Monday, 7 March 2011

The Final Frontier

Friday saw the failed launch of NASA’s Glory satellite. That the Taurus rocket carrying Glory ploughed straight into the Pacific Ocean instead of heading for Earth orbit might not be (but for the cost involved) that important, but viewed in the context of NASA’s future it is certainly a shame.

This year the Space Shuttle program ends (Discovery, the spacecraft that has flown the most missions in history, took-off for the last time on 24th Feb. Barring any further setbacks, Endeavour will fly its last mission on 19th April and Atlantis will have the honour of the last ever launch on 28th June) and NASA has been denied the funding to replace the now very old Shuttle with a new craft suitable for the 21st Century. Instead, it will piggyback all its missions on Russia's Soyuz rockets - a supposedly temporary measure, but according to a NASA spokesperson, the current budget won't allow a shuttle replacement program for at least a decade.

The original plan was to keep the Shuttle operating until Project Constellation (with its Ares launch vehicles and Orion spacecraft) was ready to take over. Instead, Congress opted for a program heavily reliant on the private sector, which gives us a glimpse of what the real future of America’s space program might be.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the USA’s first manned orbit of the planet and on that date (20th February), NASA will not be operating a heavy-lift launch vehicle of its own. That the current administration is allowing this state of affairs tells you how little they care about space exploration. And, maybe, they’re right not to care. There are, after all, bigger issues to worry about, and the desire to achieve milestones in space travel has traditionally cost billions. But is handing the responsibility over to the private sector really the way forward? The Obama administration would probably argue that during these lean times, reliance on the private sector is the best way to ensure cost-effective funding of the space program, but I can’t help wondering what’s really going on here.

The Pentagon has always been clear about its ambitions to militarise space and has initiatives in place for that purpose. Within the context of the stated goal, the only way that the scaling back of NASA’s funding makes any sense is to assume a link between it and the USA’s increasing privatisation of the military. The fact that Lockheed-Martin, holder of several major military contracts, has stepped into the void created by this partial privatisation does little to convince me that I'm wrong.

Whatever is behind the move, we can’t imagine that private sector investment in the space program will result in any meaningful exploration of space. Rather, we can expect that projects like the Voyager satellites of the seventies, which we sent off to explore the farther reaches of the galaxy simply because we could, won't happen again unless there are profits to reap.

The human race now faces what are perhaps its greatest ever challenges (ever scarcer resources, an exploding population, climate change, etc.), and it seems obvious that if we're to overcome them we need to be free of the economic imperatives that so often impede our imaginations and limit our achievements. Glory's failure is a shame because it could have gathered important data about the sun’s impact on our climate thereby aiding us in ways we wouldn't be able to quantify for years. That it was an expensive failure should not deter us from trying again. We live at a time when science seems constantly to be on the verge of amazing breakthroughs, and the thought that the need for profit might arrest our forward march is troubling.

There's a line of Robert Browning's that has been quoted so often - particularly in the context of space travel (and I'm sure it must be obvious by now which line I mean) - that it's use is beyond cliché, but it so perfectly captures the essence of progress at its best that I see no reason not to reference it again:

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Sadly, private enterprise is not interested in reaching for heaven unless it can buy and sell it or, if the US has its way, build a military outpost there.  These days, the true Final Frontier is not some far-flung corner of the universe, but the drab office of a small-minded bureaucrat hidden in the depths of the accounting department. That's a sad post-script to the space program, and to human endeavour generally.