Houston, We Have A Problem

The Earth is simply a pinprick in the realms of the unknown. No other agency pays tribute to that line more than NASA. Coverage of the moon landing of 1969, which was the culmination of years of the tumultuous space-race, became the stuff of dreams for millions of children. Everybody wanted to be an astronaut.

However today we see NASA (and consequentially space research as a whole) in dire straits. Economic strangulation and budget cuts have left ongoing projects hanging and future advents a big question mark. During the eleventh hour of the space race in the 1960’s, NASA was awarded 4.41% of the US federal budget. This level of economic involvement was sustained throughout the 1960’s and even persisted through the space shuttle era.  In recent years a meagre 0.48% of the budget is allocated to all space and research projects.

The worst has now arrived in the form of the United States governmental shutdown. From October 1st of this year, most federal agencies including NASA faced partial shutdown. If reasonable budget appropriations can’t be established, NASA (and its history of scientific dedication) faces an imminent threat. According to the budget plans, not more than 600 employees will remain working, as opposed to the current strength of 18,000+.

 

Abraham Lincoln was once quoted to say- “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” During the 20th Century, the space program was altogether a political weapon, in the forefront of the Cold War.  But in recent times, bureaucrats consider space research as nobody’s business.  After all, what we don’t know won’t hurt us. Unraveling the mystery behind black holes putting a man on Mars won’t help them ease unemployment or combat terrorism. Public perception deems the scientific pursuit unworthy of their hard earned taxpayer money.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson (Most well-known for being an internet meme at this point) reiterated:  “Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”

Sadly, the future of space exploration seems to be a purely private enterprise.  Back in 1991, The Soviet Space Program dissolved into scattered private companies, leaving only a small chunk under the direct state control. Furthermore, the recent success of companies like SpaceX indicates a contract-by-contract basis is the way forward. This may sustain the existing space environment we have created such as the ISS but will effectively eliminate dedicated research. This is because such companies are mainly profit driven. On the flip side, the Desi state of affairs is looking up. ISRO, backed by the booming Indian economy, has grown from strength to strength.  ₹200 Billion have been allocated for a total of 58 missions during 2012-17, an ambitious goal indeed.

The challenge ahead is convincing the concerned parties that space research deserves their money. That’s where good PR comes in. NASA (playing their last card) plans to use footage from George Clooney’s thriller Gravity’ to boost their public image.

The future of space research is a battle of discovery vs. expenditure. Spending in moderation along with involvement of private partners could take our knowledge a long way. As aptly as a lovable Pixar character would put it, “To Infinity and beyond!”

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Sudharshan Suresh

Intern at The Fishbowl Network
Hey, Sudharshan here. I'm a first year college student studying Instrumentation and Control Engineering at NIT Trichy.
Writing is a passion of mine and I'm at home when it comes to the things I love such as music, cinema and society. Apart from being an avid reader and writer, I'm the kind of guy who would try my hand at anything. A hardcore music junkie, I listen to everything from Pink Floyd to The Foo Fighters. In other news, also play the guitar and love playing basketball. Debating and MUN-ing are two other things I can never get enough of.
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