Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Space, Little Space

Portions of the Augustine Commission's report to President Obama have now been made available, and it appears to me that they have gotten some of it right. First, they have recognized that President Bush's vision for space exploration may not be viable because of the costs involved. If this insight is recognized and handled honestly by the president and congress, it will be a major breakthrough. For too long, NASA has been pursuing plans that could not be supported by their budget. The agency should either be fully funded, or the plans should be scaled back.

The Commission also emphasizes the global nature of space exploration and the value of NASA partnering with private enterprise to realize some of our more ambitious goals as a nation. Again, this is a paradigm shift away from a NASA-centric view of space exploration that is long overdue.

I don't know the final shape of American space policy, but our thinking does seem to be coming into alignment with reality, which is a good thing. Still, whatever NASA does will be a variation on the theme of "Big Space," i.e., lots of government money being spent on relatively large space exploration efforts. By contrast, I was struck recently by reports of a different approach, a kind of "little space program" if you will. Two MIT students have apparently sent a weather balloon high into the atmosphere and have taken pictures of the Earth from space! Their total cost was $150, and I could only think, "Wow, that is the least expensive experience of the Overview Effect so far!"

These students proved to me that any barriers that might be preventing the opening up of the space frontier are not financial in nature---they are simply failures of the imagination!

Frank White

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Augustine Commission

The Augustine Commission is about to make its report to President Obama on options for NASA in the future. The Commission has done all of us a service by pointing out that NASA cannot achieve President Bush's vision for space exploration with the funds that will be available in the near term.

This means we need a new vision, and the problem is this : a vision needs to be exciting to be meaningful, and all the options currently facing NASA are rather limited, if seen on their own. We will only become enthusiastic about space exploration again if we see it in a global context, as part of a Human Space Program.

I will have more to say about this issue in future posts.