Space Science with Space Resources – The Future?

A common misconception among laymen is that NASA gets much more money than it actually does. This year, NASA’s budget is about $19 billion. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually less than one percent of the total federal budget.

NASA’s Planetary Science Division is responsible for all the robotic missions to solar system destinations except Earth and the Sun. This division gets $1.5 billion per year, less than 9% of the total NASA budget. The Obama administration has reduced this to $1.26 billion for 2016, in favor of a bigger piece of the pie for Earth science.

Even if funding is restored to its previous level next year, this shift in focus will limit some future missions, possibly delaying others. The Planetary Science Division has not had a mission failure since CONTOUR in 2002, but it has not stopped it from being affected by changing priorities in the federal government.

The growth of the commercial space industry in the last decade offers a possible way out of this budgetary limit. As of this writing, SpaceX has already landed 6 of its reusable Falcon rockets. If it is successful in re-launching enough used Falcon first stages, the reduction in launch costs would ease the fiscal pressures on NASA’s science divisions.

Looking further ahead, there is the possibility that resources mined and refined in space could provide “dumb” (non-computerized) mass for future science missions, minimizing the need for launch services. A few companies have already made progress in that direction. Besides the two asteroid-mining companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, another company called Made In Space has a 3D printer on the International Space Station and is working on its Archinaut on-orbit satellite fabricator.

Tethers Unlimited is working on its SpiderFab technology for building large structures in space from raw material launched from Earth  (Disclosure: I interned there in 2010, on a completely different project).

A paper from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics lays out the implications in full. Enjoy!

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