It's Time To Get Serious About Colonizing SpaceS

Today the Obama Administration unveiled its new budget for NASA, which included a shocker: Plans to return to the Moon have been scrapped. So why are we optimistic? Because Obama's budget rewards science, and lays groundwork for human space colonies.

The big news from the budget, which has not yet been approved by Congress, is that it phases out the Constellation Program, which was the Bush Administration's project to send humans back to the Moon in a remake of the Apollo 11 mission.

Looked at another way: The budget junks a backward-looking program and funds a brand-new one that will focus on developing new space technologies, exploring the solar system with robots, and pushing humans closer to living offworld.

What The Budget Really Says: Robotic Exploration, New Engines, and Geoscience

If you're excited about going to space, you shouldn't be disappointed about the Constellation Program. Many have mistaken today's budget news to mean that the US is retreating from space, or that we can no longer afford a space program. In fact, that is untrue. Obama has proposed a budget increase to NASA of $6 billion over five years.

Under the new budget, we'd see a revamped NASA program focused on scientific innovation, rather than recreating old experiments. Specifically, as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said today:

[One program] funded at $7.8 billion over five years, will invent and demonstrate large-scale, new and novel approaches to spaceflight such as in-orbit fuel depots and rendezvous and docking technologies, and closed-loop life support systems so that our future robotic and human exploration missions are both highly capable and more affordable . . . [Another program] provides $3 billion over five years for robotic exploration precursor missions that will pave the way for later human exploration of the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids.

If this budget passes Congress, it would be a major step toward a common-sense approach to space colonization that involves robots and brand-new approaches to human spaceflight.

The new budget also earmarks over $3 billion for what Bolden calls "new engines, propellants, materials and combustion processes, ultimately leading to innovative ways of accessing space to go beyond low Earth orbit." An additional $4.9 billion goes to generalized space technology research, and $2 billion goes to satellites that will help observe climate change and other Earth processes. This is a boon to geoscience, and will give us more data than ever on how to predict what will happen as our climate transforms.

Again, notice that a lot of this money is going into innovation and funding for the basic sciences that will spawn crazy new technologies for everything from space habitats to terraforming. The idea is to pump money into research so that the next time humans explore space we'll know a hell of a lot more about it and can establish viable communities in orbit, on the Moon, or on other planets.

Privatizing Space Flight

Another part of the proposal that makes a lot of sense is that Obama is ceding space flight development to the private sector. He cited SpaceX and other aerospace companies who are very close to launching humans into orbit. So the government would be partnering with private industry to send astronauts to space. In addition, the budget calls for an extension to the International Space Station project - possibly into 2020. Funding will be provided to turn the ISS into a scientific laboratory to help us understand what's required to live in space. Hopefully, by 2015, companies like SpaceX will be ferrying astronauts to the ISS.

The budget also suggests that the US should work closely with the international research and aerospace community to share resources, much the way we share the ISS. Let's work together as a planet to explore space.

Drawbacks

Phil Plait, who runs Bad Astronomy, says that Obama's plan is solid - especially because it allocates so much funding to science. But he worries that it will get bogged down in Congress:

The other thing to remember is that this must pass Congress first. I honestly don't think that will happen. For one thing, two many Congresscritters have too big a stake in NASA to let go; if you don't believe me, read this article where Alabama Congressmen complain about the new budget. When Republicans whine about privatizing something, you know you're in for a fight, and it's not like Congressional Democrats haven't been all that useful in backing up Obama's plans.

Representatives from Florida and Texas, where there are NASA facilities, have also expressed concern about the plan.

One of the issues that concerns me the most is what will happen to all the talented NASA employees who have been working on Constellation and related projects. If NASA's plan is to outsource the development of space vehicles that can carry human cargo, then thousands of jobs will evaporate. Florida alone anticipates losing 7,000 jobs when the Space Shuttle program ends next year. Earlier today Obama told reporters, "We expect to support as many if not more jobs with the 2011 budget," but those will not be the same jobs. My hope is that some of this budget money that's been allocated for private sector companies can also be used to place NASA engineers into private sector aerospace jobs. We need to encourage knowledge transfer from NASA to private industry. That way, aerospace companies won't have to start from square one as they push humans into orbit.

Why You Should Be Optimistic

Despite the obvious problems - Congressional approval and job loss - I remain optimistic about the US space program, and NASA's role in it.

In Kim Stanley Robinson's classic Red Mars trilogy about colonizing Mars, he offers a scenario very like the one we're poised to create with Obama's new strategy. Before humans set foot on the Red Planet, a gang of robots are sent ahead to scout habitable locations and construct living quarters. This is by far the most feasible way of colonizing space: It makes no sense to send humans out at great risk and cost to break ground on colonies that can be more easily built by robots. That's why we need to be investing now in the technologies that will make such a scenario possible - and Obama's plan takes great strides toward that.

Even Buzz Aldrin, often an outspoken critic of the space program, is on board with Obama's plan. In a statement, Aldrin said:

I also believe the steps we will be taking following the President's direction will best position NASA and other space agencies to send humans to Mars and other exciting destinations as quickly as possible. To do that, we will need to support many types of game-changing technologies NASA and its partners will be developing. Mars is the next frontier for humankind, and NASA will be leading the way there if we aggressively support the President's plans.

Here's to the next phase in the whole Earth space program. Let's get serious about colonizing space, instead of just leaving footprints there.

Mars colony image by Gusti Boucher.