As cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continue to pile up, foreign powers such as Russia, India and Japan are making their mark in space, and missions to the outermost planets are dwindling.
The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing both awareness of the space program and astronomical research in general, estimates that NASA needs at least $1.5 billion per year to function at full capacity, but funding has run dry. Despite its relatively low cost operation relative to other government programs, with the Department of Defense and energy efforts costing tens of billions of dollars—its budgets have nonetheless been among the first to dwindle.
NASA is now left with $1.36 billion, and as a result, the agency is often left to rely upon Russia for assistance. No longer able to support the immense sums needed to build their own transport vehicles, astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) must now either look abroad or to private companies to arrive at their destination. However, increasing hostility between Russia and the United States may put this system and the entire space program at risk.
While the relationship between the two countries is mostly symbiotic because Russia relies upon the United States for solar power technology that they lack, the underlying tension between their countries is never truly ignored. Perhaps the most notable example lies within an April 2014 tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, which infamously “suggest[s] that the U.S. [deliver] its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”
However, it is extremely unlikely that Russia will resort to extreme measures. This instance nevertheless concerns many within the field, with NASA suspending all “non-essential contact” with Russia and with increasing questions over whether the United States should rely on a foreign country for its own space program.
While America is already beginning to initiate contracts with three private companies, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing, a full grant has not been made, selection has not been narrowed to a single company and even if significant progress were to be made, a truly independent NASA mission would not come until 2017, if not later. Even then, preparations are underway to develop an American-made equivalent to the Russian rocket engines mainly used by the private companies.
The House of Representatives is beginning to increase the budget for the space program among these rising international tensions. Though these raises might not allow NASA to reach their 2017 manned mission deadline, it should allow preparation for a Mars mission within the next 20 years and will also fund the new James Webb Space Telescope, meant to replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope and in 2018.
These measures might bring a new possibility to the space exploration discussion—that of seeking signs of life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s famous Galilean moons. Currently, only one mission—the United States’ “New Horizons”, extends to the outer ranges of the solar system, and should that program’s 2017 mission to Pluto fail to be approved, exploration of that area would stop. But Europa boasts the highest opportunity for life in the entire Milky Way galaxy, piquing the interest of astrobiologists and motivating Congress to earmark money for a potential mission there. Scientists are already brainstorming ideas for potential Europa visits, meaning that this moon might just be what will give new life to the space program as well.