Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the last space shuttle flight. The atmosphere at NASA was celebratory and bittersweet, marking the end of an era of technical triumph and the loss of thousands of jobs around Florida's famed Space Coast. Today, NASA is riding the high of two successful projects and reports shows that Florida is making up lost employment ground, but the agency still has challenges ahead.
NASA's greatest unmanned success lately has been the successful landing of the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), putting the $2.5 billion car-sized rover in position to explore another part of the Red Planet in detail.
The nuclear-powered rover will spend the next two years of its primary mission exploring a layered mountain inside Gale Crater, looking at minerals and terrain that appear to be the byproducts of water flowing on the surface at some point in time. Gale is a potential bonanza of geological information about Mars' formation and evolution over millions of year and indicators of water make it a prime spot for expanding our understanding.
SpaceX's (News - Alert) successful docking of its Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS) in May validated the concept of using Space Act Agreements and public-private partnerships to more quickly and cost-effectively foster competition and technology development. NASA's CCiCap program will continue the model, as the agency hopes to have two companies able to provide commercial launch services to low Earth Orbit (LEO) by the middle of the decade.
Commercial companies ramping up launch operations at NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) provides hope for more Florida jobs at the Space Coast. A July 21, 2012 Reuters piece says about half the 5,700 workers Brevard Country tracked who lost jobs after the shutdown of the Shuttle program have found jobs, with about 900 having to relocate. In the aftermath of the Shuttle program. unemployment shot up to 11.7 percent. Now, it's around nine percent, not bad compared to a current national average of 8.2 percent.
However, it's not all roses ahead. President Obama's "call" to the rover on August 13 is a coup for NASA, but it may also call attention to the agency and the administration opted out of participating in a European 2016/2018 Mars mission due to a tightening federal budget.
Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA (News - Alert)) called out Obama and the agency in an August 10 Washington Post editorial, citing the 2013 budget cuts on the Mars Exploration Program. Interestingly, Schiff takes aim not at a specific project for shorting future Mars exploration, but "Big, powerful industrial stakeholders" -- code I'd interpret as a broader indictment of "Old Space" firms such as ATK, Lockheed Martin (News - Alert), and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
NASA planners are now wrestling with what to do next for Mars, but it may be up to a decade or longer before another U.S.-lead mission lands on Mars unless more funding ends up into the budget. Attention will also turn to the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope, expected to run up a tab of over $8 billion or more. Webb's cost overruns are cited as one of the main factors for sucking the money out of other NASA projects.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman