Saturday, April 17, 2010

Captain's Log: President Spock and U.S. Space Program

President Obama went to NASA in Florida to announce his new plans for the U.S. manned space program. (Okay, that's not the actual photograph, but you know that.) There's been some grumbling, and not everybody was won over, but a lot of people were impressed and excited. Lewis Friedman, formerly of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Founder of the Planetary Society, said the Obama agenda, is "truly inspiring." "No president since John Kennedy has gone out on the road to sell his space program," he said, adding--and I'm not kidding--"This is American leadership, to do things that have never been done before."

(But then when you remember that Gene Roddenberry was a major supporter of the Planetary Society, the Trekiness of the quote makes sense.)

President Obama announced an increase in NASA's budget, and a commitment to space missions: "So let me start by being extremely clear: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future. Because broadening our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Because exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation -- sparking passions and launching careers. And because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character."

Without backing down on plans to use NASA to study Earth and its climate, President Obama emphasized innovation and new manned missions. "...we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” -- a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it."

The new missions include landing on an asteroid (more on that mission here), and: "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."

The President noted the criticism about ending the Shuttle program (a decision, he noted, made years before he took office), and defended new initiatives to involve private companies in designing and making better and cheaper space vehicles. He also noted criticism (including by some astronauts, like Neil Armstrong) that he shouldn't have cancelled the moon mission announced (but never adequately financed) by the previous administration.

Recognizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, who supports his program, President Obama said: "Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach -- and operate at -- a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that’s what this strategy does. And that’s how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last."

Sounds like the admitted Star Trek fan has gotten in touch with his inner Spock--or maybe his inner Kirk and Picard.

It is this vision that led the Christian Science Monitor writer to note: "Through a speech delineating destinations and rough timetables, however, Mr. Obama appeared to be setting out something potentially more sweeping than raw budget documents indicate – an attempt to build a foundation for the United States to become a spacefaring nation, not just a spacefaring government."

As some at NASA noted, the risk is back, and so is the excitement--of going where no one has gone before.

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