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  • A New Direction for NASA
Feb 2010
Gary Boas

Feb. 12, 2010 — Children and adults alike have long dreamt of traveling to the stars and encountering exotic alien life. From H.G. Wells to the pulp magazines of the 50s, from Flash Gordon to Futurama, space has proved an excellent stomping ground for the fertile imagination, source material for endless speculation about what is and what could be.

And since John F. Kennedy pointed to the moon in the early 1960s, efforts to send men and women into space have come to embody what is best about the American character — the indefatigable spirit of adventure, the willingness to take on any challenge no matter how unlikely its success — and helped to establish the nation as a scientific and technological force to be reckoned with.

The collective gasp that arose last week, when President Obama recommended that NASA scrap its manned space program, should come as no surprise then. Such a move might make sense from a scientific standpoint —really, the most important consideration. Still, from the perspective of dreamers and sci-fi fans and all manner of other enthusiasts, it stings just a little.

The president’s 2010 budget proposal for NASA requests $18 billion over five years for a variety of programs, including research into radically new space technologies. The costs of these efforts would be offset by the cancellation of the Constellation program, which NASA had intended to replace the space shuttles. In lieu of this program, the budget sets aside $6 billion to finance commercial launchers and crew-carrying vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

I wanted to learn more about what this means for the optics industry, so I touched base with David Morris, chief engineer for space & defence imaging at Essex, England-based e2v. The company supplies high-performance CCD and CMOS imaging sensors and cameras for a range of applications, including a number of space imaging applications. Its sensors are on the Hubble Telescope, for example.

Cancellation of the Constellation program and increased funding for commercial space travel services is not expected to impact the imaging sensor business per se, Morris said. However, if this results in the release of funding that can be used for unmanned exploration — for future Mars sample returns and rovers, for example — or for other important fundamental science missions such as dark energy surveys and the search for earthlike exoplanets, “then this would be our silver lining in the cloud over the manned space program.”

The implications for the optics industry extend beyond existing unmanned space programs. The president’s budget proposal emphasizes development of new technology rather than systems, thus acknowledging that “the aspirations of the scientists and users have overreached the capability of current technology,” Morris said. As a result of this new focus, funding may shift from implementation activities such as building flight hardware to more basic technology development efforts.

“If optics the industry (and detectors in particular) is to benefit from this,” he added, “we have to stay in step with institutional and academic groups, as well as those defining future missions, so that we are able to make real the technology advances that are achieved.”

The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
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