Changing Times at NASA
John Glenn represented Ohio in the U.S. Senate for 25 years. Buzz Aldrin became an author, commercial space advocate and pop culture personality last seen on Dancing with the Stars and Top Chef, where he judged meals that contestants prepared for future space missions.
For his second act, astronaut Thomas D. Jones, who flew in four space shuttle missions from 1990 to 2001, stuck closer to his roots. In the past decade, the Air Force bomber pilot-turned-astronaut has written extensively about space exploration and aviation history and provided on-air commentary about space news for Fox News.
Mostly, though, Jones works as a planetary scientist consultant to NASA. He says it's a "chaotic" time for the space agency, which is winding down the 30-year-old Space Shuttle program, working on the International Space Station, and had been ramping up for manned missions to the moon. The agency changed course last spring when President Obama scrubbed lunar missions in favor of deep-space exploration, including plans to put U.S. astronauts on a nearby asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030.
I caught up with Jones last week, the day after the 55-year-old participated in a panel on deep-space exploration at an annual American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics conference.
SA: What are you working on right now?
TJ: You've heard NASA's goal for human space flight is to nearby asteroids. I'm working in support of planning of that kind of exploration program and planning for scientific robotic exploration of asteroids.
SA: What's the timeline for that?
TJ: The president said in April he wanted to send human explorers to a nearby asteroid by 2025. Asteroids aren't the be all, end all. They're stepping stones in terms of experience to a mission to Mars. To support human exploration, NASA is thinking about one or a pair of robotic exploration missions. Those plans are very formative. They're proposed, they're just getting started and Congress hasn't approved that yet.
SA: What will they do?
TJ: It's a negotiation process, and we won't see the results until after the election. Unfortunately, NASA's R&D budget is the first place legislators go to cut costs or for their own priorities. R&D gets zapped unless it's tied to an objective, and there isn't that right now.
TJ: The Space Station has been involved in some new technologies for life-support systems and solar power. Some of the most promising research is in biomedical. In the last year, they tested a salmonella vaccine. Things like pharmaceuticals we might see more of from the space station, as well as advances in materials science and basic physics and chemistry. But the space station hasn't gotten into full swing. It's only had a full crew for the past year.
TJ: NASA has an aging work force where a good third or more are eligible to retire in the next five years or so. They won't be able to wait around for years for long-term goals to pan out. Many contractors are laying off their work forces at the end of the shuttle program, and there's no dynamic program to pick them up.
SA: Is it all bad?
TJ: There's some hope that after this administration's plan for asteroid exploration gets organized, a solid time line might encourage industry, but they'll have to recreate their work force. The shuttle will retire in 2011, and it could be five years until there's another heavy-lift space vehicle. If there's a five-year dip, young people might not be incentivized to go into it, and people in midlife might be the only ones to go into it. It's a tiny bright spot. It's a tough environment right now. But I'm not too worried. Aerospace has always been cyclical. Defense is boom and bust. The end of the Cold War led to a draw down. Then we were in two wars and that was an uptick. You have to be nimble, be able to jump between civil space and defense.
Speaking of NASA: Space buffs are in for a treat. The agency recently uploaded a boatload of images from its archives to Flickr Commons, a repository of public photography collections maintained by the popular online photo-sharing site. You can see the NASA photo collection on Flickr here.
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