Inclement weather has delayed the test launch of NASA's new rocket. The Ares I-X, the largest rocket in the world, is the first step in NASA's plans to replace the space shuttle with a new line of spacecraft capable of carrying Americans to the moon.
But the delay masks larger concerns about the launch. A government-convened panel of aerospace experts recently concluded that the $7 billion Constellation program, which birthed Ares, is "mismatched" for current space-travel operations to the International Space Station. Moreover, they say the plan should scrapped in favor of developing more powerful, manned spacecraft that could reach beyond the moon. Most science writers agree, endorsing various alternate courses for NASA:
- Keep the Shuttle Writing for Florida Today's Cape Canaveral blog, John Kelly echoes the findings of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans (aka Augustine Committee) about the space shuttle, which NASA was set to discontinue in 2010. Kelly doesn't see how NASA can continue its present operations relying only on Ares, given that it won't be ready until 2015. As he suggests: "Keep flying the shuttles twice a year, and keep flying the space station. The extensions are not separate issues. Extending the station's life in any meaningful and safe way requires regular visits by the space shuttles as long as possible. The station will not last a decade without visiting shuttles."
- Book Commercial Space Flight The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach highlights one of the panel's recommendations in particular: that the government subsidize and encourage commercial space flight. As he writes: "The idea is that, rather than sticking with the traditional, bureaucratic method of building government-owned spaceships, astronauts would essentially buy a ticket to space as if they were flying US Airways to Atlanta. In the short run, the government would provide a big chunk of the money for developing the commercial rockets."
- Use Robots At the Christian Science Monitor, John Yemma argues that science fiction has glossed over the fact that all real manned-spaceflights are hampered by one very fundamental physics problem: gravity. As he puts it, the "concern is that human anatomy functions best on Earth's surface," making it extraordinarily complex to implement systems that would allow humans to work and live in space for the extended periods of time necessary to reach extra-lunar bodies. As such, he doesn't think Ares is ultimately worthwhile: "Our future space-faring might be accomplished by building better robots - indifferent to gravity, radiation, and other extraplanetary punishments - while we work the remote controls at a very comfortable 1G on Spaceship Earth."
- ...Or Stay the Course The editors of the Houston Chronicle advocate proceeding with the Constellation program because so much money and time has already been invested into it. The authors encourage Congress to give NASA the extra $3 billion the agency needs to fulfill its goals: "The government has already allocated close to $800 billion on economic stimulus, so it's difficult to understand why NASA, with a full-time and contractor workforce totaling nearly 60,000 nationwide and 18,000 in the Clear Lake area, isn't worth an additional investment to continue manned space exploration. NASA's role in stimulating technological development with widespread applications to other industries is well established."