Cuts to space research affects other innovation

Dec 4 2012 - 4:45pm


Earlier, before NASA's Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars, President Obama announced plans to reduce funding for planetary science from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion next year with additional future cuts. If approved, these reductions will terminate NASA research including NASA's European Space Agency partnership for probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018.

With austerity budgets, funding for federal programs is controversial. However, reduced funding for science at NASA will impact the U.S. economy and its science.

New technologies that are directly or indirectly influenced by space innovations include microelectronics, global positioning system (GPS), kidney dialysis machines, implantable pacemakers, LASIK eye surgery and satellite weather forecasts.

Significantly, nuclear technology has supported virtually all of the space missions, (including the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Voyager programs, the space shuttle and the space station) and taken us to the moon and beyond. NASA missions including Cassini, Galileo, Ulysses and the Mars Curiosity Rover use heat from plutonium for their radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These nuclear generators are essential to ensure success and longevity.

Presently, nuclear energy supplies one-fifth of U.S electricity - and research is under way on advanced, small modular nuclear reactors to meet future energy needs. Such nuclear reactors may also provide propulsion for long missions to the outer solar system. Despite opposition, nuclear power is rapidly expanding globally, especially in China and India.

Focusing on NASA, funding for R & D for the U.S. space program is declining. Congressional support for space missions has decreased despite important military challenges from China. The first Chinese space walk and its surface-to-orbit "kinetic kill," destroyed a satellite with a high-speed missile and recent commissioning of Liaoning, the former Soviet aircraft carrier. China may supplant the U.S., Russia and European Union in Space Research and threaten international security.

Those concerned with spending on space missions should consider that as a fraction of one Federal tax dollar today, the total cost of U.S. space missions, telescopes and planetary probes, including planned missions, is one-half of one penny. The U.S. could reclaim its preeminence in space that stimulated innovation, generated new industries, and shaped 21st century U.S. ascendancy.

Gary Sandquist

Salt Lake City


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