NASA for the 2011 fiscal year was $18.7 billion. This may seem like a phenomenal sum of money, but it only really amounts to approximately 0.53 percent of the federal budget.

Although it benefits all 50 states economically, NASA has recently become a punching bag for “fiscal conservatives,” and the projected NASA budget for the next five years is trending downward with no signs of looking up.

Because of the resource-intensive nature of space exploration, endeavors into the “final frontier” have been limited to only government-run projects. However, it is this exact bureaucratic, tax-dependent disposition that has demoted NASA into a shell of its former glory.

The landing of the Mars Curiosity rover is no doubt a great accomplishment for humankind, but I can’t help but wonder what the state of space exploration could be if it were not mired by government dependency, scientific ignorance and political brokering.

I think that the innovators of the 1960s would be incredibly disappointed in the current state of space travel. The lofty dreams of the space program of the past may never be realized if the government and American people do not quickly search for a viable alternative.

Private endeavors into space may be the solution. Companies like SpaceX are making great strides toward important projects that the government has all but ignored due to a dismal federal science budget, and Virgin Galactic is bringing spaceflight into the reach of (very wealthy) tourists. The Mars One Project wants to put people on a one-way trip to Mars by 2023 and make a “Big Brother” style reality show to offset the costs.

What’s more encouraging about the Mars One project is that it can be accomplished with entirely existing technologies. By eliminating restrictive budgets and bureaucratic red tape, private space exploration avoids the many pitfalls that NASA and other national-level space agencies have encountered.

The opportunities for privatized space exploration are practically endless, and the new technologies and resources acquired from spaceflight could have a significant impact on life on earth.

For instance, the mining of a single, 1-kilometer asteroid could provide two billion tons of iron ore, or an estimated $20 trillion (at current ore prices) for each asteroid. The pending helium crisis could be alleviated by mining helium on the moon. It seems that although the price of space travel is high, the economic and technological benefits would far outweigh the cost.

Now, I’m not positing that NASA should close its doors in favor of private industry – in fact, quite the opposite. NASA should act as a regulator and facilitator to the blossoming space sector. As the space industry grows, the collective knowledge and experience of NASA scientists will act as an ignition point for endeavors the agency could never accomplish on its own.

In next 10 years, we will see either NASA’s redemption or its fall into despondency. As we go forward, it will be interesting to observe the actions NASA takes to maintain relevancy.