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The JUNO space probe atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

The JUNO space probe atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

Welcome back NASA! Since the United States Congress reached a (somewhat pathetic) fig leaf deal to fund the Federal government yesterday, the national space agency is back in business!  The NASA website is up and running.  Furloughed astrophysicists have stopped sending their resumes to useless (but extremely lucrative) financial firms and are again exploring the fundamental nature of the universe.

He could be working on a warp drive...or he could be devising toxic equity instruments to plunder your retirement fund--you decide!

He could be working on a warp drive…or he could be devising toxic real estate loan derivatives in order to plunder your retirement fund–you decide!

To celebrate what I regard as one of the–if not the most–important things that humankind is working on, here is a list of current NASA projects which you can start looking forward to again:

BARREL is a series of about 40 super high altitude balloons designed to study the Van Allen radiation belts (which serve as a sort of force field that keeps Earth’s atmosphere from being destroyed).

Solar Probe+ is a robotic spacecraft designed to fly faster than any human made object to the outer corona of the sun and study our beloved star directly.

MAVEN is an orbital planetary satellite designed to orbit Mars and analyze its atmosphere.

OSIRIS-Rex is a probe designed to visit a 500 meter long carbonaceous asteroid and return a sample to Earth for study.

The James Webb Space Telescope is an orbital infrared space telescope with a large super the designated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope

A Full Scale Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

A Full Scale Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

Congress deserves credit–I may be the first person in America to type those three words during the last fortnight–for restoring funding to the James Webb Space Telescope in 2011 after its budget was slashed (even though 75% of the hardware was already built or in production).  Sadly a number of the more important and exciting NASA projects for the upcoming two decades have been cancelled due to budget gaps and to the budget sequester (which has cruelly cut into scientific spending as well as research and development).  There was a project to capture an asteroid and put it in orbit around the moon which seems to be permanently canceled.  A planned probe to Jupiter’s icy moons that was suspended as was a Terrestrial Planet Finder.  The list of canceled projects goes on and on.

A computer illustration of the Venus In Situ Explorer--a project which languishes on the drawing board for want of funds

A computer illustration of the Venus In Situ Explorer–a project which languishes on the drawing board for want of funds

All of this will become much more problematic if our elected leaders continue to be unable to plan for the larger long-term structural changes going on in the economy and society.  The federal budget consists of two sorts of funds: appropriated entitlements (which can never be cut) versus discretionary spending, which must be squeezed when the budget is not met.  As the former grows larger, the latter (which contains all of our research and science programs) will shrink unless we can work together.  Some shortsighted people do not understand the purpose of NASA or other blue sky science research institutions, but that is where our innovations and breakthroughs come from.  If NASA and scientific funding continue to be chopped in favor of ever ballooning entitlements then it will mean an age of ever more grasping people with fewer ways to help them live together and learn about the universe… plus we’ll never get to colonize Venus!  Come on everyone!

A floating habitat fifty kilometers above Venus' surface, held aloft by both the station's breathable atmosphere and a torus filled with hydrogen. The light of Earth and its moon are visible just above the cloud tops. Art by Anynobody (from

A floating habitat fifty kilometers above Venus’ surface, held aloft by both the station’s breathable atmosphere and a torus filled with hydrogen. The light of Earth and its moon are visible just above the cloud tops. Art by Anynobody (from


Happy Birthday NASA! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began operations on October 1, 1958 barely two months after the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act (which congress approved on July 29, 1958).   Since then the space agency has encountered myriad astonishing successes from landing humans on the moon, to leaving the solar system, to building the only working space planes, to exploring the planets and sun with robots (and doing so much else).  In order to accomplish these astonishing missions, NASA has spearheaded countless breakthroughs in science.   During its 55 year history, the space agency has caused revolutions in fundamental astronomy, physics, aerospace engineering, materials sciences, ecology (and many, many other fields).  NASA is a resounding success—it is one of the greatest human institutions for exploring, learning, and innovation.


It is somewhat ironic that today is the space agency’s anniversary because the shutdown of the American government has is deeply hurting the agency.  Of NASA’s 18,000 employees, 97% are on unpaid furlough. All projects other than active missions are temporarily suspended.  This is serious business, because space projects, like cakes in the oven, do not deal with suspension very well.  The more time spacecraft spend here on Earth being shuttled in and out of storage, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong.  Also, the universe did not shut down because of funding trouble—so missions with orbital based schedules will potentially have to be held up for years.

Sigh--Don't hold your breath for this...

Sigh–Don’t hold your breath for this…

For anyone reading this in the far future or from a cave deep beneath the Earth, this is all a by-product of a failure of America’s split legislative houses to pass a budget due to political feuding.  Extreme right wing legislators who do not wish for Americans to be able to afford health care (and believe that if the government is defunded it will advance the wealthy business leaders whom they serve) are holding the national budget hostage in the hopes that they can disassemble the Affordable Care Medical Act.  Congressional districts in America are laughably gerrymandered (i.e. designed to be perfectly safe for incumbents) so it will be some time before the majority of voters can remove these dangerous and incompetent politicians from office.

"I want to hurt sick people AND stop human progress." (citation needed)

“I want to hurt sick people AND stop human progress.” (citation needed)

Even before the government shutdown, NASA has been having political and funding trouble.  The anti-government right-wing caucus in the House of Representatives has been trying to bleed away more and more of its funding (many of the so-called tea party caucus are also religious fundamentalists, so science makes them nervous and unhappy anyway).  All of this strikes me as appallingly short-sighted.  The legislators who believe the market to be the supreme arbiter of human affairs are clearly being paid to espouse such a short-sighted objective. While, the market is quite good at selling everyone plastic rubbish, crooked equities, and hair loss pills, by itself the system is fundamentally incapable of the sort of research which moves humankind forward.  Blue sky research into the unknown is not a job for abusive oligarchs and fat corrupt businessmen.  The exploration of the universe and of cutting edge science is a task for the brilliant men and women of NASA–but at present they are at home worrying about their bills and looking at the employment section for less important (but better paying) jobs.

At least you don't need a clean room to flip burgers...

At least you don’t need a clean room to flip burgers…

Goodbye old friend...

The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation.  To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”

We are all the turkey...

However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be.  Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans.  Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini.  Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system.  I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks).  These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.

NASA Spacecraft Dawn firing its ion thrusters with Vesta and Ceres in the Backgound

The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes.  A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.

Artist's Concept of a Scramjet Spaceplane Entering Orbit

I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations.  Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want.  Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility).  I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches.  I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity.  The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off).  But I’m open to other ideas.  We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.

If we call it an orbital railgun, people will be upset. How about "orbital railfriend"?

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