Steven Weinberg has an opinion piece on the Wall Street Journal Web site, where he expresses confidence that Obama’s NASA budget is the right one. Instead of wasting money on a manned space program that is self serving (i.e., other than putting men in space, it accomplishes nothing) more money will be available for doing real science, he thinks.
He has a point… but, well, but there is a but. Science is an important goal of the space program, but it’s not the only goal. As a matter of fact, if you ask me as a taxpayer why I think it’s a good idea to spend some tax dollars on the space program, scientific research is just one of the reasons I’d mention, and not even necessarily the first reason. People should travel in space because our future is in space. The steps we’re taking today may be baby steps, but they’re still important steps… even if a future with colonies on Mars, manned exploration of the outer planets and their moons, or perhaps travel beyond the solar system is decades, if not centuries away.
Having said that… the Constellation program, effectively repeating the accomplishments of Apollo with slightly upgraded hardware, may not have been the smart thing to do even if it had been funded right, which it wasn’t. Another footstep on the Moon is not the same as sustainable manned deep space exploration. If I recall, one of the Augustine commission’s suggestions was a deep space program without a specific landing objective; one that focuses on developing capabilities more than achieving spectacular “footstep-and-flag” milestones, “landing” only on asteroids, if at all, focusing instead on long-duration flights in deep space. If this is the space program Obama’s administration is about to establish, who knows? Perhaps he’s putting the space program on the track that it should have been put on decades ago. (Then again, perhaps I’m just an incurable optimist.)
As a footnote of sorts, I find it noteworthy that, more than 50 years after Sputnik, there is still only one nation on Earth with a comprehensive deep space research program: the United States. Much of the Soviet space program died an undeserved and premature death after the collapse of the Soviet Union; as to China, India, Japan, the EU and other nations, their efforts are commendable but that still leaves them in the “also ran” category.