Building a colony on the moon, visiting other planets, and searching for extraterrestrial life has captivated the imaginations of people around the world for decades. Americans look to NASA to continue space exploration until these goals are reached. However, within the last few decades, Congress has repetitively cut the funding for human space flight. While some feel that the money could be used elsewhere, others want to continue sending humans into space.
The Planetary Society is a national organization that advocates for the continued funding of NASA’s space exploration programs. Bill Nye is the organization’s CEO. Anyone can become a member by signing up on the organization’s website.
Casey Dreier, the Planetary Society’s Director of Advocacy, explained how NASA’s budget reflects policy during a presentation he gave at American University. As a member of the executive branch, NASA’s budget is proposed by the White House and then approved by Congress. Dreier said that the Planetary Society works on petitioning Congress rather than the White House. “NASA does best when not bothering the White House,” said Dreier.
Dreier said that NASA is divided up into different directorates that compete with each other for funding. The Planetary Society is most concerned with the planetary science directorate.
At the time Dreier spoke, President Obama had requested a $19 billion for NASA. A little more than half was going towards human space flight, Dreier said.
On April 19, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies approved a $19.3 billion budget for NASA, more than the original request. More funding than requested will go towards projects that will help bring more humans into space, including the Orion mission to take astronauts to Mars. The Senate still must approve the budget.
“NASA’s biggest support in Congress is from the space states: Alabama, Texas, Maryland, and Florida,” said Dreier. “Space states” are states with a large NASA presence. Senators and representatives from these states support NASA because NASA creates industries in their states.
The Planetary Society’s long-term goals are promoting planetary exploration and eventually getting humans to Mars, said Dreier. “The question is, how to do sustain a program with Congress and the president constantly changing?” said Dreier.
“If flat NASA budgets continue, there will be no more human exploration in space except cislunar,” said Dreier. Cislunar explorations are ones between the Earth and the moon. Right now, NASA’s top priorities are the robotic sample return from Mars and a robot mission to Europa, Dreier said. Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons.
Dreier explained some of the problems involved with getting support for continued human exploration. “There’s no real answer for why we should continue sending humans into space,” he said. This lack of consensus makes some believe that human exploration is unimportant. “There’s also very little historical precedent.”
A common argument is that human space travel is unnecessary because land rovers can do everything humans do, and more precisely. But Dreier disagrees. “Humans could do the work of rovers more quickly and over a variety of spots,” he said.
There is also the competing rise of commercial space. “Obama is interested in commercial crews, but this created a ‘partisan feel’,” said Dreier.
“Politics are becoming increasingly ideological,” he said. While some Republicans are against commercial space because some of the biggest Republican states are space states, more ideological Republicans are for commercial space.
However, NASA does not factor into how most Americans vote, he said. “NASA does best when it aligns with national priority,” Dreier said. “There is no ideology in either party for or against NASA.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming election, Dreier said that he thinks Clinton, Cruz and Kasich would keep NASA’s funding consistent. He has no idea about Trump and did not mention Sanders.
Dreier then explained how NASA missions are approved. “New missions must be requested by the administration and then approved by Congress,” he said. The missions also must fit in with the projecting funding in the next five years. “They must be technically realistic, low-risk, and relevant to NASA and the White House’s strategic goals,” said Dreier.
The biggest problems that humans face in space are “radiation, mental health issues, and osteoporosis,” said Dreier. The mental health issues arise from prolonged isolation from the rest of the world. Dreier said that NASA missions might want to use older men for long-term missions because they are the demographic with the least increase in cancer risk.
Humans eventually visiting Mars would be done in a series of steps. Right now, there are two robotic missions to Mars. “There are also ethical questions that need addressed about if someone dies while colonizing Mars,” said Dreier.
As for Europa, Dreier said, “Europa has all qualities to support microbial life.”
The Planetary Society is not the only group working towards continued space exploration. Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) is an international organization that also works to promote space exploration. The American University chapter of SEDS invited Dreier to speak.
Melina Hernandez, a junior at American University and a member of SEDS, explains why she believes space exploration is important: https://soundcloud.com/liza_l-1/melina-hernandez
But not everyone agrees that a large budget for human space exploration is a good thing.
Alex Niu, a senior at American University, currently has an independent study as a computer science student researcher for NASA. He works with earth-facing satellites, climate data, and experimental file systems.
“My work was specifically building a way to manage files over different servers,” he said. “We generated revenue, so we were never hit hard by NASA’s budget cuts.”
Niu’s research was primarily earth-focused. “It’s easier to justify expenses on earth-facing research,” he said.
“Part of me thinks it’s really cool to go to Mars, but the logical part of me can’t justify doing something a robot could do,” he said. Niu also emphasized that he is speaking as an individual and not as a representative of NASA. He said he likely disagrees with most people at NASA on this issue.
One of the arguments for human space exploration is spinoff technology, but Niu said that he doesn’t necessarily believe that you need to send humans into space for that.
“I would feel differently about colonizing another planet, but that is so far away right now,” he said. Niu said that issues like climate change are more important to him at the present time.
“NASA’s a great organization,” Niu said. “But maybe the focus needs to shift.”
He asked this question about human space exploration. “Realistically, why?”
Do we have so many problems on Earth that we should fix them before looking to space? Or does space provide something more for the people of Earth? No one knows.