NASA, the agency that first placed a man on the moon, relies on private contractors and the Chinese for space access.
The International Space Station — the largest man-made object currently in orbit of the planet — was destined to meet its fate in 2020. The budgeted end of the ISS is symbolic of the current fate of NASA. With funding cut to the space agency to levels not seen since the administration of George W. Bush, a mixture of sequestration and low-interest among Congressional budget makers have resulted in the potential shuttering of many of NASA’s key projects — including the Cassini probe, the Curiosity rover, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Viking and Voyager spacecrafts.
Currently, NASA has no plans to start or maintain any “flagship” programs, or programs that exceed $1 billion in cost. This means that NASA has no plans to conduct any space launches. So the agency that first placed a man on the moon relies on private contractors and the Chinese for space access.
However, and counterintuitively, the Obama administration has announced its intentions to keep the ISS operational until 2024. The administration has pledged to finance the space station past its budgeted service end date at a cost of $3 billion per year. With SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada all expressing interest in sending crews to the ISS and bidding for cargo supply contracts with NASA in the future, the news comes as a boon for not only the financially-strapped agency but for the private spaceflight industry.
“What a tremendous gift the administration has given us,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “That really changes the way folks see their investment, especially the commercial side. It also changes the research side.”
Oddly, considering that science and research funding are generally panned in sequestration-friendly Washington, this idea has won bipartisan support. Republican Rep. John Abney Culberson, a member of NASA’s appropriation subcommittee, hit on the rationale that probably struck most true with the Congress.
“It’s inevitable and I’m delighted that NASA understands the value of ensuring that America continues to hold the high ground.”
He said that abandoning the station “would be like General Meade handing over Little Round Top voluntarily. To the Chinese.”
China is currently planning a 2015 launch for its Tiangong 2 space laboratory, the first part of a planned manned space station. Buoyed by a series of successful space launches and automatic and manual docking with its Tiangong 1 space laboratory, the Chinese are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. in space. The Tiangong 2 laboratory will be joined by an experimental space station in 2018 and a multi-module space station expansion in approximately 2020. China is working with the U.N. in order to encourage other nations participate in the proposed space station.
This is being seen as a potential point of contention, as the U.S. objected to China participating in the ISS.
“China won’t complete the station until the early years of the next decade, but it seems as if China will be making an outreach to other developing nations, rather than to the well-established spacefaring nations participating in the ISS, from which China is excluded, largely because of U.S. opposition,” said Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
China’s willingness and ability to provide these kinds of opportunities in the country’s space station effort “should make it clear that the U.S.-led effort to isolate China in space is an outdated, ineffective and ill-conceived policy that should be changed,” Kulacki told SPACE.com.
It is understandable that — considering America’s space tradition — that the nation would be hesitant toward being “one-upped” by another nation. But the $85 billion in cuts to federal funding to science and research have resulted in a potential national disaster. The cuts have resulted in the layoff of thousands of medical and scientific researchers, and the delay of hundreds of key medical trials and studies — including solutions in treating cancer, healing wounds and resolving gastrointestinal problems.
Many now argue that Washington’s cuts in science funding may be aggravating the drought of science, technology, engineering and mathematics-ready college graduates that is plaguing the American job market, as fewer college students are willing to enter the science field under current funding levels.
“I don’t believe that Washington is targeting science, but I also don’t believe that people understand the larger ramifications of cutting back on science,” said Dr. Pampee Young, whose research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on heart disease wound regeneration is being threatened by Washington’s financial machinations.
The ISS is a partnership between the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. None of the other partners have indicated that they wish for the ISS to stay in function beyond 2020, with Russia expressing interest in using some of the ISS’s modules toward building a new station, OPSEK. The U.S. indicated that they would go it alone, if needed.