by David Seidel of the JPL Education Office
- For every day over the last decade there has been one to three Americans living and working in space on the International Space Station, 4,000 straight days as of Sunday, October 16, 2011.
- For every day for the next decade there will be one to three Americans living and working in space on the International Space Station.
- There are four space vehicles capable of visiting ISS (Soyuz, Progress, ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle).
- Several private companies are vying for work to deliver cargo and, eventually crew, to and from ISS. SpaceX may fly its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous and dock with ISS before the end of this year. Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft may have a test flight before the end of the year as well.
- At this moment there are robotic spacecraft in orbit around eight different planetary bodies (Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Moon, Mars, Saturn and Vesta). (Note that the ESA’s Venus Express is not a NASA mission but there is some NASA support.) Three additional spacecraft (Voyagers and New Horizons) are on solar system escape trajectories.
- There is a mission on the way to orbit Jupiter (Juno) and the Grail twins are on the way to the Moon.
- There are three operational spacecraft in orbit around Mars and an operating rover on the surface (Opportunity).
- NASA’s Science Mission Directorate lists 63 operational spacecraft and 36 space missions under development.
- JPL has 39 missions and instruments in some stage of the mission life-cycle. (These are either already in flight or being prepared; it does not include future competitions or hoped-for missions.)
These days it seems that people no longer look toward the future with a sense of hope. They feel disconnected from their government, each other and the world around them. This disconnection results in a lack of enthusiasm for the future which is understandable in light of today’s difficult economic times. When you couple our financial woes with the strife we see around the world even the most optimistic person might start seeing the glass as half empty.
Where then can we find the inspiration to look beyond the problems that we have today and develop that sense of hope for the future? Americans used to look to NASA for their inspiration but when the final launch of the Space Shuttle Program occurred in July it appeared as though we were grounding our collective aspirations along with the Shuttle.
For too many years people have been blasé at best when viewing the accomplishments of our space program. Having witnessed men walking on the moon people’s interest and support seemed to wane. The Shuttle launches became a matter of routine with many viewing them as wasted tax payer dollars sent to the void of space while Americans were left standing on the remains of their broken mortgages and out sourced jobs. The image of the Space Program suffered as domestic issues such as housing and unemployment benefits took center stage.
Now that the Shuttle is retired we realize that we were inspired by the Space Shuttle Program more than we thought. Americans found themselves sad to say goodbye and felt an unexpected loss as STS135’s final flame of hope ascended into the clouds. People from all over the world flocked to the Cape to witness the end of an era in space flight knowing that they would never have the opportunity to witness the majesty of a shuttle launch again. The final shuttle launch awakened the national pride felt by Americans when witnessing such an amazing human accomplishment. Conversations erupted between people wishing for the days when NASA was seen as an extension of our dreams; an inspirational and awe inspiring agency fueled by our imaginations and populated by the best of us. I even heard people complaining that NASA is underfunded!
For me, this is an unexpected and pleasant turn around as I have been trying to convince audiences for the past 10 years that NASA’s budget is much smaller than people realize. The budget is only about ½ of a penny on every dollar which is a small price to pay for all the benefits we receive from the space program including the many NASA Spinoffs that are part of our everyday lives. No one argues with me anymore when I say that “A Strong Space Program Equals a Strong America.”
Americans are seeing the value of a strong space program right now especially in light of the fact that we have to hitch a ride with the Russians to the International Space Station at a hefty price tag of $63 million dollars per seat. Many people are uncomfortable with the fact that we are forced to rely on the very country we were competing with for space supremacy in the past to get us into low earth orbit. In addition, individuals are keenly aware that countries with strong space programs lead the world in technology and knowledge. This sudden awareness has people looking toward the space program again to give them that sense of accomplishment and national pride and most importantly, hope for the future.
Somewhere along the communication highway a wrong turn was made and some people erroneously think that the space program has been cancelled. Be assured that the inspiration that only NASA can provide coupled with the knowledge that is funneled from NASA’s discoveries to the educational pipeline will continue well into the future and will build us up as a nation again. NASA still has an extremely robust robotic program and has awarded Space X the contract to complete the development of the successor to the space shuttle. NASA will move forward and pursue new frontiers which will include discoveries and achievements that will astound, inspire, and unite us all. And that is the cosmic connection.