2014 Symposium: Is it time to re-think a space program?

Raleigh: Since the times of Cold War when the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. have engaged into fierce military and non-military competition, the development of space programs was crucial for both of these countries. Consequently, both countries (and later some other countries) have devoted significant financial and human resources to developing space programs. For the United States, the Apollo landing has proved to be a crowning moment and since then, the country has allocated a lot of money for its space program. For example, federal budget granted to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) totaled 526.18 billion dollars in the period from 1958 to 2011. Most recently, NASA has requested 17.5 billion dollars from the federal budget for its 2015 program which will be largely devoted to major astrophysics and planetary exploration programs.

Many people argue that these expenses are not necessary and put a strain on an already strained federal budget. For example, an expensive program SOFIA (a telescope mounted on Boeing 747 to make observations from spectra ranging from optical to far-infrared which cost about $90 million in 2013) had a bad luck and would have to be stopped if other countries (for example, Germany) will not contribute. It seems logical to choose to spend federal money on more tangible projects such as education, social programs, healthcare, economy, and such.

Some scientists assert that influx of money into space programs is necessary—even crucial—because it might open up the possibilities for discovering important information about our universe, redirect the meteors and asteroids which might potentially destroy the Earth, and ultimately facilitate human spaceflight. How credible is that? Some skeptics argue that NASA scientists simply want to keep their jobs and salaries in face of diminishing public support by purporting the importance of their achievements and perceived threats from potential asteroids and meteors.

Of course, the development of science is what propels our civilization. But, there needs to be an established balance between current and urgent matters and some matters which might occur light years further.

Asheville: NASA took a beating in the public opinion surveys of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Though their slice of the budget was tiny, space exploration had lost a considerable amount of its luster. Talk of missions to Mars was too distant to be realistic, and return trips to the Moon had none of the same “last frontier” appeal. NASA was a powerful collection of scientists, engineers, and explorers who lacked a purpose. As financial crisis and wars drained the treasury, NASA continued to take budget cuts.

Modern ambitions have begun to reawaken the explorer’s impulse in NASA. New developments in propulsion and life support have made an exploratory visit to Mars a realistic possibility. The future is bright for the agency. These are the kinds of projects that ought to be at the forefront of our national pride. These bold adventures into a dangerous inky blackness inspire generations to look up at the sky and see opportunity where our ancient ancestors saw only mystery.

Our terrestrial lives, too, have improved measurably because of the technological and logistical advancements made in the prior generation’s odyssey to the Moon. From advanced refrigeration to super-efficient water recycling systems, our ventures into space have forced us to stretch the limits of our resources. Such stretching is what drives the innovation that makes humans great, that inspires us to achieve tremendous things. The adversity of space brings out the best in our best and brightest, and we must continue to encourage them skyward.

Cartwright: I don’t think so. NASA’s budget is something like $17 billion per year. What do we get out of this program? Frankly, I don’t see a whole lot of benefit to the American people. Over the last fifty years, NASA has spent over $500 billion dollars cumulatively, and what do we have to show for it? We allegedly went to the Moon. We don’t have a shuttle program. Seems like an awful waste to me. There is a certain appeal to the space program, but let’s let the private sector take over. If there’s a market to go to Mars or to build a base on the Moon, let some private entrepreneur or aerospace company spend their money. I don’t think we should be using tax dollars from American taxpayers to fund a program that is yielding little these days. I’m always for spending cuts in the federal budget, so let’s cut the spending on NASA as a first step in shrinking the size of the federal government and eliminating wasteful spending, fraud and waste.

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