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Sunday, April 14, 2024 — Houston, TX

Local journalist discusses future of spaceflight

By Sarah Frazier     12/3/14 7:21am

Houston Chronicle journalist Eric Berger spoke on the current state and possible future of America’s space program Nov. 19 at Duncan Hall.

Berger, who has researched the American space program for the past year, said one of his driving questions is the disparity between the U.S. government’s stated goals and their actions for space exploration.

“How could a functional government that valued a space program and knew literally for decades that the space shuttle's end would come fail to put in an adequate plan to replace the shuttle?” Berger said. “To some extent, the U.S. government is dysfunctional, and, sadly, space flight doesn’t rank as high on the political agenda as a lot of us would like.”

Berger said America’s lack of progress in space exploration is partly due to a lack of clear vision for the space program.

"Every president since Kennedy has failed to articulate a clear goal for NASA and provide the resources necessary to reach that goal," Berger said.

Officially, NASA’s goal is to reach Mars by the 2030s, but that may not be possible at this point, according to Berger.

“To achieve [a human landing on Mars], not in the 2030s but in the 2040s or 2050s, more likely … we would need the kind of commitment to NASA we haven’t seen in a long time,” Berger said. “NASA’s own advisory committee … suggested NASA is probably going to stay [near the Earth and moon] for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Berger said NASA’s unrealistic timeline for reaching Mars will not help the organization’s image.

“If you’re telling everyone you’re going to go to Mars in the 2030s and then you don’t get there, you just basically set your whole agency up to fail,” Berger said.

Berger said a common suggestion among people he interviewed is for NASA to plan missions to the moon as precursors to a Mars mission.

“Why not the moon?” Berger said. “It’s close, you can prove a lot of technology you need to go to Mars and … all of the international partners that NASA works on [the International Space Station] with want to go to the moon.”

According to Berger, the moon’s ice may even prove an important resource for space exploration.

“There’s enough fuel on the moon in form of water … to launch the equivalent of a space shuttle every day for 2,000 years,” Berger said. “If you’re going to go out and explore space, water is essential — you can drink it, shield yourself from radiation [and] provide breathable oxygen or hydrogen for fuel cells.”

Berger said the rise of less-expensive vehicles produced by commercial space companies may help promote space exploration.

“To really open up space, you have to lower the cost of getting stuff into orbit,” Berger said. “NASA advisors told Congress that the space shuttle would lower the cost … down to $25 a pound. The actual cost, over 135 missions in 30 years, was $25,000 a pound.”

Berger said his personal prediction for America’s space program is not optimistic.

“[In] the most likely scenario, unfortunately, not much changes at NASA,” Berger said. “It continues to talk boldly about going to Mars in 2030. The president or Congress or both say, ‘We’ve had enough of the budget situation and we don’t want any more major international partnerships.’ We don’t think about bringing China or India or other countries into the ISS partnership. NASA ends up with a rocket that looks great, is totally badass to launch, but is too expensive to fly very often. After the space station stops flying … what is [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center] doing? Flying a manned mission every three or four years? Maybe the center will revert back to where it came from Rice University.”

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