Mars mission remains the goal

Space shuttle Enterprise, riding on the back of the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, was flown to its its new assignment in New York City, as an exhibit at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. JOHN MINCHILLO / Associated Press
Space shuttle Enterprise, riding on the back of the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, was flown to its its new assignment in New York City, as an exhibit at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. JOHN MINCHILLO / Associated Press
Posted: May 08, 2012

It’s interesting that some of the same people who have been blasting President Obama as a spendthrift who has put this country on a path to economic ruin also criticize him for being frugal when it comes to space exploration.

These critics decry Obama’s decision to retire the ancient space-shuttle fleet and instead have U.S. scientists hitch rides with the Russians to the International Space Station as being equivalent to sharing a bunk with Mephistopheles.

But they mislead when they suggest that Obama has turned his back on manned spaceflight. Rather, the president’s proposed 2013 budget would keep the nation on track to fulfill the commitment Obama made to explore deep space.

It’s true that some among America’s community of former astronauts would take a different approach, but Obama hasn’t abandoned a goal he shares with them — to take man where he has never been before, not for the adventure, but for the knowledge to be gained that can improve life on Earth.

NASA does take a hit in the Obama budget, but the drop to $17.7 billion represents only a 0.3 percent decrease. Coming out of the recession in an election year in which he is accused of not knowing the meaning of save, that’s not bad. In fact, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the budget “will support a diverse portfolio and continues the work we started last year.”

There will be winners and losers. Funds for planetary science, which includes unmanned missions to Mars and other parts of the solar system, will be cut 20 percent. But the planned August mission to drop a rover on Mars won’t be affected, nor will a late-2013 mission to study Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the human exploration and commercial spaceflight programs will get a 6 percent increase. Space technology will get a 22 percent raise. And Star Trek fans should note that Obama hasn’t given up on developing a deep-space launch system to carry a manned vehicle far from Earth. His $2.9 billion allocation is only slightly less than this year’s $3 billion.

That’s the stuff dreams are made of. The deep-space program is what Obama wants to put a human being on Mars in about 25 years. Someone with that goal isn’t opposed to manned spaceflight. What he is opposed to is spending large sums for another mission to the moon, and Obama wants private industry to come up with an alternative to the space shuttles for shorter flights.

That’s going to happen — and soon. Space Exploration Technologies, also known as Space X, will soon launch the first commercial rocket to the space station. The flight was supposed to occur last week, but was scratched to do more testing. Another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., is also close to launching a space cargo vehicle.

Many Americans felt a twinge in the heart as they watched recent news footage of the space shuttles riding piggyback atop Boeing 747s on their way to their final destinations to become museum exhibits.

Discovery will be at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington; Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York; Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. See them if you can, the relics of space travel now relegated to history. But there is a future.

That future will include those men and women chosen from more than 6,000 applicants to join NASA’s manned-spaceflight program. They may not get to Mars, but their descendants will. And when they do, they will give credit to Obama and, before him, George W. Bush, who made the commitment to reach the Red Planet even as John F. Kennedy committed America to reach the moon.

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