Appropriately, most every story covering the speech put Obama’s ambitions for human deep-space exploration high up – a mission to a near-earth asteroid in 2025, a roundtrip flight to Mars in the mid-2030s and a landing on the red planet at some point in his lifetime. “I expect to be around to see it,” Obama said.
Digging into the proposed asteroid-shot, the AP’s Borenstein wrote an interesting next-day piece exploring the logistics of such a mission and what we could hope to learn. An average candidate asteroid would be about five million miles from Earth – twenty times as far as the moon – and would require about a six-month trip, far longer than the Apollo 11’s eight-day voyage. It would require advanced propulsion and life-support systems and provide crucial training for the more distant trip to Mars, Borenstein reported. The mission would be more than a nod to fans of the film “Armageddon,” in which Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall play the ultimate space cowboys, on a mission to save the earth from an earthbound cataclysm. But it’s that, too. After all, asteroids are a potential threat. “Landing on an asteroid and giving it a well-timed nudge ‘would demonstrate once and for all that we’re smarter than the dinosaurs and can avoid what they didn’t,’” White House science adviser John Holdren told Borenstein. But beyond their apocalyptic potential, asteroids contain substances that astronauts would need to make fuel and equipment, as they would for a landing on Mars.
One aspect of Obama’s proposal that has not been discussed as much, perhaps because it received only a brief and indirect mention in his speech, is that he plans to increase the funding for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division by $2.4 billion over five years. That would account for 40 percent of the total $6 billion increase the president proposed for NASA’s budget overall. Two weeks before Obama’s speech, The Washington Post reported on the plans for this money, an angle also picked up by Fast Company, NPR, and the The Christian Science Monitor as well.
The Earth-science funding represents a “philosophical shift,” allowing for continuous monitoring of climate data, money for planned but currently unfunded missions, and service of the agency’s thirteen satellites currently dedicated to the study of climate, Marc Kauffman reported in the Post.“This administration has a clear priority for science in general and Earth science in specific,” Edward Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told NPR, which reported that the new money that would replace twin satellites that have been making detailed studies of the Earth’s gravity field since 2002. The mission, dubbed GRACE, may sound like science for science’s sake, but its eyes are trained on practical issues here on terra firma. The satellites’ measurements show that the groundwater of California’s San Joaquin Valley is disappearing faster than it’s being replenished, for instance, Weiler says. Other projects include launching a new Orbiting Carbon Observatory (the original crashed into the ocean last year after it was launched), NPR noted. Its piece closes claiming a wholesale reorientation of NASA’s mission: “The proposed NASA budget still needs approval from Congress. But NASA officials say lawmakers seem to like the space agency’s new focus on the Earth.”
This may or may not be true. The question of which space-based tasks in NASA’s near-term future are most relevant and important to the public hasn’t been explored much by the media following Obama’s big speech. Perhaps more attention should be paid to the less sexy, but for the foreseeable future, more tangible, aspects of NASA’s work. With human spaceflight confined to relatively routine trips to the space station on Russian rockets for the next several years, and no major destination mission before 2025, journalists are going to have to start doing the hard work of explaining NASA’s more terrestrially-focused science.
Emily Badger, writing in Miller-McCune, noted that Obama’s speech was neither as specific nor inspiring as Kennedy’s in 1962, when he famously declared, “We choose to go to the moon this decade …” Obama’s task, as Badger said, was to recast “what looks to many like the end of American manned space flight — at least for the indefinite future — as a beginning to something bigger.” Obama did that. He plotted a long-term strategy that will tickle the imagination of our deep-space frontier fantasies, but fantasies they will remain for a long time to come. Hopefully, the press will find a way to engage to the public with NASA in the meantime.