I came across this article on io9 earlier today, which has me interested, and gives me more of a reason to want Sen. Barack Obama in the White House after this election - he wants to cut some of the funding that NASA receives:
As the race for U.S. President starts to heat up, Barack Obama has continued to polish his image as the youthful candidate promising a hopeful future. And yet he's also on record saying "[U.S. Space Agency] NASA is no longer associated with inspiration." He's proposing cutting NASA's budget in order to fund early-education programs for kids under 5. It's hard to fault his desire to educate kids, but why sacrifice space programs to do it? If elected, is it possible that Obama, the "hopeful" candidate, will destroy our hopes for space exploration and colonization?
They link to an article from the Chicago Tribune where Obama says the following:
But Obama said he does not agree with the way the space program is now being run and thinks funding should be trimmed until the mission is clearer."NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration," he said. "I don't think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn't even pass for news anymore."
Now, at first glance, that seems very drastic, as if the budget cuts will be a) ending NASA's work in space and b) leaving humanity stranded on this rock for who knows how long. Thinking about the issue closely though, I believe it's an incredibly responsible thing to do, given the huge number of NASA screwups over the past couple of decades, such as crashing landers into planets, losing billions of dollars because of simple mathematical errors.
NASA is a weird organization, in my opinion, who's heyday was back in the 60s and 70s, with the buildup to the Lunar landings starting in '69. It has gone from a scientific and exploratory body to one that is chiefly scientific. In all honesty, the perception seems to be that all of the advances in sciences are largely not practical to the every day person, aside from Velcro and the freeze dried ice cream that tastes horrible anyway. But now, we have the space shuttle, which barely makes the news unless something goes horribly wrong, and the international space station that costs a lot of money, but is up there for a number of weird experiments that nobody ever hears about, except on really slow news days. It's a very sad reality.
I believe NASA should chiefly become an oversight and regulatory body, and I suspect that it will become something like that in the coming decades, as private firms begin their own space programs, like Virgin Galactic has already done, with a spaceport underway in New Mexico, where four launches have already taken place (suborbital rockets). Space exploration will be in the hands of the corporate sector in the future, because they have the capital and resources that the government honestly can't put together. Every time an astronaut perishes in an accident, there is always talk from Congress about it's continued existence. Oversight such as this is not a good thing for a space program, especially with the increasingly smaller budgets every year. The highest point was in 1965, at 33 billion dollars to 17 billion dollars over the past year. It fluctuates a bit, with a spike around 1991, but when one considers that the entire Apollo Program ran about 136 billion dollars after all was said and done, it's a huge price tag. Now consider that Walmart's total revenue for the past year was $379 billion. (Granted, that's not profits), but look at what corporate businesses can do with money that they do get.
Nowhere here does Obama say that he is going to be ending the space program - he apparently believes in it, but he also sees that the agency has a number of flaws that will need to be corrected, and that they will once again need to find a clear and present path in which to follow, such as what they did with the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs in order to get to the moon.
Secondly, this doesn't necessarily mean that humanity will be stuck here. America, while we have the biggest space agency, that's likely going to change. We're not the only ones interested in the cosmos. Russia sort of has something, the EU has their own program up and running, while India and China have both been making advances of their own. In all likelihood, the Chinese are going to get to the Moon next, because they have the technology and drive to do such a thing. While I personally hope that we'll be getting there first again, I foresee some sort of space race in the coming years.
Because of these pressures, I don't think that NASA will be the primary mover and shaker of the American Space industry. Rather, I suspect that it will be driven mainly by commerce, with tourism as the big item, but once the Moon and Mars are visited, what types of things can we find out there that we'll need? Another planet with ores and metals? Manufacturing in zero gravity? I don't know - science fiction has certainly given us numerous options and ideas, but who knows what will work out?
Back to the beginning of this little stream of consciousness, I think that this goes to show that Barack Obama is the right person in office, because he's not pandering around for something inspirational such as bringing back the glory days of NASA, but that he sees a problem and has a solution.