What does the future hold for the U.S. space program? NBC’s Robert Hager takes a look at how NASA may keep reaching for the stars.
If the Bush administration has it's way, in spite of all the excitement at the Cape Canaveral, Discovery’s launch could really be "the beginning of the end" for the shuttles: the start of a final five years of flights, before they're grounded, for a more ambitious plan building a new, replacement spacecraft to get astronauts back to the moon, and one day, on to Mars.
Critics argue that the shuttles are getting old and besides, they can't reach any higher than the International Space Station, which – by the way – detractors say has been a bum project, costing billions without a single, important scientific breakthrough.
So, the argument goes, give up expanding that space station within five years, and then close down the shuttle program.
Instead, the administration says, get on to something really inspiring, for a change:
- Within six years, design and fly a whole new space ship.
- Within 10 to 15 years, send Americans back to the moon.
- And after that: go for the biggie: a manned mission to Mars.
It’s high time for such futuristic thinking, according to the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Neal Degrass Tyson. “We will zoom ahead in the 21st century and we won't even have to look back because the solar system will become our backyard,” says Tyson.
But a touch of realism: when President Bush's father proposed such a plan decades ago, congress shot it down fast. And while, this time, lawmakers have put up a little money to begin tinkering, critics charge that seeing an entire moon-Mars program through would cost way more than our nation could afford.
“It is hard to imagine in today's world that we're prepared to spend that kind of money to go to mars when the payoff from it is undefinable. What would we get? It’s a ‘feel good’ program, says Alex Rowland, Duke University space historian.
Rowland and others contend it's much better to pursue less-expensive, unmanned missions, like those little Mars rovers. But never mind, the administration's still counting-down to key decisions soon about a shuttle-replacement and what it should look like to the delight of some. Tyson says, “What comes after Mars? Well, the universe is a big place!”
So "big" that it's daunting to decide how best to explore it and a little hard to believe that that after all these years of the shuttle program, all the tragedies and the successes, that after about another five years, it might really be grounded for good.