Why Obama is Right to Cut Manned Space Travel

I have been hearing recently about how despite President Obama's plan to increase the NASA's budget by 6 billion dollars, he has planned to delay or cancel manned flights to the moon. Of course, I didn't get this information from Fox News, as they don't like to bother with understanding issues in order to report on them. Obama has been getting criticized by Neil Armstrong and others for hurting "the United States' future as a superpower." I have to disagree.

Like many of my generation, I grew up being fascinated by astronauts and space flight. I love sci-fi and dreaming of untold worlds beyond our reach. But, ultimately, that is the real point here - the true riches of space exploration are beyond our reach. It doesn't matter how much money gets diverted towards NASA right now, we simply do not have the technology to do more with manned space flights than get to the moon. President Obama's plan is not to kill the dream of manned space flights completely, but to shift the focus in order to bring about that dream faster.

At this point in time, manned space flights past the ICC are a waste of money. The issue is power. The fuel and engines that exist today are terribly inefficient for what our dreams require. Sure, we have made huge technological strides because of the space program, but aiming to put men on the moon or to Mars will not accelerate future strides, it will simply lead to more waste. We need technological revolutions here on Earth before we can set our sites on Mars or beyond. We are still slaves to gasoline, combustion engines, and other wasteful power sources. If anything should be the focus of NASA, it should be in developing new propulsion systems that are cheaper, smaller and more efficient and in developing better radiation shielding.

With current systems, it would take anywhere from 4-7 months for a manned flight to reach Mars. Then we still have issues involving landing on Mars, getting astronauts from the surface back to their main ship and back home. VASMIR rockets which have been in development for close to a decade, could cut that time to 39 days. This is a good step forward, but these rockets are still barely in the testing phase and won't even be ready for orbital testing until 2013 at the earliest.

More importantly is the issue of radiation. We here on Earth have the good fortune to have an atmosphere that shields us from that radiation. What do we have in place to protect astronauts? Not much. Currently, radiation shielding is big, heavy, expensive and not that effective. Radiation levels on the ICC are monitored very carefully, and the plan has been to not let astronauts spend more than 4-6 months in space at a time. This is not only because of radiation, but because of the effects of low gravity and other issues which have a profound effect on the human body. There is research into electrostatic fields and other options for shielding, but most are still very far from practical use.

So, with a mission to Mars, even with the VASMIR rocket fully functioning, it would take 78 days of round trip flight, plus however long the astronauts spend exploring Mars itself (say 30 days as a conservative estimate.) That's 108 days at least. Less than the 4-6 month limit currently placed on astronauts living in space, but not by enough. The further from Earth they travel, the more dangerous it is if something goes wrong.

Some day, I would love to see humans traveling to Mars or beyond, but that day is not today, and it is not in the immediate future. Americans don't need to be the first to put more people on the moon or on Mars in order to be a technological superpower, because there are still plenty of technological issues that need solutions right here on Earth. Let's focus on those first, and work our way up to those sci-fi dreams. We don't need to aim for the stars to be successful, as long as we know that each step gets us closer to them anyway.