It has not been an auspicious week for American space travel.
The California State Historical Resources Commission voted last week to officially commemorate more than 100 items of space junk, a list that includes two urine collection devices and four motion sickness receptacles (known affectionately as barf bags by those who frequent Disneyland’s Tower of Terror).
The historical scent of galactic bodily fluids had barely cleared from the air when newspapers across the country began reporting that President Barack Obama is planning to place a moratorium on space travel to the moon and Mars, and instead place the burden of exploration on private companies.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the budget Obama will unveil to Congress this week will allocate $100 billion to NASA over the next four years; the majority of the money will go to private companies to provide shuttles to the International Space Station. The two capsules NASA has already spent billions of dollars engineering will be retired.
The implications of the plan raise serious questions about NASA’s place in the future of space travel, a field it once proudly held a vice-grip on.
The shelving of the two space shuttles will cut at least a third of the 15,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center according to the New York Times, a number only slightly offset by the estimated 1,700 jobs outsourced launchings could create in Florida.
Obama’s budget will also effectively sound the death knell for the Constellation program, NASA’s five-year-old initiative to develop spacecrafts that would return astronauts to the moon and perhaps even chart a manned mission to Mars. The program’s two figurehead capsules, the Ares I and the Orion, have already cost NASA $9 billion — an amount large enough to question the rationale of Obama’s budget.
Outsourcing the construction of space shuttles away from NASA’s 50-plus years of experience is risky business; no private company has the equivalent know-how or knowledge of safety protocol, and, with space travel still an infant field, safety is paramount.
The budget leaves little wiggle room for scientific advancement. The Orlando Sentinel, the first periodical to report the forthcoming budget changes, did quote White House officials as saying NASA will eventually be tasked with developing “heavy-lift” rockets that will explore beyond Earth’s orbit — but this will probably not come to fruition for decades.
There can be no denying that outer space is not at the forefront of the administration’s focus; in its slow rebound from economic recession, the United States has much to battle without leaving the atmosphere. Under the planned budget, NASA will be utilized to combat problems closer to home, most significantly climate change.
Yet, despite economic woes, it’s hard not to see Obama’s budget as the end of an era for American space travel. Terrestrial technology is growing with leaps and bounds, as new, ill-named gadgets are announced with the pomp and circumstance of rocket launchings.
The frontier that once seemed conquerable is now receding from America’s focus. The United States has given NASA the backseat in the space race in favor of entrepreneurship. It may be a small step forward for commercial companies, but it’s a giant leap backward for American space travel.
Lucy Mueller is a junior majoring in cinema-television production.