Friday, March 17, 2006

NASA Priorities Completely Backwards

NASA researches are expressing dismay and outrage over the latest budget priorities as current projects and future missions are scrapped in favor of dead-end projects. NASA has focused its current budget on maintaining the Space Shuttle program through 2010, finishing the International Space Station, and developing a replacement for the Shuttle. Budget casualties, however, are deep space missions such as Dawn, a project intended to place a probe in orbit around Vesta and Ceres. (Astronomy: Scientists sound off on NASA budget).

The most successful and scientifically beneficial missions since the Apollo program have been the planetary and deep space missions, yet these are precisely the missions now being cut in an ill-conceived attempt to keep the Space Shuttle program on life support. Despite the relatively low cost of sample return missions such as Stardust which recently returned particle samples from a comet, these types of missions are unpopular with NASA administrators and are now on the chopping block.

Repercussions to Project Dawn's cancellation are being felt across the pond as well. The European Space Agency who also had a vested interest in that project is angry at NASA's decision to cancel the project and views it as a sign that the US is no longer a reliable space partner. Said Gerhard Neukum, the ESA's head of the Mars Express image processing team, "This was not a good way to treat things in terms of international cooperation. Things are degrading, and I'm not the only one who feels that way."

NASA's priorities are definitely backwards. The Shuttle program is dead, but apparently the NASA administrators are not willing to release the body. The ISS program is so scaled down from its original design as to be all but worthless. The future of all space programs is not near earth exploration, but rather interplanetary research both manned and unmanned. Current NASA administrators clearly lack the vision to lead the floundering US space program in that direction, however. A change in leadership within NASA would be refreshing and would be most welcome both here and abroad. Given NASA's current direction, there are few prospects for the US leading any major initiatives in space exploration. With the European and Chinese space agencies on the rise, losing that initiative may prove to be an extremely costly mistake.


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