Popular Mechanics published on March 11 my latest article, titled “An Astronaut’s Letter to President Obama: Six Space Policy Musts.” Here is my text:
NASA is at a crossroads and President Barack Obama has not yet nominated an administrator to guide the agency as it wrestles with a growing list of problems. Looming decisions facing the president will make or break America’s status as the world leader in space. Astronaut, author and PM contributing editor Tom Jones has advice for Obama on what he needs to do to keep NASA on the right trajectory.
Published on: March 11, 2009
Dear Mr. President,
En route to the moon forty years ago, Apollo 11‘s astronauts executed a course correction maneuver, an 8-mph rocket burn that fine-tuned their aim. You gave NASA a course correction with the 2010 budget plan. The $19.2 billion NASA budget (just half a percent of federal spending) may seem trivial amid the trillions spent to boost the economy, but such decisions will make or break America’s status as the world leader in space. Here are six moves we need to keep NASA—and the United States—on the right trajectory.
Retire the Space Shuttle by 2010
Mr. President, the shuttle first flew nearly thirty years ago, and although two fatal accidents each led to design improvements, it is still a temperamental, risky vehicle. Cracks in main-engine hydrogen valves delayed last winter’s Discovery launch by more than a month. (Yesterday’s scheduled launch was also delayed, because of a hydrogen leak.) Tremendously versatile, the shuttle is also fragile, and every astronaut crew knows the risk—any serious launch or re-entry failure will likely be fatal. Shuttle operations cost more than $3 billion a year; money freed by its retirement should go directly to field its safer and more efficient replacement, Orion. With its sturdy structure, robust heat shield and launch-abort system, Orion will offer future crews a tenfold increase in safety. Most important, Orion can take us into deep space, somewhere the veteran shuttle can never go.
Use the International Space Station
Nearing completion after a decade of construction, the International Space Station (ISS) is our foothold in space and the only game in town until Orion debuts in 2015. Let’s get some payback for the many billions we’ve invested. Tell our partners we’ll continue to use the station until at least 2020 and make the science investments that will keep its three big laboratories humming.
Research aboard the ISS, for example, has led to promising trials of a new salmonella vaccine. On one of its last flights, the shuttle will deliver to the ISS the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, searching out rare antimatter and the universe’s mysterious dark matter. Ad Astra Rocket Company will test its new high-efficiency plasma rocket engine aboard ISS, which is also the perfect place to try out new spacesuits, life-support systems and radiation-protection techniques essential for voyages into deep space. If bureaucratic opponents to the station within your administration continue to undermine it, you should fire them.
Send Explorers Beyond the ISS—Soon
Your budget endorses NASA’s return to the moon; so has Congress. Now deliver the sustained funding to get us there. Competitors, such as China and India, are catching up to us in low Earth orbit; they have made no secret that the moon is their target. Apollo’s laurels were won forty years ago. Now, you must demonstrate clearly that we will again lead in missions that take us beyond the ISS. Human missions to nearby asteroids would discover new resources, protect Earth from impact and inspire us with views of a breathtakingly distant Earth. The moon also beckons, offering knowledge and possible resources. We should welcome partners on our journey, but leave no doubt that Americans will lead the way.
Reaffirm America’s Place in Space
Mr. President, you must explain why space exploration will continue to be an American trademark. Tell the public that space is not just about science—it’s about exploring for resources and energy, creating new industries and finding economic opportunity on the moon and nearby asteroids. You must use your bully pulpit to show how investment in “space tech” will keep our scientists and engineers keen and capable.
Unleash the Commercial Space Industry
Have NASA follow through with plans to use private industry to ship cargo to the ISS. Money saved through competitive bidding on cargo services can then be spent on exploration. Commercial flights may someday be the cheapest way to get astronauts to the station. Private robot explorers can map and prospect the moon and asteroids, and deliver supplies and equipment for a future lunar base.
Inspire the Next Generation of Space Explorers
Look our young people in the eye and tell them that we need explorers—doers—who are citizens of the most forward-looking nation on Earth. Tell them America is signing up a world-beating corps of talented scientists and engineers and turning them loose to explore the asteroids, the moon, and the solar system. That same team can conquer terrestrial challenges in energy, defense, environmental protection and high-tech competition. Generations of Americans found prosperity and forged our nation’s future on the frontier. Mr. President, reignite the excitement generated by those epic Apollo voyages. Launch our future explorers to prove themselves at the frontiers of space.
Tom Jones, planetary scientist and four-time shuttle astronaut, explores the solar system with his and Ellen Stofan’s new book Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System (National Geographic, 2008). For more information on Tom Jones, visit AstronautTomJones.com.
copyright 2009 @ Popular Mechanics; used with permission