Monday, December 21, 2009

World waits for U.S. to lead next big space venture

The United States still leads the world in space exploration.

Don't let the political jawboning fool you. America is not falling behind because there is no space race.

Indeed, the rest of the world is waiting for the U.S. to decide humankind's next great adventure in space exploration. They're waiting to follow.

Yes, the Russians and the Chinese can fly people to space. Yes, they have grand ambitions. The Russians propose a nuclear-powered spaceship to take cosmonauts to Mars, yet they've barely got the funding necessary to operate their portion of the International Space Station. The Chinese say they will build their own space station, yet they're talking behind the scenes with U.S. and Russian officials to break down remaining barriers to joining the International Space Station project.

Europe, Japan and Canada all are proven space-technology specialists, but they remain heavily reliant on the dominant space station partners, the U.S. and Russia, for technological and financial reasons. NASA and the Russian space agency have more experience, more well-rounded programs and more resources.

Following the space headlines around the world will give you a good idea of the influential role the U.S. will continue to play in what happens next.

In Moscow, Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov repeatedly puts off questions about the extension of the International Space Station. While the heads of the world's space agencies have expressed interest in keeping the orbiting laboratory flying through at least 2020, everyone knows they can't proceed until uncertainty about long-term U.S. funding of the project is resolved.

"There is still no clarity about the NASA program," Perminov recently told reporters in Moscow.

All of the partners, including NASA, are on the record saying the space station program should continue. However, the U.S. bankrolls the vast majority of space station operations and -- technically -- the federal government's long-term budget cuts off funding for the space station project in 2016.

Russia and the U.S. will discuss the matter "as soon as there is clarity about the U.S. space program," Perminov said.

It's true NASA will have no means to fly astronauts to the space station beyond 2011, after the space shuttles are retired. Delivery of crew and cargo, however, is just a small part of operating the international complex. Engineering and operations are a big effort, requiring a vast network of experts around the world -- most of them on the NASA payroll. The Russians and other international partners do not have the financial or technical means to operate the complex without the U.S.

It's more possible than ever that China could become a partner in the station or, at a minimum, could be part of the next big international space project.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says President Obama is committed to world cooperation in space, including non-traditional partners like China. A statement issued by both countries this fall citing a desire for increased cooperation in space prompted no outcry from Congress.

The nations of the world appear ready to wait for the White House to decide what NASA will do, and then to join forces with the U.S.


Graham said...

I will say this. Support NASA to the full.!! America went to the moon FIRST, and must and must live up to that legacy. And that comes from a british guy. I've always admired the US for having the vision. I also think they should work with other nations too. Some future missions will be vast undertakings,and will require cooperation.

Anonymous said...

The question remains:

What practical benefits will Constellation provide for America?

The plans for ISS and Shuttle were debated publicly for years. It was supported as a site for learning whether humans can do productive science in space, to test new technologies to make human spaceflight more practical, and as a catalyst for international trust and cooperation. It can still serve all these purposes, supported as originally planned by Shuttle.

Anonymous said...

Explorers from Britain and Norway raced to the South Pole in 1912. But when did they return? Never, with dogsleds, though it was always possible. No one set foot on the pole again until 1957, and they came with aircraft that could make the trip in safety, at modest cost, and with huge payloads that allowed a permanent base to be immediately established. And they came as part of an international program that could perform important science, All this was thanks in part to research by NACA (now NASA) to develop the airfoils and alloys that made modern aircraft possible.

If we want to go to the moon, the first step is to develop the technologies that will make human spaceflight practical. Yes, it's much more difficult than returning to the moon wth Apollo technology, but it's the only approach that would be more than a stunt. Constellation is like returning to the South Pole in 1930 with bigger dogsleds.