In the same week the proposed NASA budget was released with decidedly mixed news, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged that a new push to space will get backed handsomely, to the tune of $52 billion over about eight years years.
To give you a sense of scale, in 2011 Russian spent a bit under $4 billion on its space program. This new push will on average bring that up to $6.5 billion per year, more than a 50 percent increase. That’s still far less than the United States spends (the FY 2014 NASA budget calls for $17.7 billion), but it shows how important Russia thinks space exploration is. Also, while NASA has cut back on uncrewed flight, Putin wants Russia to advance more in that area, admitting they have fallen behind in recent years.
[UPDATE (Apr. 15, 14:30 UTC): I was just informed (thank you spkr4thedead51) that in January, Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev actually approved $69 billion for the space program! I don't know why Putin's number is lower; I don't have any more information at this time on that. But either way Russian leaders want to pour a lot more money into space.]
I have mixed feelings about this. I am a human first, and I’m very happy to see our species pushing to the stars. Per aspera, ad astra!
But I’m also an American, and a proud one. Our space program, which I have been advocating since I was five years old, is a source of national prestige. The past few years have seen that cut back in terms of dollars, as well as a decided lack of focus on long-term goals (which, to be fair, is sometimes due to the over-involvement of a government that also changes hands every few years as well).
I’d like to see NASA on top. I want us to have a robust uncrewed program, sending probes to every major body in the solar system, and rovers to those with interesting geology. I want a flexible but sturdy asteroid impact prevention plan in place. I want humans to set foot on the Moon, on Mars, and on an asteroid. I want telescopes to peer at everything there is, from nearby space to the fires spawned at the dawn of time.
I also want these programs to be managed well, kept under control budget-wise and on schedule, and to push the frontiers of what we can do.
This cannot be done when the President calls for a 15 percent cut in planetary sciences, or when Congress squabbles over commercial versus government rockets. As I pointed out before, NASA is funded at a minimally sustainable level, barely able to do what it can do. We’ve bought a fancy car and can’t afford to put gas in it.
Russia looks like they want to gas up their engine. More power to them. I don’t want another space race, don’t get me wrong. That tends to not do well at all in the long run. But a little competition might make us tweak our adrenaline level a bit, get us to pick up the pace a hair. I wouldn’t mind that at all.
And it wouldn’t take much to achieve that.
Tip o’ the heat shield to SpaceX top banana Elon Musk.