Space: How much is a ticket to Russia’s Soyuz?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Space

Soyuz rocket launchingRussian President Vladimir Putin is only one year older than me, so I know we share the same memory.

It’s the memory of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik flew in low Earth orbit. I still remember standing outside with my father as we tried to spot it flying overhead. The shocking success of Sputnik propelled American efforts and investments in the Space Race between the two nations.

We won the race, some say, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. But have recent events proven that it was only a temporary victory? Today, American astronauts are hitchhikers who have to thumb a ride on Russian vehicles to get into space. When the last Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the ability to get into space on our own became history.

Here’s the situation we’re in, as described in a piece on Universe Today: “Virtually every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program—including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace companies and crucially important US national security payloads—are highly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian rocketry and are therefore potentially at risk amidst the current Crimea crisis as tensions flared up dangerously in recent days between Ukraine and Russia with global repercussions.” (You can read more at Universe Today.)

Our self-inflicted dependency on the Russians puts our commercial and national security and defense interests at risk. It’s something to think about, especially today, Memorial Day, when we pause to honor the men and women who have died while serving in the armed forces.

It’s also pricey to hitchhike to space. How much is a ticket on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft? It’s $70 million per seat, according to the article.

Should we re-fund NASA and get back into space?

Or, should we just cede space to the Russians?

Space: How important is our space program?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Space
Project Mercury Astronauts 1959

“THE RIGHT STUFF” Project Mercury Astronauts in 1959, front row, left to right, Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper.

NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—was founded in 1958. Since then, NASA’s cumulative budget (adjusted for inflation) has been almost $800 billion, according to government sources. Peak funding was in the late 1960s with the Apollo program and the moon landing. Funding has fallen dramatically since then.

Is this drop in funding a good thing? How important is our space program?

Just over half of all Americans (52%) say it is extremely or very important that we “maintain the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States space program,” according to a YouGov poll late last year. An additional 28% say it’s moderately important, bringing the total to 80% of Americans who say it’s at least moderately important to maintain NASA and the space program.

Why is maintaining the space program important? Here are five possible reasons. How would you rank them?

  • “The space mission drives technological progress that trickles into other parts of the economy.”
  • “Exploration and discovery are essential for human progress.”
  • “Space technology is an important element of our telecommunications infrastructure.”
  • “Space is an important element of our defense strategy.”
  • “It is important to support human excellence in all its forms.”

These are the top five reasons given by those who think it’s important to maintain the U.S. space program, according to YouGov. And, I presented them in order from most to least support. Trickle-down benefits to the economy are the most popular reason, given by 58% of those who support the program. But a close second is more romantic and idealistic—space exploration and discovery are essential for human progress.

How important do you think it is to maintain NASA and the U.S. space program?

If you think it’s important, what are your reasons?

Do you agree with reasons above—or is something else on your list?

Space: Should it be privatized?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Space
SpaceX Dragon capsule returns to earth in 2012

NASA’s Charles Bolden, left, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk present the Dragon capsule that returned to Earth following the first successful mission by a private company to carry supplies to the International Space Station in 2012. Photo by Bill Ingalls, released via Wikimedia Commons.

NASA and the space program run on public funds, meaning your tax dollars and mine. Funding has declined over time, and it’s always a contentious issue come budget time in Washington, D.C.

Schools, hospitals, prisons, law enforcement, and national security are outsourced or privatized. Should we outsource the space program to private companies or just be done with it and rely fully on the private sector to race into space?

In part, we already have. Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX is a private firm that has been awarded NASA contracts. SpaceX has had a number of successes, including being the first private aerospace firm to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The vehicle contained cargo, not humans, but it was an historic first.

SpaceX isn’t the only private firm. Another contender is Virgin Galactic.

Do you think private companies like these should run the space business and the U.S. government should stay out of it?

Almost a third (32%) of Americans say that space transportation and exploration should be mainly or fully funded by private companies, according to a YouGov survey at the end of last year.

Only 17% said that space transportation and exploration should be mainly or fully funded by the public (our tax dollars). That leaves half (50%) who say that the best situation would be an even mix of private and public funding.

Do you think the U.S. government should get out of the space business and let the private sector handle it?

What would the risks be if private firms “owned” space?

Do you agree with the majority—that an even mix of public and private funding is best?

Space: Next stop, Mars?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Space
Mars image from NASA 2013

Image of Mars from NASA in 2013.

Going to the earth’s moon is so, well … yester-century. Private companies like SpaceX have their launch sights set on the Red Planet. In fact, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s goal is to establish a permanent colony on Mars.

Should Mars be NASA’s focus, too?

Here’s what NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. says in the agency’s 2014 Strategic Plan: “Our long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, we will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red planet and safely return them to Earth. One of the steps toward this goal is a proposed mission to find, capture, redirect a near-Earth asteroid safely into the Earth-Moon system, and then send astronauts to explore it. This mission will allow us to further develop new technologies and test mechanisms and techniques for human operations in deep space, as well as help us understand potential future threats to human populations posed by asteroids.”

But, how much public support is there for a mission to Mars?

Just over a third of Americans (36%) agree that the goals of the space program should include manned flight to Mars, according to a 2012 poll by Rasmussen Reports. Slightly more disagree (38%). But many Americans (27%) say they aren’t sure. The price tag for a Mars program could be $6 billion to as much as $500 billion, according to some estimates.

Is the Mars mission just flight of fancy?

Should NASA set its sights on the Red Planet?

Should tax payers fund a Mars program?

Space: The sun goes around the earth, right?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Space
Solar System planets as of 2013

ORDER OF THE PLANETS as they orbit around the sun. (Pluto now is regarded as a “dwarf planet.”)

For thousands of years, the earth was considered the center of the solar system. The evidence was obvious—just watch the path of the sun as it rises and sets. The 16th century Polish astronomer Nicolai Copernicus proposed a different theory: The earth and other planets circle the sun. That was a revolutionary, heretical idea in the 16th century. But, today? Surely, no one still believes that the sun travels around the earth.

But, the truth is: Not everyone knows this basic scientific truth.

This week, we’ve covered the topic of space and, implicitly, the values and value tradeoffs involved in space exploration: America’s total dependency on the Russians for transport to space, public opinion about funding for NASA, the privatization of space travel, and Mars as a destination for NASA and the establishment of a human colony.

Today, we consider some basic science knowledge about our solar system. How well have Americans learned their science lessons? Do any Americans have a pre-Copernican view of the solar system? Does anyone believe that the sun circles the earth?

Quite a few, according to a survey by the National Science Foundation. In fact, one of four Americans (26%) said that the sun goes around the earth. Three of four (74%) said that the earth travels around the sun.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the factual knowledge of people in other countries is even worse. Only 66% of the European Union knew that the earth circles the sun (though this was an older survey). Of the countries reported in the survey, South Korean had the highest marks for accuracy: 86% said that the earth travels around the sun.

What’s your reaction to Americans’ level of basic science knowledge?

How important is it to know that the sun doesn’t travel around the earth?