When the space shuttle Atlantis returns home and touches down on July 21, a 30-year chapter in our country’s pursuit of space exploration will come to a close. The obvious question is what is and should be next for our country’s space program? The future of the space program isn’t just a question for scientists and engineers in Florida and Texas, but has repercussions for businesses and initiatives throughout the country, including Delaware.
There was a time when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the “space race” with the Soviets was one of the most critical and captivating programs for the United States. Presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Reagan supported NASA initiatives that would show our superiority to the rest of the world.
The wonder and possibility of space exploration along with the imminent danger surrounding it has always captured our attention. Many of us can recall where we were and what we were doing when we learned of the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Before that there was the tragedy of Apollo 1, the moon landing of Apollo 11, and the drama of Apollo 13.
Over its 50 year history, NASA’s budget has averaged nearly $16 billion annually, and given our current budget challenges, the likelihood of this budget shrinking is probable. With a number of private companies such as Virgin Galactic developing technologies and vehicles for spaceflight, one could argue that now is the time for NASA to step away from spending the tens if not hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that will be necessary to develop and perfect the next manned spacecraft and instead leave it to private interests to pursue.
However, narrowing the scope of NASA’s mission should not mean the abandonment of the study and exploration of space. Technologies once thought futuristic and possessed only by NASA have spawned great advances in public and consumer technology; Global Positioning Systems, for instance, are found virtually in every new car sold today. According to the NASA Spinoff publication, since 1976, more than 1,700 NASA technologies have been “spun-off’ for commercial use.
With the International Space Station fully operational and designated as a national laboratory, continuing to utilize the research and development capabilities to conduct scientific research and demonstrate new technologies being developed is a worthwhile endeavor.
Right in our own backyard, ILC Dover has been the supplier of every space suit since the Apollo missions and continues developing new space devices. As a result, ILC has grown to support more than 400 employees at its facility in Frederica.
On the education front, The Delaware Space Grant Consortium at the University of Delaware is funded by NASA to train students and researchers in our state in the areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and geography. At the K – 12 levels, the non-profit Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation (DASEF) in Smyrna is also focused on student advancement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
We all know too well the discourse that currently dominates our leadership in Washington. With all the problems facing us, the future of our space program is not near the top of anyone’s list of causes in need of immediate attention. But, as former NASA space biologist Keith Cowing suggests, the longer we wait to plot a clear course for the future of American space exploration, the further behind we might fall in the modern-day space race. “Is manned space exploration worth the cost? If we Americans do not think so, then why is it that nations such as China and India — nations with far greater social welfare issues to address with their limited budgets — are speeding up their space exploration programs?” he asks in a Freakonomics Quorum regarding the value of manned space exploration. “For the U.S. in the twenty-first century, is not sending humans into space worth the cost?”