Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait on NASA’s future

Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait talked to EarthSky about the coming year’s budget for NASA. U.S. President Barack Obama announced the new budget in early February of 2010. In it – even as NASA receives an additional six billion dollars – NASA will have to scrap its planned program to return humans to the moon.

Phil Plait: This is not the end of NASA. This is not the end of NASA’s manned space program, which is what a lot of people have been saying on the web and elsewhere. I see this as a shake-up that is actually pretty important and may very well be needed desperately by NASA right now.

Dr. Plait – whose Bad Astronomy blog is part of – said he approves of NASA’s plan to rely more on private companies to send astronauts to space.

Phil Plait: The fact that these companies are leaner, faster, quicker on their feet, is something that I think is really important in being able to do stuff like this. If there’s some sort of emergency in space, you want an ability like that. So I’m really excited that they’re doing this. They’re within a few years of putting humans into space. They have to be able to design some of their launch hardware. They have to rebuild some of it, reconfigure it a little bit, to convert it to cargo to be able to put humans onto it. But when all is said and done, they’re predicting that by 2014, they’ll be putting people into space, into orbit, and be able to put crews onto the space station. I think that’s fantastic.

Dr. Plait talked about the changing role of the US in future human spaceflight.

Phil Plait: The United States has always been one of the leading examples of space exploration. NASA is a shining star here. along with the Soviet Union in the early days of the space race. The Soviet Union put the first man into space, and it broke a lot of records, but the United States basically took a series of small steps and concentrated on the technology and the ability of doing what it needed to put men on the moon, and that included putting people into orbit docking two spaceships and doing things like that. And so as the Soviets were more interested in the headlines, the United States was marching forward. And it really worked. It put us on the moon first.

But after that, said Plait, Congress and the President were more interested in the Space Shuttle, cheap access to space.

Phil Plait: The problem is the Space Shuttle became a political toy and got bigger and more complicated and more expensive and never was really the cheap access to space, the ‘space truck’ that it was sold as. And then the Space Station was going to be our big, orbiting experimental lab, and it was going to be this great thing where people could learn about long-term exposure to space and do science in space, and then it became a political football. It’s huge and bloated and is not really capable of doing science. We’ve learned a huge amount from the space station. But right now, as it stands, it’s not doing a whole lot of science.

Plait said the US role has lost its way.

Phil Plait: We haven’t put people out of low Earth orbit in 40 years. And it’s time we do that again. One part of Obama’s plan is to actually expand the space station, to be able to make it do more science, to extend it’s lifespan, right now which ends at 2016, but to extend it to 2020. I’m all for that. We’ve already spent over 100 billion dollars on the space station. If we can spend a few hundred million more, and make it really useful for the exploration of space, then hey – I’m behind that.

Plait spoke about the idea of scrapping Constellation.

Phil Plait: We’ve already spent something like nine billion dollars on these rockets. But is it bad money after good at this point? Constellation, I don’t think, was the way to get to space. Once the shuttle’s retired, the end of this year, possibly into next year if there are any delays, there was going to be a long gap before we could get back into space. What this new budget says is, we’re going to give private space companies, Space X, Bigelow, and other groups like that, a lot of money to develop their abilities to put humans into space to cover that gap. And I think that’s a fine idea. And I think that’s looking to the future better than the course NASA has been on in the last few years.

Plait told EarthSky what he thought was the most important thing people should know about the future of NASA.

Phil Plait: To me, NASA has always been the organization that paves the way. We should even be giving more money to NASA. They’re the ones, as a government agency, that can afford look into innovative technologies, groundbreaking technologies, things that push the limits of what we know, new types of propulsion, new ways of getting into space. That’s what NASA’s good for. And once they develop that sort of thing, then it becomes up to them to sort of step out of the way, because a government agency is not that good at maintaining that sort of thing. We should look to leaner organizations to be able to put people into space and to explore space – let NASA pave the way but once they’ve paved that way, let others follow that road.

February 8, 2010

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