The public has no shortage of enthusiasm for fictional spacefarers, as this weekend’s box-office win by the newest “Star Trek” film proves. Yet the real-life U.S. space agency finds itself strapped for cash these days. With federal budgets tightening and NASA feeling the pinch, some space advocates are asking, “Can humans afford to reach the stars?”
Believe it or not, experts are looking into the finances of not just relatively short-term missions to Mars and the moon, but also long-term prospects of ‘Trek’-ian proportions. It may be possible to find the money, they say, but it would likely take some policy changes — and those changes could start today.
Captain, we don’t have the funding!
“Star Trek: Into Darkness” brought in about $84 million in its opening weekend — just a month after NASA cut $200 million from its planetary-sciences budget. (In an odd move, NASA’s newest budget explicitly states that it will notfund any missions to Europa, the ice-moon of Jupiter that stands as one of the solar system’s best candidates for supporting life, noted Casey Dreier, an advocacy and outreach strategist at The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to planetary exploration.)
Those cuts come as NASA and the rest of the federal government negotiate sequestration cuts, which could trim $7 billion from NASA’s ledgers next year if the reductions are maintained.
But even without the sequester, NASA hasn’t commanded the kind of money needed for real, ambitious space travel in decades, said Marc Millis, a former NASA propulsion physicist and founder of the Tau Zero Foundation, which is dedicated to interstellar travel.
After hitting an apex with the Apollo moon program, NASA’s purse shrunk considerably and has stayed stagnant since, Millis said. NASA’s funds reached about 4.5 percent of the total federal budget during the Apollo era, Millis calculated. By 2009, NASA’s share had fallen to about 0.5 percent. “The amount that’s devoted to NASA now is enough to keep it going,” he said. “But to do really cool space travel is not possible now.”
Essentially, the agency has floated along on autopilot, clutching at relatively low-hanging fruit, like the space-shuttle missions, said Paul Gilster, who researches and writes about interstellar technologies for Tau Zero. “We should have something else than just going ‘round and ‘round the Earth,” he said.
Cosmic flashes could herald birth of black holes
The birth of a black hole may be signalled by a characteristic cosmic flash, according to researchers in the US. It was previously thought that only the most massive of black holes would produce gamma-ray bursts – narrow beams of electromagnetic radiation that shoot out of the poles of the collapsing star – when they form. But other dying stars were thought to produce a black hole without any kind of flash – seemingly disappearing from the visible sky in an event known as an “unnova”. The US researchers’ work suggests that unnovae might also have their own characteristic flash, allowing astronomers to witness the birth of stellar- and intermediate-mass black holes.
Glastonbury Tor is a large hill located in Glastonbury, Somerset, England, with a roofless St. Michael’s Tower on its summit. Tor is a local word of Celtic origin meaning ‘rock outcropping’ or ‘hill’.
It plays a part in Book III of my trilogy, Where the Horses Run, Ciphers.