The last year has seen a flurry of news related to space exploration; some of it good, some of it bad, and some of it hard to decipher. Here in the US, we have seen the end of the space shuttle and the future of the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) put in doubt. Things aren’t quite as dire at the international level, with some truly exciting things happening, but not all is roses there either.
The JWST is on the chopping block in Congress right now, and there are a couple of scenarios that may play out, most of them bad. It may be cancelled alltogether (which the Republicans would love), it may not be cancelled but at the same time may not be funded (which might be even worse), or it may be funded (1). This first two options are terrible, and the third option is the least likely. The JWST funding issues are a sign of a greater problem in the US: the conservative right’s lack of foresight and general disdain for science.
The Chinese have made great strides recently in their space program . In 2003, China became the third country in the world to put a human into space. More recently, they performed a successful docking procedure between two unmanned vehicles, Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1, paving the way for future manned docking missions. Their ultimate goal is to get a functional space station, and I would be surprised if they fail (2).
Russia has historically been the other big player in space exploration. They have a fantastic safety record compared to the US, and have put more people in space as well. They are currently the method of getting supplies and people to and from the International Space Station. Recently, things haven’t been going as well, though. In August, a Soyuz resupply spacecraft for the ISS crashed on takeoff, causing all future Soyuz missions to be grounded until the problem was fixed, which left the ISS stranded during this time (3). Just a few days ago, a Mars bound probe suffered a malfunction causing it to get stranded in Earth’s orbit. Most likely the craft will be lost (4).
So what does the future hold? The future of space exploration certainly isn’t as bright as it was back in the 60s and 70s, but I think that there are still good things ahead. The problems that the Russians are encountering will get worked out. I suspect that the China will become a major player in space exploration in the future as well. As for the US? I’m not nearly as confident. The Republicans seem determined to give up on space exploration and let the Russians and the Chinese take our place as the forerunners of space. I really want the US to succeed, but ultimately I just hope that someone does.
(1) Plait, Phill. “The Senate has “saved” JWST? Hang on a sec, folks…” Bad Astronomy. 15th September, 2011. Available: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/09/15/the-senate-has-saved-jwst-hang-on-a-sec-folks
(2) Associated Press. “China space station test modules dock in historic rendezvous.” The Guardian. 3rd November, 2011. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/03/china-space-station-modules-dock
(3) Brown, Mark. “Grounded Soyuz rockets could leave ISS abandoned.” Wired. 30th August, 2011. Available: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-08/30/abandoned-iss
(4) Brown, Mark. “Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars probe stranded in Earth orbit.” Ars Technica. 9th November, 2011. Available: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/11/russias-phobos-grunt-mars-probe-stranded-in-earth-orbit.ars