NASA turns 55. What’s next for the space agency?
Fifty-five years ago Monday (July 29, 2013), President Eisenhower signed the Space Act, authorizing the creation of NASA. Since then, the space agency has grown from its Sputnik-shaded beginnings to studying the full scope of the heavens. What will the next 55 years bring?
Fifty-six years ago, civilian pilots and military rocket scientists had little in common. And then, on October 7, 1957, came Sputnik.
Within a year, NASA began operations as a hastily-cobbled-together mix of of civilian aeronautics and military intercontinental ballistic missile research. Now, it’s a federal agency examining the entire sweep of the sky.
From its hasty beginnings, NASA has flown 157 missions – 86 still ongoing – visiting almost every large heavenly body between the Sun and Pluto, monitoring the Earth from space, peering into the heart of our galaxy’s central black hole, and looking out to distant stars and galaxies. NASA has sent 301 astronauts into space, and is currently training another nine who will soon fly.
We have a permanent human presence in orbit and 12 men have left footprints on the Moon. NASA’s satellites have orbited Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, the asteroid Vesta, Jupiter, and Saturn; flown by Uranus and Neptune; and another is en route to Pluto. NASA’s telescopes are listening to every corner of the universe and looking at billions of stars; they have found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, plus countless pulsars, black holes, supernovae, and more. NASA and its sister organizations around the world are examining the secrets of the universe, from tiny grains of space dust to dark matter to unthinkably enormous galaxies.
«The 20th century was quite an amazing time for advances in science and technology, particularly in spaceflight,» says Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian…
So what will NASA’s role be in the next 55 years?
As NASA’s chief historian, Barry has heard various historical models proposed for the exploration of the Moon and Mars. Will it be like the Wild West, with NASA building infrastructure, equivalent to the federal support for land grants and railroads in the 19th century? Or will it be more like Antarctica, with a permanent research station but no one living sustainably off the land?
When pressed to speculate about NASA’s role 55 years in the future – in 2068 – Barry says, «I’d hope by that time that we’d have more people in low-earth orbit, in space stations, with a tourist economy – people take a vacation to a space station, maybe?»
As for the Moon, «We’d mine the regolith for fuel [to support] research facilities on the moon. I don’t know if anyone will live there permanently, but the far side of the moon is a great place to do astronomy, because it blocks out all the signals from the earth, so I imagine there’d be something there. And I imagine there would be humans on Mars by that point – at least initial expeditions and maybe a semi-permanent settlement by then. And hopefully we’ll have explored more – the moons around Jupiter and Saturn are interesting places, too, and hopefully we’ll have much more research on those by that point, and understand those more. That might be a next step: sending more robots or eventually in some places, sending humans.»
«The President has presented a proposal, and of course the Congress has its part to play. We’ll see what they say,» says Barry. «Those of us here at NASA are happy to go forth and do – to go out there and push those boundaries.»