Space Exploration And National Leadership

It took the loss of a second Space Shuttle and its crew, a fundamental shift in NASA's mandate regarding human space exploration, and the support of America's president to finally produce a renewed space program that could actually become a reality. NASA's new Administrator, Dr. Michael Griffin, has aggressively pushed the Vision for Space Exploration as NASA's No. 1 priority. However, to do so, he has had to make difficult decisions regarding its budget and where its money would be spent. He reviewed the nearly 120 projects that were underway within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (valued at $1 billion dollars), cancelled eighty of them and scaled back many of those remaining. In turn, he moved to establish more than twenty new projects led by NASA field centers, to directly support the Vision for Space Exploration and the near-term hardware requirements outlined in the ESAS. This included new research and development of the ablative heat shield for the CEV, lightweight fuel tanks for the launch vehicles, EDS and the LSAM, radiation shielding, hardened electronics, and even research into extracting oxygen from the lunar regolith, among other projects. Other NASA programs on the books were also scrutinized. The scientific community involved with NASA's scientific and exploration projects made known their disappointment and concern regarding cancelled projects, and projects or programs threatened with cancellation.

The Space Foundation saw these developments, and looked at America's space program in general and the Vision for Space Exploration in particular. This prestigious and influential organization produced The Case for Space, with contributions from not only its own board members but also from experts across the spectrum of the space industry, geopolitics, military issues and even entertainment. This report is a clarion call for the United States to wake up to the vulnerable position it was in with regard to its leadership in space exploration and aggressively move to restore its once-unquestioned supremacy. It stated that the United States had lost 500,000 jobs in the aerospace industry in the previous fourteen years and during the same period, the U.S. had fallen from third among the world's nations that were graduating scientists and engineers to fifteenth. It stated that the U.S graduates fewer than 60,000 engineers each year, while India graduates 80,000, Japan 200,000 and China more than half a million. In addition, tens of thousands of American aerospace engineers, scientists and researchers retire each year, taking their years of experience with them.

The Case for Space stated that other nations have space programs of their own and that the U.S. should not harbor the belief that its space program could not be surpassed. The report emphasized the countless ways that Americans in particular, and millions of people around the world in general, benefit daily from spin-offs as a result of NASA's human and robotic space programs. It also stated that if America failed to address the educational shortage of scientists and engineers, and did not monetarily support the space exploration programs outlined in the Vision, it would run the risk of losing its position as a superpower and global leader. It stated that the Vision for Space Exploration must become a national priority and that it must be funded accordingly if America was to retain its position among nations exploring space, and remain an economically strong and technologically advanced country. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who served on the president's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy and the board of The Space Foundation, made a bold challenge: "Let's double NASA's budget.'' Dr. Tyson and other aerospace authorities argue that if America is serious in implementing the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA cannot do so aggressively with an annual budget that amounts to less than one per cent of the U.S. federal budget. NASA remains one of the most visible agencies of the United States government, yet it operates at levels far below the funding levels of the 1960s when adjusted for inflation. The dramatic project cancellations by Administrator Griffin prove how stretched the agency is in trying to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration. Inadequate funding will slow progress in achieving the Vision and impact upon other projects and programs that should be implemented.

Despite the budgetary constraints NASA must operate under, the United States has indeed entered a new era of space exploration that will inspire a new generation to pursue careers in aerospace. That new generation will also experience the wonder of men and women landing on the Moon, walking on its surface and exploring it with new rovers and robotic assistants. As the United States formalizes those lunar surface mission profiles, research and development will begin on the new lunar roving vehicles that will accompany crews to unexplored areas of the Moon. The challenges in developing those rovers to survive for extended periods on the Moon will also result in advances in metallurgy, materials development, high performance plastics, electronics and communications, and many other benefits.

The success and pace of progress will depend on the U.S. Congress that funds NASA and the support of future presidential administrations. Other nations can contribute to this new era of space exploration and experience both national prestige and technological and economic benefits as a result. Exploration of space is the dream and untold benefits to mankind will be the fruits of that exploration. Lunar and planetary rovers will be an integral part of those missions of discovery.

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