Last Friday, at a campaign event in Wyoming, presidential hopeful Barack Obama said the following: "I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier." Obama went on to say he has issues with the way the space program is currently being run, and might trim funding until NASA’s mission has been clarified.
NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration, I don’t think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t even pass for news anymore.
A fair point. As remarkable as it may seem to us, space travel rarely makes headlines. But as Obama noted, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1960’s, an entire generation of young scientists and engineers found inspiration in the prospect of making human footprints on the moon and planets.
So did Gene Roddenberry. In 1964, the space program was just getting into high gear. The United States could only send two men at a time into orbit, in capsules with less legroom than an airline coach seat. But in that same year, Gene imagined that a starship with a crew of four hundred would someday cruise the interstellar byways in search of strange new worlds and new civilizations. Earth would be at peace in this future era, united in the common goal of exploring the Final Frontier.
Star Trek was pretty heady stuff in the 1960’s. But those were heady times. Social, political, and technological changes were happening at a breakneck pace. Nowhere was our growing technological prowess more evident than in our space program. After the first tentative flight of an American astronaut into space in 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The two-man Gemini capsules of 1964 quickly led to the three-man Apollo, which led to the moon. Interstellar travel is still a dream, but landing the first man on the moon in 1969 was an achievement of almost mythic proportions.
Space travel clearly doesn’t have the same magic today. The space shuttle system, despite two tragic accidents, has made the job of “astronaut” seem almost mundane. Few people can name even one astronaut working today. NASA is to some extent a victim of its own success.
But our venerable space agency is also hobbled by a lack of vision. Humans haven’t ventured beyond the relatively cozy confines of low Earth orbit since 1972. Robotic probes have been pushing back the boundaries of the Final Frontier in the intervening years, with spectacular results (and, it must be said, at much lower cost than the Apollo project). Humans have more or less stayed home.
Orion, the next craft for the final frontier (NASA artist rendition)
Each of the three presidential candidates has expressed support for continuing human space exploration. [see statements from: Obama, Clinton, McCain] Two questions remain: what vision will grow from that support, and how much funding will be allocated for it?
This is a critical time for NASA. When it completes construction of the International Space Station in 2010, the Space Shuttle will be retired. The current Administration and Congress have not provided adequate funding to develop its replacement, Orion – an Apollo-style capsule atop a two-stage rocket that will be able to ferry six astronauts to the Station, and eventually crews of four to the moon – in time to pick up the reins from Shuttle. Until Orion is operational, U.S. astronauts will have to hitch rides to the Station on Russian space vehicles, at not inconsiderable expense. This is hardly a desirable situation.
Orion will also give us something the Space Shuttle lacked: the ability to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit. For the first time since the end of the Apollo program, the United States is poised to send astronauts back into deep space. All of us who have dreamed of exploring The Final Frontier should do everything we can to encourage the next president to embrace this goal. It can be accomplished without significant increases in the NASA budget (which currently stands at about 0.6 % of the Federal budget). We don’t need an expensive, “crash” program like Apollo to once again set our sights on the moon and destinations beyond. We simply need a commitment. A president willing to say this country can once again embrace the future and reach for the stars.
This is not to suggest that space exploration should be our next president’s highest priority. Health care, education, the environment, rebuilding roads and bridges, and restoring our good name overseas are far more important and immediate goals, and require much more money and government resources. And rightly so. But by investing a fraction of a cent of our Federal tax dollar, we can also create the infrastructure that will give our children the opportunity to participate in one of the greatest adventures humankind has ever conceived. If we do, our kids will live to see an international crew of astronauts explore Mars, a strange new world that may even harbor life. And who knows what else is out there waiting for us? We won’t find out by staying home.
Andre Bormanis was the Star Trek science advisor for several years before becoming a full-time writer and eventually producer for Star Trek: Enterprise. He holds a B.S. in Physics and an M.A. in Science, Technology, and Public Policy, the latter earned under a NASA Space Grant fellowship. He is a long-time space advocate and member of The Planetary Society; he recently wrote about the Orion program for their publication The Planetary Report, available online at www.planetary.org
Trek’s new advisor weighs in
Carolyn Porco, the leader of the Imaging Science team on NASA’S Cassini mission and a science advisor for JJ Abrams new “Star Trek” feature film also has a few thoughts about the choices our next president will making with regard to space exploration..
The fact that the Shuttle has been a going-nowhere kind of project seems not to be lost on some of the presidential candidates, which is very heartening. I think that, once in the White House, the next President, whoever that may be, will have the opportunity to see and hear first hand how vitally important NASA and both its humanflight and robotic enterprises are to our country’s technological standing in the world and in inspiring all of us — young and old alike — to greater achievements. And I suspect that once the next President sees up close just how aggressively other countries are pursuing their own humanflight programs, Executive Office support for moving Americans out… towards the Moon and beyond … will materialize.