Three landmark achievements have made the past couple of months some of the best in recent memory when it comes to space exploration. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) sent a privately launched payload to the International Space Station (ISS), supercharging efforts to commercialize space. Not only did SpaceX engineers develop the capsule, Dragon X, they also designed and built the launch vehicle and its rocket engines. (For more on SpaceX, check out the article “Spacetruckin’ with SpaceX” in this issue.)
More recently, NASA landed Curiosity, a 1-ton planetary rover, on Mars. Granted, the landing scheme might have seemed a bit Rube Goldbergish, but it worked. Now Curiosity will be driving around Mars for at least four years filming, exploring, and looking for signs of past or current water.
In a less-flashy program, NASA had its Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) testbed taken up to the ISS in July. It contains an experimental software-defined radio that researchers will use to develop, test, and demonstrate new communications, networking, and navigation capabilities in the actual environment of space.
Overseas, the Chinese, Europeans, and Japanese have space agencies with programs of their own. The Chinese, for example, are planning manned missions to the moon, with long-term plans for sending astronauts to Mars. The Japanese and Europeans are exploring the Earth, including its magnetic field and weather patterns, and are actively involved with the ISS.
These are all remarkable displays of engineering and technology which should advance our knowledge of the solar system as well as make future space-exploration missions less expensive and risky. With any luck, governments and private enterprise will continue to explore and exploit outer space, and not for espionage or defense.
Some people complain that the money spent on NASA isn’t worth it. They cite problems here on Earth that could better use the $19 billion in taxpayer money that goes to NASA annually. That does seem like a lot of money. But consider that Americans spend more than $5 billion a year on ringtones for their phones. And we shell out $30 billion a year on porn and $45 billion each year on our pets. On Valentine’s Day this year, Americans spent $15 billion on cards, chocolates, flowers, teddy bears, and jewelry, up from $14 billion last year.
I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to eliminate ringtone spending all together, cut the number of pets in half, or at least go for less-expensive ones, like the once-famous pet rocks, and cut way back on my Valentine’s Day and porn budgets if it would give NASA a steady stream of funds. Granted, I would want NASA managers to keep a firm hand on the budget, not go to too many “conferences” in Hawaii or Paris, and worry more about space exploration than political correctness.