The Obama Administration unveiled its new far-sighted budget for NASA, which scraps moon missions but puts the focus on developing new space technologies, exploring the solar system with robots, and pushing humans closer to living offworld. All of which will be funded a budget increase to NASA of $6 billion over five years.
Under the new budget, we'd see a revamped NASA program focused on scientific innovation, rather than recreating old experiments. Specifically, as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said: We will invent and demonstrate large-scale, new and novel approaches to spaceflight such as in-orbit fuel depots and rendezvous and docking technologies, and closed-loop life support systems so that our future robotic and human exploration missions are both highly capable and more affordable . . . as well as providing $3 billion over five years for robotic exploration precursor missions that will pave the way for later human exploration of the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids.
The new budget also earmarks over $3 billion for "new engines, propellants, materials and combustion processes, ultimately leading to innovative ways of accessing space to go beyond low Earth orbit." An additional $4.9 billion goes to generalized space technology research, and $2 billion goes to satellites that will help observe climate change and other Earth processes.
Obama is sensibly ceding space flight development to the private sector, with new ventures such as SpaceX who will be will be ferrying astronauts to the ISS, and other aerospace companies who are very close to launching humans into orbit. So the government would be partnering with private industry to send astronauts to space.
Buzz Aldrin, often an outspoken critic of the space program, said: "I also believe the steps we will be taking following the President's direction will best position NASA and other space agencies to send humans to Mars and other exciting destinations as quickly as possible. To do that, we will need to support many types of game-changing technologies NASA and its partners will be developing."
Hawking said that any long-term site for a human base should have a significant gravity field, because long missions in microgravity lead to health issues such as bone loss.
Hawking favors human space exploration, rather than just sending robots to explore space, a position taken by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, among others.
Eventually, Hawking said, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars. If only 1% of the 1000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system's neighbourhood, he said.
"We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim," he said. "By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years." Humanity can afford to battle earthly problems like climate change and still have plenty of resources left over for colonizing space, he said.
"Even if we were to increase the international [space exploration] budget 20 times to make a serious effort to go into space, it would only be a small fraction of world GDP," he said. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is a measure of a country's economic activity.
Hawking believes that traveling into space is the only way humans will be able to survive in the long-term. "Life on Earth," Hawking has said, "is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers ... I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space."
The problems with Hawking’s solution is that while it may save a “seed” of human life- a few lucky specimens- it won’t save Earth’s inhabitants. The majority of Earthlings would surely be left behind on a planet increasingly unfit for life.
Hawking argued that the world can afford 0.25% of its collective GDP to devote to space colonization. "Isn't our future worth a quarter of a percent?" he asked. The physicist also speculated on the reasons that SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have not yet detected any alien civilizations, offering three possibilities: that life of any kind is very rare in the universe; that simple life forms are common, but intelligent life rare; or that intelligent life tends to quickly destroy itself.
"Personally, I favour the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare," he said. "Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth."
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