How Will NASA Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before With Slashed Funding?

Once traveling at light speed was the kind of thing you'd only hear about right before or after William Shatner said, "Beam me up, Scotty," but physicist Harold White and a NASA team at the Johnson Space Center are working on making the warp drive a thing that will actually exist.

In a similar kind of fairy tale situation, we used to be a nation enthralled with the concept of space travel. Yes, that was mostly because the Soviets scared the hell out of everybody as Tom Wolfe vividly pointed out in The Right Stuff, but there was also a drive for discovery, a fascination that pushed us to see one of our own leave the atmosphere, circle the globe and land on the moon.

But that was all a long time ago. Now, even though NASA is working on incredible projects - in addition to the warp drive they want to lasso an asteroid and bring it to the moon's orbit so astronauts can land on it and study it - they've seen their budget brutally cut due to the sequestration and the Great Recession before that. Boldly going where no one has gone before is kind of tricky if you don't have scientists trying to figure out where we're going and how to get there.

The proposed 2014 budget proposes giving NASA $17.7 billion, which of course isn't exactly chump change, but it's still $50 million less than NASA's last budget in 2012. Yes, this proposed budget actually gives NASA about $1 billion back from the sequestration, but it still doesn't signal good things.

The money for the whole asteroid thing - which sounds cool but honestly also worries Hair Balls just the tiniest bit since we've seen both Deep Impact and Armageddon - is built into the budget, but critics say the funding for a lot of other projects is being left off the list. The proposed budget will cut the planetary science division budget by $200 million. This translates to killing funding for the robotic mission to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter that could possibly support life, according to scientists, as reported in the International Business Times. The funding to send a rover to Mars in 2020 is still tucked into the budget, but there's no allotment to allow the rover to bring back rocks and other samples from Mars, you know the stuff that might allow us to learn more about what's on the red planet.

In talking about the current "restructuring" of the planetary sciences department in advance of that whittled down budget, NASA's Planetary Director Jim Green stated that planetary science was still going to be a priority:

"NASA's commitment to planetary exploration research and analysis activities will remain strong with no lessening of our resolve to continue to lead the world in this area while reflecting fiscal realities. This restructuring better aligns the program with the planetary goals and objectives in direct response to National Academy report recommendations."

We're already not going to back to the moon and astronauts have been dependent on the Russians (and the Chinese) to actually get to space since the shuttle program's end. On top of all of this, NASA director Charles Bolden mentioned that Johnson Space Center's budget could be in jeopardy if the parties don't figure out a way to actually pass a budget next year when he swung through Houston making a stop at Johnson Space Center earlier this year.

Yes, we've already been to the moon and many will say that with all the problems down here we shouldn't even be bothering with space exploration. But the thing is, you never know what will come out exploring the final frontier. Either way, we certainly won't find out by cutting NASA to the bone and staying so firmly on the ground.

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