On social media I witnessed some very peculiar reaction to the ESA Rosetta spacecraft that recently visited a comet: “So the European Space Agency amazingly landed a probe on a comet today. Remember when the USA used to do cool stuff like that?” Others have chimed in with “When NASA stops having to rely on other countries to send our astronauts to space, then we'll talk. Until then, they're the National Association of Second-rate Amateurs.”
I suppose that one can hold whatever opinion one wants—especially when one chooses to ignore what’s really going on. Data-free opinion seems the opinion of choice for most folks.
So. What’s really going on with the American space program? Well, we have a space station in orbit that has the interior volume of a five bedroom house. It has been continuously inhabited by Americans since 2001—along with Russians, Europeans, and others. It is, after all, designated the International Space Station. Why is it “international?” Politics. The Russian involvement is the consequence of a decision made after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the subsequent implosion of the Russian economy, there was the not unreasonable concern that Russia’s rocket scientists might sell their services to unsavory nations and groups. Therefore the U.S. government decided to involve the Russians in building the space station; we actually paid them to build their parts of it. For the same reason, the Russian-built rocket engine, the RD-180, was selected for use in America’s Atlas V rocket.
Because of the age of the Space Shuttles and the loss of two out of the five in tragic accidents, the Bush administration made the decision in 2003 to shut down the shuttle program and replace it with a new launch system. In the interim between the end of the space shuttle and the beginning of its replacement, the plan was for NASA to purchase rides on the Russian Soyuz. The last Space Shuttle flew in 2011 and its successors will begin flying in 2017 at the latest. This is not the first time that the US has lacked human spaceflight capability. The last Apollo mission was in 1975 and the first shuttle did not fly until 1981.
Meanwhile, NASA has encouraged the development of commercial spaceships for delivering cargo and humans to the space station. SpaceX began delivering cargo to ISS in 2012, with Orbital Space Systems following in 2014. Two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, have been given contracts to build manned spaceships to carry people to orbit. Both will begin flying within the next two years.
The U.S. has not been sitting idle when it comes to unmanned space exploration, either. On August 6, 2012 NASA landed a 1 metric ton, car-sized, nuclear-powered, laser-wielding vehicle on Mars, joining NASA’s Opportunity rover, a much smaller vehicle, already there. Opportunity had arrived at Mars on January 25, 2004 for a mission projected at lasting no more than three months. Ten years later, it’s still making tracks and still working hard!
In 2011NASA launched Juno, a space probe the size of a minivan and weighing more than three and a half metric tons, toward Jupiter. It will go into polar orbit around Jupiter in July, 2016. New Horizons, launched on January 16, 2006, is bound for Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects beyond. Pluto approach observations began in January. Closest approach to Pluto occurs in just a month, in July, 2015.
Dawn, a one metric ton spacecraft using an ion drive for propulsion, in 2011 went into orbit around Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. After making observations for more than a year, in 2012 it blasted out of Vesta orbit and in April it arrived at Ceres, the largest asteroid. It will spend at least a year making observations.
Besides the commercial CST100 and Dragon spaceships designed for low-earth orbit operations, NASA had Lockheed develop the Orion, a spaceship designed to carry astronauts on deep space voyages to the moon, the asteroids, and Mars. The first unmanned test launch of the Orion spaceship flew aboard a Delta IV Heavy on December 5, 2014. It traveled more than 3000 miles from Earth (five times further away than the space station) before hurtling back home at 20,000 miles per hour, testing its heat shield to make sure it can survive the extreme maneuvers it will routinely make when returning people from the Moon or Mars.
On September 22, 2014, MAVEN was dropped into Martian orbit, joining the other two American satellites already there. The space probe Cassini continues making observations as it orbits Saturn (where it has been since 2004). The Hubble Space Telescope is now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary on orbit. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is set for launch in 2018. Its primary mirror will be five times bigger than Hubble: 21 feet in diameter versus 7.9 feet.
The one metric ton Kepler spacecraft (launched in 2009), another space telescope, has discovered thousands of worlds orbiting other suns. Thanks to Kepler, we now know that there are more planets than stars, and that our galaxy is home to at least a billion earth-like worlds.
NASA remains the only space agency to have put people on the moon, the only space agency to have reached Mercury or Saturn, to have orbited Jupiter, or to have sent probes past Uranus and Neptune. NASA is the only space agency to have landed not one, not two, not three, but four rovers on Mars. In fact, NASA remains the only space agency to have ever successfully landed anything on Mars, something it’s now done seven times—so far. So what has NASA done lately? A lot. What will it be doing tomorrow? Even more. And those are just some of the highlights.
Oh, and it’s doing all this using less than one half of one percent of the U.S. federal budget. Americans spend more on video games each year than they spend on space exploration. In fact, they even spend more on credit card late fees than they spend on space.