Big Space, Little Space

September 23, 2009 at 4:59 am by Frank White
Tags: Augustine Commission, MIT students, NASA, the Overview Effect

Portions of the Augustine Commission's report to President Obama have now been made available, and it appears to me that they have gotten some of it right. First, they have recognized that President Bush's vision for space exploration may not be viable because of the costs involved. If this insight is recognized and handled honestly by the president and congress, it will be a major breakthrough. For too long, NASA has been pursuing plans that could not be supported by their budget. The agency should either be fully funded, or the plans should be scaled back.

The Commission also emphasizes the global nature of space exploration and the value of NASA partnering with private enterprise to realize some of our more ambitious goals as a nation. Again, this is a paradigm shift away from a NASA-centric view of space exploration that is long overdue.

I don't know the final shape of American space policy, but our thinking does seem to be coming into alignment with reality, which is a good thing. Still, whatever NASA does will be a variation on the theme of "Big Space," i.e., lots of government money being spent on relatively large space exploration efforts. By contrast, I was struck recently by reports of a different approach, a kind of "little space program" if you will. Two MIT students have apparently sent a weather balloon high into the atmosphere and have taken pictures of the Earth from space! Their total cost was $150, and I could only think, "Wow, that is the least expensive experience of the Overview Effect so far!"

These students proved to me that any barriers that might be preventing the opening up of the space frontier are not financial in nature---they are simply failures of the imagination!

Frank White