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Columbia and the Vision
The Columbia disaster of 2003 rocked the space research world. Did humans belong in space? Was space exploration doomed to be a fundamentally risky and expensive venture? Did people simply not care about space exploration anymore?
These doubts and many had plagued NASA for many years, but having one of their space craft so fatally fail set off a flurry in Washington DC, and the realization that NASA had, in many ways, grown stagnant.
What emerged from this was the Vision for Space Exploration:
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What Is The Vision?
The Vision basically sets a series of deadlines for when NASA will accomplish various goals. Summarily:
Completion of the International Space Station by 2010. This has proven a valuable platform for space research in the past, necessary if NASA will continue on projects for long term space exploration. It also provides an excellent launching point for future missions.
Retire the Space Shuttle fleet by 2010, and have the replacement Orion spacecraft of the Constellation project ready by 2014. The space shuttles are getting old, and they need a more efficient replacement.
Explore the Moon with robotic spacecraft by 2008, and with manned missions by 2020. This includes plans to create a permanent lunar base from which to launch future missions, which will be easier considering its lessened gravity and the possibility of mining fuel.
Explore Mars with robotic and manned missions. The exacts of this mandate are a little vague, as no specific dates are set down, nor any specific methods for bringing this about mentioned. Perhaps a good thing, considering how ambitious this is and how no one is entirely sure how to bring about those manned missions to Mars at this point.
What do these all aim to do? Long term exploration. Short and sweet is no longer the most effective way to explore our near surrounds, and there's only so much that one can do without actually landing on these surfaces. Laced throughout the Vision are plans for long term capital investments geared towards making future space exploration more efficient and thus more effective.
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What Has Been Done
NASA has already gotten the jump on their lunar ambitions with the successful launch of the LRO mission. This is the first of many planned missions to the Moon who all have one goal: map out the Moon's resources, from water to helium 3, and find potential bases. Lunar bases have evaded NASA and other space superpowers for decades, but now they're well on their way there.
What about spacecraft to get all this gear up to the Moon? Well, with the space shuttle fleet a mere year away from retirement and the earliest projections of the next generation of spacecraft being ready set for 2014, there's those five gap years to take care of. It currently looks like NASA will be renting space in Russian spacecraft for manned crewmembers, though there's been some talk of keeping at least one shuttle operational during this time period. Space-related job losses during this gap will be somewhat heavy, but hopefully temporary. That being said, the Orion spacecraft module is well under way, with the launch abort system currently being tested and other systems in development.
There have been a myriad of small advances in other parts of the Vision as well, of course, from the THEMIS project to new reviews on the operating time of the International Space Station, but not everything can be listed in one brief article.
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Obama and the Vision
Bush set up the Vision; what does his successor have planned?
Basically, it doesn't look like Obama has too many changes to make to the Vision. Space exploration is not his first priority, between global warming, health care reform, Iraq and other headline issues, but he has expressed full support of the plan, from campaign stump speeches to presidential press releases.
Obama is also restarting an old space authority: the National Aeronautics and Space Council. This council will take in input from a variety of governmental departments with space-related interests, including the Department of Defense, the Transportation Department, and of course NASA itself. This will oversee all space related programs, organizing them and making them more efficient, and advise the President on these matters.
The President is also hoping to increase private sector interest in space technology, not just for “space tourism”, but also for collaborating on government research and development projects. This will not only increase the base from which space science has to work with, but also allow for more flexibility and options.
Another important addition to all this: climate research. NASA's array of satellites and climate scientists have proven to be incredibly powerful tools in climate change research, and continuing to observe the situation is absolutely critical to not just the US, but the entire world.
That being said, with the deficit being what it is, cuts have to come from somewhere and NASA looks like a likely target, despite urgent requests for a funding boost. Theoretically, it will not be Vision programs that will be slashed but other research and development projects, though reviews of these programs have also been ordered. Keeping the Vision programs intact will ensure that these long term investments are there for when the economy turns around. For a detailed breakdown of the budget, check out this May Space.com piece.
For more information on the Vision for Space Exploration and how it's coming along, check out the NASA Exploration website. There are also numerous sites out there that specialize in current space policy, such as Obamanauts. For the official list of goals that Barack Obama has laid out for NASA, check out this PDF from BarackObama.com.