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Space science past the Cold War

By Jon Ward
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 16, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Jon Ward

No longer a Cold War-triggered response to Sputnik, NASA is being transformed into an agency that is more relevant to today's economy and the needs of the human species.

The space program now is increasing our understanding of our planet so that we don't end up like the dinosaurs.

As the century ends, the United States and its international partners will have an array of sensors in Earth orbit measuring the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and land surfaces, as well as the interaction among these elements. These sensors will be linked by sophisticated information systems providing data to scientists and researchers. This work will produce answers to fundamental questions about the Earth, how its systems interact and how and why it changes.

We'll have powerful new tools for analyzing weather, for the longer-term prediction of floods, drought, violent storms and the dynamics of biological change, such as disease and the migration of flora and fauna, as well as the first global rainfall assessment. In the future, routine forecasting of El Nino occurrences and consequences will be possible with enormous potential for economic savings.

Soon we'll be able to perform repeated global inventories of land use and land cover from space, evaluate the consequences of observed changes, and analyze the consequences of different preventative and adaptive practices. We will use satellites for the first global assessment of air pollution in the lower atmosphere, leading to continual assessment of changes in global air quality. In short, space technology can give us the information we need to save ourselves.

Remember this next time you hear some stingy conservative complaining about the space program being a waste of money. These voices are being raised continually as high priority programs, such as space science and exploration, come under increased scrutiny. That's the bad news.

The good news is that NASA is trying to integrate with the demands of today. NASA already has reduced its size and is now working more with the private sector. The aerospace industry has matured considerably since the days of Apollo. As a result, the private sector can now accomplish many of the tasks formerly carried out by the government. Satellite communications, space launch, and remote sensing were all originally government programs but are now being offered successfully by the private sector. In the future, NASA will likely do only what it has to do.

NASA's new budgets already contain a number of programs that incorporate this new approach. For example, the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program focuses on developing low-cost, next-generation launch vehicles, while the Discovery program seeks to advance the state of the art of spacecraft for space exploration. Both of these programs have sought from the beginning to include significant industry participation, management and funding. Our own little university, for instance, is one of NASA's major partners in developing new technology for crucial exploration.

For example, we're helping to explore Mars, which may be a second home to us Earthlings one day, and we're providing revolutionary new mirrors for the next generation of telescopes, which may help find other inhabitable (or inhabited) worlds in the near future.

So remember that the space program is not just an expensive way of exploring far away places that have no effect on us here. It's about exploring our own world too. And it's about ensuring that we still exist centuries hence.

Jon Ward is a media arts and creative writing junior. He can be reached at