Nothing pushes frontiers in science and technology – and the human imagination – like space travel to other bodies in space. Breaking the bounds of Earth is now the pursuit of more than a dozen nations, all eager for the economic spin-offs such a pursuit brings.
Yet the pioneer in space, the United States, faces a shortage of money from Congress and may be forced to surrender its global leadership.
That's the take-away from a report issued Tuesday by a 10-member panel set up by President Obama to evaluate human space exploration.
Without an additional $3 billion a year, more international cooperation, and private industry sending rockets into low orbit, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has no pathway that "permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way," according to the panel's summary report.
The panel, consisting of aerospace experts, suggests a range of options for long-distance travel in space, such as skipping the planned moon station for landings on asteroids instead. But the report's two messages are that Congress should not set goals it doesn't fund and that NASA's focus should be on projects beyond low-orbit where the rewards and risks are greatest for such a public enterprise.
NASA's top workers also came under the panel's scrutiny. Many of the agency's engineers and scientists need to reorient themselves back to developing new technologies needed for decades of deep-space exploration.
Indeed, it is likely that a political lobby has developed to keep space jobs focused on existing programs and low-orbit missions. (The lobby is based in the space-oriented and politically powerful states of Florida, Texas, and California.) This report lays out bigger thinking, asking for manned projects that will "re-engage the minds at American universities, in industry, and within NASA."
Congress has backed President Bush's 2004 goal of creating a station on the moon as a training and resource base to put humans on Mars. But it has underfunded the project, leaving the budget of the NASAat $18 billion a year. If that underfunding persists, the panel suggests a "flexible path" of landing first on asteroids or on Mars's moons.
A lack of money might also compel the US to subsidize private space launches for low-orbit missions – the way federal government stimulated postal delivery by air in the 1920s, the report suggests. That industry is poised to take on such a role in a few years. Like the solar or wind industry, private space travel may need a kick-start.
NASA has already spent $7.7 billion on the moon project, and it will soon learn from current unmanned probes if enough water and other resources exist on the moon to help fuel a Mars launch. Both Congress and Mr. Obama must now use this report to decide whether that goal still has the technical feasibility for success.
In coming years as the space shuttle program and the International Space Station come to an end, the US faces a huge gap in its ability to keep its lead in space. Just as important is the cutting-edge science and technology that such projects create for future high-tech industries. For the money, investment in space has been shown to bring earthly benefits in often unforeseen ways.
The president must ask Congress to set America's vision for space even farther out – and more firmly fund for the future.