My view: America must continue to spend money on space research

By Gary M. Sandquist

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

NASA scientists smile after NASA's Administrator Charles Bolden, seen on video projection on top left, debuted the first recorded human voice that traveled from Earth to another planet and back, as Bolden radioed the rover on Mars and back to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) on Earth, during a briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, Aug. 27, 2012.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Earlier this year, before NASA's Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars, President Obama announced plans to reduce funding for planetary science from $1.5 billion presently to $1.2 billion next year, with further cuts through 2017. If approved, these reductions will terminate critical scientific research, including NASA's European Space Agency partnership for probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018.

Proposed reductions in spending are ongoing budget issues with Obama and Republicans. With austerity budgets, funding for federal programs is problematic. However, reduced funding for planetary science at NASA will impact the economy as well as science.

New technologies that are directly or indirectly influenced by space innovations include microelectronics, global positioning system (GPS), scratch-resistant lenses, cordless power tools, household water filters, adjustable smoke detectors, kidney dialysis machines, implantable pacemakers, LASIK eye surgery and satellite-informed weather forecasts.

That's something to think about, especially for those who claim that NASA is a waste of taxpayer money. And it's something for anti-nuclear zealots to consider, given that nuclear energy has powered virtually all of the space missions, (including the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Voyager programs, the space shuttle and the space station) and that those auxiliary benefits happened as a result of what got us to the moon and beyond.

All these missions and others such as Cassini, Galileo, Ulysses and the Mars Curiosity Rover use heat from plutonium for their radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). Lightweight and compact, an RTG is a long-lasting source of electric power. For ensuring the mission's success and longevity, these nuclear generators are essential.

Someday small modular nuclear reactors could be safely launched to provide propulsion for long missions to the outer solar system. Presently, nuclear reactors supply one-fifth of the nation's electricity — and research is under way on advanced nuclear technologies to meet future energy needs. Expansion of nuclear power globally is advancing despite opposition.

Federal funding for research and development for the U.S. space program has long been in decline. In the current economic and political climate, congressional support for space missions has decreased despite challenges from China. The first Chinese space walk and its surface-to-orbit "kinetic kill," destroyed a satellite with a high-speed missile. China may supplant the U.S., Russia and European Union in space research.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and space exploration author, says China's space program magnified after other countries, citing human rights violations, barred China from International Space Station participation.

"Wouldn't it be a curious twist of events," Tyson said, "if China's vigorous response to our denial of their participation in the International Space Station turns out to be the very force that sparks another series of competitive space achievements in America, culminating this time around in a manned mission to Mars?"

Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, says history shows that investments in science and technology are engines of economic growth. Those concerned with spending on space missions should consider that as a fraction of one Federal tax dollar today, the total cost of U.S. space missions, telescopes and planetary probes, including planned missions, is one-half of one penny. For that amount, the U.S. could reclaim its preeminence in a venture that stimulated innovation, generated new industries and shaped 21st-century U.S. ascendancy.

Gary Sandquist is an emeritus professor from the University of Utah.

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