Panel's report to Obama is right to demand firm funding of deep-space exploration.
Nothing pushes frontiers in science and technology – and the human imagination – like space travel to other bodies in space. Breaking the bounds of Earth is now the pursuit of more than a dozen nations, all eager for the economic spin-offs such a pursuit brings.
Yet the pioneer in space, the United States, faces a shortage of money from Congress and may be forced to surrender its global leadership.
That's the take-away from a report issued Tuesday by a 10-member panel set up by President Obama to evaluate human space exploration.
Without an additional $3 billion a year, more international cooperation, and private industry sending rockets into low orbit, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has no pathway that "permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way," according to the panel's summary report.
The panel, consisting of aerospace experts, suggests a range of options for long-distance travel in space, such as skipping the planned moon station for landings on asteroids instead. But the report's two messages are that Congress should not set goals it doesn't fund and that NASA's focus should be on projects beyond low-orbit where the rewards and risks are greatest for such a public enterprise.
NASA's top workers also came under the panel's scrutiny. Many of the agency's engineers and scientists need to reorient themselves back to developing new technologies needed for decades of deep-space exploration.
Indeed, it is likely that a political lobby has developed to keep space jobs focused on existing programs and low-orbit missions. (The lobby is based in the space-oriented and politically powerful states of Florida, Texas, and California.) This report lays out bigger thinking, asking for manned projects that will "re-engage the minds at American universities, in industry, and within NASA."