One small step for man … one giant leap into debt

By Lauren Kelly

When President Barack Obama announced the U.S. budget for fiscal year 2010 this past May, he allocated $18.7 billion for NASA projects, which is a five percent increase from 2009. Of those funds, $3.5 billion will be put toward the newest NASA mission—a return trip to the moon called Constellation. The mission would put humans back on the moon by 2020, possibly establishing a lunar base.

I’m not sure if this is a valid investment. We shouldn’t be spending billions of dollars on space programs when there are so many problems here on Earth. Instead, we could be helping people who are dying of preventable causes, funding education or working to end global warming. I love space, but I question the validity of what we will gain through human space exploration. The difficulties involved in space travel are too great to make it worth the cost with current technologies available.

NASA shouldn’t be concentrating on manned space missions because of the exorbitant cost and difficulty of the projects. Money should be put toward funding unmanned technologies such as robotic probes and advanced optics telescopes that can yield more information and results with less cost. Using technologies without humans aboard offers many more possibilities for exploration because human needs don’t have to be taken into account.

Many problems await astronauts in space, making human missions incredibly difficult to handle.

First, we can’t get very far because of the speed we can currently travel, which is a little more than 17,500 mph. Therefore, the only viable option for human space exploration is in our own solar system. This doesn’t garner much new knowledge about the universe as a whole. Instead, we should be looking farther out, focusing on other galaxies and sending robotics outside our solar system where humans can’t realistically go.

Besides speed, logistics of human space exploration are hard to realize. The low gravity environment is an incredible challenge for humans living in space. It is very hard to deal with and is next to impossible to sustain for long periods of time because it wreaks havoc on the human body. Not long after entering space, organ and muscle systems start to fail at a quick rate. Muscles start to atrophy and the digestive system slows down, causing the body to slowly stop its vital functions.

Living in space for many years creates complicated problems that cost millions of dollars to solve. For instance, NASA spent $19 million on a Russian-built space toilet system for the International Space Station, according to the Associated Press. NASA also invested millions of dollars in researching a pen that would work in space without the help of gravity, while the Russians simply used pencils.

Another huge cost of human space travel is literally getting them there—out of the Earth’s gravitational pull. It costs $10,000 to put one pound of anything into orbit. This means it would cost $20 million for a weekend trip to the International Space Station. Sending satellites and other technology into space does not require a return trip most of the time, therefore eliminating weight in fuel.

But according to various scientists interviewed in an episode of the History Channel’s series “The Universe” about space travel, there are many ideas about how to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull more efficiently, but these aren’t very realistic or feasible in the next few years.

One idea is to construct a Jack-and-the Beanstalk-type mechanism, where a strong cable acts as an elevator into outer space. Other possibilities are more far-fetched and include ideas of riding light particles or finding wormholes in the space-time fabric to travel faster than the current available rocket power. These ideas aren’t realistic, however, and are not viable investments for the 2010 fiscal year at NASA.

We’re better off putting the $18.7 billion allocated to NASA toward better technology that we can use from Earth. Investing in things like improved optics for telescopes, photographic lensing and monitoring microwaves to chart the structure of the universe will lead us to uncovering the secrets of the cosmos much faster than trying to travel there ourselves.