By Benjamin Solomon, Staff Writer
NASA has a budget request out for 2019 and it has some changes. Most importantly, the budget emphasizes the Trump administration’s interest in shifting the agency’s focus from Mars and the International Space Station (ISS) to the Moon.
The first important thing to say is that this isn’t a Trump crisis. NASA operates at the whim of Congress and the President, and different presidents have had different levels of enthusiasm for the space agency.
President Obama, for example, cut NASA’s budget and cancelled a program to develop new manned space vehicles, which the United States still lacks.
New manned vehicles are a big deal because since the cancellation of the space shuttle program, the US is forced to pay Russia to send American astronauts to the ISS.
What is controversial about this budget, is that it announces plans to end funding for that space station by 2025. There is a lot of emotion tied to the ISS, but the facts make this decision more understandable.
The ISS costs the US at least $3 billion a year. The US cannot currently send its own astronauts to the station without paying Russia, an arrangement which is strained by political tensions which ebb and flow.
The station is getting old as well, which represents issues that come with aging electronics and a physical structure regularly subjected to radiation and other stresses of being in outer space.
The oldest module is 20 years old right now and will be 27 when Trump’s plan calls to cut funding.
Russia’s previous oldest station, Mir, was in space for around 15 years, while the US’s previous station, Skylab, was up for only 6 years. It might be time to get a new station soon.
The ISS does valuable research. It is a place where new space technologies can be tested. It is important that this station is replaced, and not just abandoned.
There are some tentative plans for a station to be assembled in lunar orbit, which could serve as a stepping stone to Mars. This might conflict with the Trump administration’s interest in the Moon over Mars. Why build that instead of a Moonbase (which sounds pretty cool)?
Why go to the Moon over Mars? It is a lot easier. It has been done before. It’s a lot less expensive.
NASA often has issues with getting the funding it wants for its projects, because they don’t tend to have immediate, significant returns for the government. Scientific research is not a very persuasive goal to Congress.
The changing of priorities by different presidents and the changing opinions of Congress makes it worse.
Going to the Moon does not have the same opportunities, however, as going to Mars. Mars is hyped up as a potential place of human habitation, while there is no possibility of the Moon supporting that. Mars has water and potentially life.
NASA has to go for the easier, shorter step right now. The role of commercial space agencies could lead to changes in the future, though.
SpaceX is drumming up a lot of excitement for space. They are quickly developing new technologies for far cheaper than government contractors and looking good while doing it. Even more important, SpaceX wants to go to Mars.
SpaceX gets a lot from the space station though. Right now, they are developing credibility and knowledge by servicing the ISS with their reusable rockets and unmanned capsules (also reusable).
If the ISS is allowed to fade away and be replaced by a base on the moon, this could be trouble for the commercial space company. But, it could also be an opportunity to move from operating in low Earth orbit to the moon and beyond.