NASA and commercial space travel
President Obama's proposed budget for NASA puts the US space agency on a new, commercial trajectory.
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Houston, you may have a problem. President Obama's NASA budget would scrap the space agency's Constellation program. That hundred-billion-dollar project to return people to the moon by 2020 was behind schedule and over budget. In announcing Constellation's demise, Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren said the administration still has big plans for NASA.
"It is not a retreat from US leadership in human space flight as some are asserting, but rather an exciting and promising path forward," he said.
In fact, the president would boost NASA's budget by $6 billion dollars over the next five years. But NASA would rely on private companies to put people into space.
Keith Cowing is a former NASA engineer who now edits NASAwatch.com. He thinks this is a giant leap for commercialization of space travel.
"It is quite a change in the way that NASA wants to do business from the way its been doing it for the past 30, 40, 50 years," said Cowing. "Imagine it's 1967 and NASA just decided to cancel Apollo. That's about where it is, except they're saying, wait we're canceling the program, but not the intent. I think this is a nuance that's lost on some people. They say, 'Oh we're not going to do human space exploration anymore.' Not true!"
Cowing says the new direction is akin to the way the US launched commercial air travel. And, that Russia has had a commerical space program for the last decade.
"And I always find great humor in that you have a country who's got a capitalist economy that's barely been a decade and a half old and they came out of Communism, and yet they're teaching us how to commercialize space."
As for potential space destinations, Cowing thinks the choices are obvious: The moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids.
There have been some tantalizing hints about big game-changing, breakthrough technology in store for a more commercial space program.
"Right now we use rockets, but there are some new technologies that have been tried out," said Cowing. "One is ion thrusters where you in essence send out particles at very high speed, using an electrical system. And because they're leaving at such high speed, they're like rockets in that you're throwing something out: f = ma, and all that. But the thing is they're very efficient and they can build up very high thrust, and they can be electrically powered. So, these ion propulsions is one thing they're looking at.
"Another thing they're looking at is plasma propulsion and there's this concept called vassimere or vassamere, depending who you're talking to. And the beauty of this is it's electrically powered and if it works, and it seems to work, is much more efficient than taking big tanks full of chemicals up there and then igniting them. That's what's changing."
These new technologies might end up greening aviation in general. "As a matter of fact, if you look at budget documents, you see that they say aeronautics are green aviation," Cowing says.
Hidden among the news about cuts to NASA programs is the boost to its overall budget, including a sizable increase in earth science programs.
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