Cancel NASA: Coronavirus is America's final frontier now

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The problems we must solve are much more massive than a single goal of landing humans on the Moon.

On May 27, if all goes as planned, American astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, wearing NASA badges, will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket.  

I have always been in love with space travel. I was born in the summer of 1969 when a man set foot on the Moon. I grew up a lover of Star Trek, of Star Wars, of Battlestar Galactica, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, of all forms of science fiction in which humankind leaves the bonds of terra firma and travels into the void, to the planets, to the stars.

Rockets, space stations, habitats, and bases on the moons and planets intrigued me as a child, and also throughout my entire adult life. So much that I have spent part of my professional career as a writer addressing our national space program, including a look back at the technologies that enabled the Apollo landings, and interviewing people who made it possible.

Also Read: Is SpaceX the new NASA?

The exploration of space with human crews has always been NASA’s primary mission. Since the conclusion of the Apollo program in the late 1970s, the cost justification of the manned space program in the United States has always been the development of technologies used in space travel that could also improve the American way of life, through cross-pollination of private industries involved with the program. 

These technologies include the development of microprocessors used in the spacecraft themselves that eventually made their way into commercial computer systems, and of course, virtually every electronic device and product that we take for granted today. There is also the development of communications satellites, without which modern telecommunications infrastructure would not be possible. Or the Global Positioning System, in-vehicle navigation, or modern meteorology, for that matter. 

To date, the United States has spent over $650 billion funding NASA, with a 2020 budget of over $22 billion. The space agency represents about 0.48% of the current federal budget, down from an all-time high of over 4.4% during the height of the Apollo program. 

From that perspective, given the technologies it has produced to date, NASA could be seen as a bargain. But if we resume and expand the scope of manned space travel significantly beyond what we are doing today, particularly if we set our sights on returning to the Moon and putting people on Mars, then we could see those costs escalate to Apollo-like funding levels or higher, even if we include a significant private funding element to defer some of those expenses.

The value of the space program — and the technologies it has produced thus far — is indisputable. But current NASA projects are of more questionable value, particularly during a time in which, by the summer of this year, thousands of people will be dying every day of COVID-19

With no vaccine in sight, with tens of millions of people unemployed, and with the prospect of massive business failures and tremendous financial losses, it is difficult to justify the continued existence of a manned space program.

When our national economic engine is at a total standstill, spending taxpayer money on human-crewed space missions feels like a questionable expenditure for the American public to stomach.

However, in the midst of all of this economic chaos and sickness and death, NASA is business as usual. Tomorrow’s launch of the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket will be the first manned mission flown on hardware built and designed in the United States since the ending of the Space Shuttle program and the final flight of Atlantis, STS-135, in July of 2009. 

Since then, we have relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and Zenit launch vehicles to send astronauts to the International Space Space station, which has cost the United States about $100 billion to date, plus $3-4 billion a year to maintain a crew there and keep the systems operational.

I understand the political desire to maintain our technological and economic independence from Russia. Still, beyond the technical validation exercise of testing SpaceX’s crew capsule for human-rated spaceflight, I believe this is where NASA’s involvement with human-crewed missions should begin to wind down. As a national interest, we should be planning to transition the legacy of manned space travel to private industry, to the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos’ of the world.

In addition to divesting our interest in the International Space Station, I would recommend that the launch facilities for non-military use should be sold or divested into private industry. The astronaut training program, and all that it entails, should be under the auspices of the private sector as well. 

Every single NASA program now needs to be re-evaluated for its value proposition, including the pure science stuff such as the James Webb space telescope and the extraplanetary probe missions being conducted at the JPL. 

Sure, exploring Mars with Curiosity and taking giant panoramas is unbelievably cool. Pointing $10B space telescopes at far-away galaxies and producing high-resolution near-infrared data of forming extrasolar planets sounds exciting. But are these assets or projects someone else could own when other national priorities are more important? Quite frankly, I think private industry can do a much better job, and pay the STEM people involved in these efforts more attractive salaries as well.

Why did we decide to put human beings in space in the first place? Ostensibly, the motivation was always a political one — our desire to beat the Russians to the Moon and to maintain our technical superiority over Communism. 

The astronauts were the Right Stuff, larger-than-life superheroes representing the pinnacle of American achievement that made the efforts of the white-shirted, horn-rimmed, dorky American scientists — what we call STEM workers today — look good.

That’s how we sold this to the American public, but the continued value proposition was always the tangible benefits we could extract from the technology itself. 

Our Communist enemy was defeated a long time ago. We face a new enemy —  a virus for which we have no immediate cure, and that will likely kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans. There could very well be more of these sorts of viruses coming. 

We also have an aging power generation infrastructure with an ever-increasing demand for electricity. At the same time, we continue to consume non-renewable resources controlled by despotic foreign nations to meet that demand and pollute our environment in the process. We have increasing challenges in feeding our population, particularly its desire for meat. And there will be tremendous logistics issues going forward for food distribution should we transition to a society that will increasingly become socially distanced.

There are tangible, real-world problems on planet earth that need to be solved. If we can solve them, it will improve the quality of life just not for all Americans, but also the world. 

If we were to put the same level of effort into solving these problems that we had for the Apollo programs, then the output would almost certainly produce derivative technologies of equal or higher value to what the space program has produced. 

But the scope of the problems we need to solve is so much more massive than a single goal of landing humans on the Moon, or for building and running a crewed space station. We will need to invest far more than $22 billion a year on such efforts — potentially a $100 billion a year, perhaps more.

This would be a second Manhattan Project — the first was a crash effort to win World War II  with the development of the atomic bomb, at a massive cost to this country, putting it and the planet on a course for its destruction with the beginning of the nuclear arms race. 

What I am proposing here is a project of comparable scope and ambition, a project to save America, and ultimately save humanity. 

It would require not just involving our government but much of the attention of our private technology industry, much as the Apollo programs did with the many contractors we had at NASA, with over 400,000 people employed during the height of the effort. Such an endeavor to attack all of these related problems facing our country could easily employ millions.

In the process, we can create a vaccine for the coronavirus and also jump-start our medical technology research that will impact all aspects of the healthcare industry. We can solve our nation’s energy problems, and in the process, build technologies that will be in demand throughout the entire world and also save our planet from environmental catastrophe. We can feed America’s people, while creating new ways of farming and manufacturing food, and again, establish leadership in the development of technologies that we have since ceded to other nations.

We have already canceled our lives, our vacations, our sporting events, and our concerts. We can easily cancel the manned space program and transition it entirely to private industry with zero regrets — while we focus on solving the problems that threaten our existence as a nation and as a species.

Should the United States launch another Manhattan Project to solve its most important problems, and cancel its manned spaceflight efforts? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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