NASA and the future of space exploration

October 1st marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of full operations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. While the organization accomplished some remarkable achievements in its first half-century, most notably placing men on the moon and building the long-running Space Shuttle program, the next 50 years look rather bleak.

Human desire and the imagination to explore the universe remains; but financing withers. Problems on earth are diverting funding. Back in NASA's glory days, when it was focused on reaching the moon, an estimated 4 per cent of the U.S. federal budget was earmarked for the space program. Now, the agency has multiple large projects (International Space Station, Hubble Telescope, robots in our solar system) but only one cent of every tax dollar is available to fund them all. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States' mounting national debt, an aging population and now the financial crisis are all taking a toll.

Sadly, NASA finds itself scrambling just to return where it once was. It's going "back to the future" with plans to send humans to the moon again by 2020. The promise of space exploration beyond our solar system remains a faint dream.

You can read more in an article entitled What Future for NASA?, the source of most of the facts outlined here.

Meanwhile, renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, in a speech at George Washington University and in written arguments, makes an appeal for further efforts to explore space. He reminds us that in 1492 many people didn't think it was worth the effort to finance Christopher Columbus's voyage West across the Atlantic. But the discovery of North America by Europeans profoundly changed the world. Hawking says we should make interstellar travel a long-term goal. The future of the human race could depend on it.

With China and European countries recently stretching their technological ambitions into space, the answer to NASA's troubles may lie in not going it alone and instead joining other countries to work towards a common goal.

You can read Hawking's remarks in The Final Frontier, published in Cosmos magazine.

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Photo courtesy: A. Sayed
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