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Evanson: Invest more in NASA

BY KEITH EVANSON | NOVEMBER 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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The European Space Agency was proud to announce last week that it had made history. With great enthusiasm, the agency’s director general stated that the agency had successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet. In the announcement, agency Director Jean-Jacques Dordain described this as a “big step for civilization” and “opening the door to the origin of planet Earth.”

The small spacecraft, “Philae,” now attached to the comet, was used to conduct research on the comet by taking pictures and scientifically analyzing its composition. The lander lost power on Nov. 14, and unless its solar panels collect enough sunlight, it will not “wake” back up.

By digging into a comet, scientists would be able to uncover the many mysteries and questions still unanswered. Astronomers believe that comets are the remnants of the rock, gas, and ice that formed the Solar System more than 4.5 billion years ago. Because of the extraordinarily long life of comets, the ability to study something this old may be the very thing that helps us learn more about the origins of our Solar System.

As happy as you can be for the Europeans and for the world at large for being able to benefit from the findings, the question I have to ask, though, is where was NASA in all of this? The American space agency once known for its groundbreaking achievements and cutting-edge technology has been beaten to the task. A country known for being the first to put a man on the Moon has now been reduced to watching from the sidelines as others lead the way in space exploration.

Because NASA is a federal agency funded by the U.S. government, it relies on a portion of the federal budget to be able to fund programs and projects necessary for space exploration. This crucial portion of the budget has decreased significantly since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

As much as 4.4 percent of the federal budget was allocated to NASA in the late-1960s, but now that portion has decreased to as little as 0.05 percent of the budget, making it harder for aeronautic professionals to fund projects, hire and train astronauts, and afford new spacecraft.

The high dollar amount involved in pursuing many of the goals NASA has may seem on paper as if they are far too much for just the sake of science. Critics may argue that we have enough problems to deal with here on Earth, and specifically in America, but if only people truly know how many great things have come about from these space projects.

Scientists at Marshall Space Flight Center have discovered new ways of making batteries with higher capacities and cleaner emissions. Water-purification technology used in Apollo spacecraft is now used in Brita filters to give people drinking water free of harmful bacteria and viruses. Space-station research has been also used in gaining insight into microencapsulation, which has been used for the advancement of cancer treatment.

The U.S. investments in NASA will pay large dividends over the course of time. In addition to gaining knowledge about the origins of human existence, scientists are progressing in the quality of life for humans directly.

This won’t happen overnight. The European project to land on the comet with Philae was 10 years in the making. If the United States wishes to get back in the forefront of aeronautical exploration and human advancement, the time to invest is now.

Because Congress could not compromise, a 16-day government shutdown last year cost the United States more than $24 billion. The U.S. government has yet to spend that much on NASA in any given year. Government money has been used poorly for many different reasons over the course history, but using it for NASA is not one of them.


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