Houston, the fiscal 2011 NASA budget authorization bill has landed.
After roughly nine months of bitter feuding over proposed changes in the space agency’s direction, dire warnings about the Obama administration throwing in the towel on manned spaceflight and dueling visions of where the U.S. should go next in space, Congress has passed a spending blueprint that at the very least clears the decks so NASA can figure out what to do next.
House members finally relented, dropping their NASA plan that sought to revive the canceled Constellation moon rocket. Instead, the House voted earlier this week to adopt the Senate’s $19 billion authorization bill that funds development of commercial space vehicles, a new heavy-lift booster and another space shuttle flight next year. It also effectively ends plans to send humans back to the moon. The additional shuttle flight appears to be a sop to lawmakers with NASA facilities or shuttle contractors in their states. It’s unclear where the money for the extra flight to the International Space Station will come from.
As unseemly as this entire lobbying and legislative process has been, it has at least reduced the staggering amount of uncertainty over NASA’s future. While the Senate authorization bill wastes money on another shuttle flight, it accelerates work on a heavy booster that could take astronauts to asteroids or Mars and other spots in the solar system. If you have any good ideas beyond multistage chemical rockets, let NASA know.
There is a long-standing problem with lawmakers and their staffs designing new rockets on napkins, that is, dictating design requirements. The problem of course is that you really do have to be a rocket scientist to design a new launcher to leave Earth orbit.
We must also note here the intriguing findings of planet hunters who have been scanning the skies for more than a decade in search of “exoplanets,” potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. The latest exoplanet, Gleise 581g, orbits a star in the constellation Libra about 20 light years from Earth. The rocky planet has more than three times the mass of Earth and its orbit is in a “habitable” zone around its sun. Translation: the “Goldilocks” planet could have liquid water, the basis of life as we know it.
Members of a popular space forum speculated this week on how long it would take to reach Gleise 581g. Their most optimistic estimate based on the use of nuclear pulse propulsion: 500 years.
Let’s focus instead on our solar system.