Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Florida on July 8, 2011. It was the final mission of NASA’s Space Transportation System: 30 years, 135 missions, many successes and two tragic failures.
NASA’s retirement of the Space Shuttle is understandable. The technology is antiquated. However, there is no real plan in place for the next NASA human spacecraft. Previously, NASA moved from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Skylab to the Shuttle proficiently. There is currently no solid plan for future manned space flight and a dwindling budget. Private companies hope to fill the void.
I am a huge proponent of manned space exploration. I am ready to board a rocket to anywhere. Few things inspire and intrigue my elementary science students more than stories of Neil and Buzz in the Sea of Tranquility. However, in terms of the science of space exploration, humans do not compare favorably to robots. Life support systems are astronomically expensive to develop and maintain. Robots require little to operate in inhospitable locations across our solar system.
Most people I have queried on the subject are not aware of NASA’s other scientific ventures. Some believe NASA died when the Shuttle retired. False. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration is alive and although not thriving due to budgetary constraints (a shrinking .6 percent of the federal budget), NASA is engaged in various, fascinating and important scientific endeavors:
The James Webb Space Telescope — Currently being constructed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the JWST will be the most powerful tool humans have ever used to explore the Cosmos. Like it’s predecessor, Hubble, the JWST is expected to discover phenomenon unforeseen by scientists, enlightening our understanding of the Universe’s creation.
Curiosity — Also known as the Mars Science Laboratory. This car-sized robot is scheduled for launch in just a few weeks! It will land in a Martian crater in August of 2012. There, it will begin a two-year adventure roving the Martian terrain, using a vast array of instruments to study the history of Mars. Was there water? Was there once life? What happened to it? Curiosity follows in the tracks of the wonderfully resilient Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
New Horizons — A small robot headed for a first ever fly-by of dwarf planet Pluto in July of 2015. Pluto enthusiasts rejoice!
GOES — One might ask, “Why study space when there are problems on Earth that need solutions?” The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites answers best: we study space because it teaches us about the Earth. NASA is a world leader in Earth exploration. The GOES system is just one of many Earth Science programs run by NASA, studying everything from climate anomalies to crop cultivation to geology.
Dawn — Launched in 2007, Dawn, currently orbiting the asteroid, Vesta, is the first manmade object to orbit an asteroid. After a year of investigation, Dawn will move through the Asteroid Belt to the dwarf planet Ceres. These rocks contain fascinating clues as to the formation of our solar system.
Juno — A robot designed to discover the origin and evolution of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Launched in August of 2011, Juno will reach Jupiter in August of 2016.
Cassini-Huygens — Named after important early astronomers, the Cassini-Huygens probe launched in October of 1997 and reached Saturn July of 2004. The Huygens probe then detached from Cassini, entering the atmosphere and landing on Saturn’s interesting moon Titan. Cassini continues to send back astonishing data and pictures of Saturn and it’s moons.
Voyager Probes I and II — Launched in 1977 these twin robots toured the Solar System sending back the first close-up views of the outer planets. Voyager 1 is now the farthest human object away from Earth (11 billion miles). Scientists continue to receive data, as the space probe exits the Heliopause at the very edge of our Solar System.
Sure NASA is burdened by bureaucratic red tape and government inefficiency. But their brilliant development of robotic space missions continues to facilitate awesome science and important, new understandings.
Filed Under: News