Time for U.S., NASA to go more boldly


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Posted Online: March 24, 2013, 11:00 pm
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Philadelphia Inquirer
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." -- James T. Kirk

A new Star Trek movie comes out in May. No doubt fans of the cult-status films that descended from the original 1960s TV series will flock to theaters to experience it in 3-D, many still believing Captain Kirk's mission statement was prescient.

But in these days of fiscal cliffs and sequestration, the space administration, like other federal agencies, is taking budget hits that have some proponents of space exploration wondering if President Obama meant it three years ago when he said, "I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future."

Obama tried to energize the space program by encouraging entrepreneurship. But his privatization model needs to be recalibrated. SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corp. are developing space vehicles to carry crews, but since most of their money comes from NASA, not venture capitalists, the space agency's budget cuts hinder their progress.

Mike Griffin, who ran NASA during the Bush administration, says the private space companies need an incentive beyond dwindling federal funds. Instead of limiting them to developing craft that, like the mothballed space shuttles, achieve only low Earth orbit, give them a more lucrative goal, he says.

Griffin told reporters in Huntsville, Ala., home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, that missions to supply the International Space Station are not "a big enough or long-lasting enough market" to attract capital for commercial space enterprises. He said a more viable market would result if a moon base were created for deep-space missions.

That idea was nixed last year when Obama said that instead of a return to the moon, he would prefer to invest in a new propulsion system that could take men to Mars by 2037. That approach seems logical, as Star Trek's Mr. Spock would say. But it will be hard to ever reach Mars if NASA's budget keeps being cut. The sequester will trim its $17.8 billion budget by $894 million.

If a new poll is to be believed, the public would back Obama if he cranked up the fiscal engine for deep-space exploration. A survey for the communications firm Phillips & Co. and the nonprofit Explore Mars found that 76 percent of Americans would support raising NASA's budget to 1 percent of the federal total, from the current 0.5 percent, for exploration of faraway places like Mars.

Absent a funding boost, NASA needs Congress to stop treating it like a jobs machine. Underused NASA facilities could be closed to produce savings, but lawmakers protecting jobs stand in the way. A Florida Today writer suggests NASA needs the equivalent of the military's base-closing commission, whose decisions couldn't be overruled by politicians. He's right.
















 




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