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Space Robots, Sequestration, and the Still Contemplation of the Night Sky

Space Robots, Sequestration and the Silence of the Night Sky

I was so excited yesterday to get an email from Astrobotic confirming a student tour during the week of the August 5th Space Robots Camp.  Astrobotic is a CMU spin off company that has been in the news recently. NASA choose the company to develop autonomous robots to search for ice on the moon in 2015 and life in the deserts of Mars in 2020.  William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic Technology Inc. CEO and founder of the Field Robotics Center at CMU’s Robotics Institute is quoted in the article as saying “There’s a whole world that’s jaded with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun because there is that sense that exploration is done, when the reality is that it’s actually at an accelerative pace.”

As I prepare the week long camp for ages 8-14, I have been trying to read up on the latest happenings in the world of space and planetary robotics.  I am a regular subscriber to NASA education, and have found all the recent emails to begin with

Guidance for Education and Public Outreach Activities Under Sequestration

NASA has taken the first steps in addressing the mandatory spending cuts called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The law mandates a series of indiscriminate and significant across-the-board spending reductions totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

As a result, NASA has been forced to implement a number of new cost-saving measures, …

Like so many others, I am wondering about the future of the U.S. involvement in space exploration.  We are currently paying Russia 70 million dollars a seat for a ride to the International Space Station (ISS). [Robot enthusiasts – did you see the July 1 story about ISS Maria Bualat Surface Telerobotics experiment where she remotely operated a robot on Earth from the International Space Station?].

There are numerous concerns about the growth of for profit commercial interests entering space, and yet the for profit space race is picking up speed. Dan Brown wove into fiction the reasons why the government maintained a monopoly on space in his 2001 techno-thriller Deception Point (although, as with all Dan Brown fun – it takes diligence to sift through the fiction for tiny pieces of non-fiction and then find where he broke them off from). I don’t look forward to the day when someone figures out how to place billboard advertising in the night sky – but realize that is the least and most unrealistic of our worries.  I keep hoping one of my students will enter the growing field of space law – that area of the law that encompasses national and international law governing activities in outer space). Excitingly, I also look forward to one or two of my students traveling to space and sending me a message that the dreams ignited in a summer camp help fly them there.

Matthew Stibbe at Forbes lists some of the new companies entering the new private space race. He includes not only the planned Christmas 2013 Virgin Galactic flight (for which Ashton Kutcher, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have paid $200,000+ for tickets), but also Launcher One’s reusable launcher for low Earth orbit satellites, SpaceX’s  Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that delivers cargo to the ISS, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s proposed reusable mini-Shuttle, Boeing’s proposed CST-100  manned capsule, Jeff Bezos’ (of Amazon fame) new company Blue Origin building rocket-powered vehicles to orbit Earth, Space Adventures  already using Russian technology for space tourism, Bigelow Aerospace designing inflatable space station modules (they prefer the term ‘expandable habitats’), and Mars One’s proposal for a $6 billion one-way trip for four ‘lucky’ astronauts.

But, is it enough to employ not only the 3,400 engineers laid off from NASA and its contractors in 2011 within months of the space shuttle’s Atlantis final landing but also our children? Sadly, not now, and what is and will be available looks very different from dreams of a steady employer. It is a different world and the laid off engineers are trying to make their way in much the same way our kids will. Some have gone back to school, for example, Michele Kocen took her love of computer programming, trajectory analysis, rendezvous navigation and 25 years mission control experience and went back to school to study meteorology and atmospheric science. Others, for example the shuttle reliability engineer Eddy Solon, are trying the path of entrepreneurship.  He and employees worked six months without pay to finish a contract that paid only on completion and must balance the search for new contracts with the intense pressure to finish the ones that are signed. Still others have migrated (indeed, they speak of themselves as refugees) to the oil or aircraft industries. Disruption characterizes the 21st century waters they are trying to navigate with innovation and resilience.

It is amazing to recall that the first picture of earth from space was taken in my lifetime by people who traveled to the moon, that an entire network of satellites have been deployed to make possible GPS and Google Earth, and that we have sent three exploration vehicles to Mars and a robotic probe to Saturn’s moon Titan.  What is going to happen in our children’s lifetimes?

While you are worrying about the state of the economy, reach out to support those private efforts to build a future filled with the hope of exploration.  Help build a world that can maintain, repair and engineer beyond the wonderful infrastructure of the satellites and exploration vehicles currently out there. Send your kids to the Space Robots camp and help grow a generation that not only imagineers a more beautiful world, navigates the streams and eddies of economic growth with critical thinking, but also envisions the possibilities held in the night sky.

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