If ever there were an agency that thinks big, it’s NASA. The first and only agency to send people to the surface of the moon, NASA has now been asked to develop the technology to send manned missions beyond our solar system, to distant stars.
During a NASA budget hearing on Wednesday, Texas Republican and Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, John Culberson questioned NASA administrator Charles Bolden on the future of NASA, its budget, and its goals.
“I’d encourage you to focus on the development of the next-generation of the rocket propulsion,” Culberson said. “The fact that we’re still flying rocket engines that’s fundamentally been designed by Robert Goddard in the 1920s is just inexcusable.”
Specifically, Culberson was asking about NASA’s Asteroid Redirection Mission to capture an asteroid. The mission requires new technologies including a long-lasting form of rocket propulsion to haul an asteroid through space.
“The lessons we learn and new technologies we prove through the Asteroid Redirect Mission will put humans one giant leap closer to Mars,” according to this NASA video.
But Mars is just the beginning for Culberson. He has far grander aspirations. Quite literally, he wants NASA to reach for the stars.
“Let us … leave for future generations the development of the first interstellar rocket propulsion system that would carry us to Alpha Centauri and beyond,” Culberson said.
Alpha Centauri is the closest star to Earth besides our sun. It floats in space about 4.37 light years from Earth, and would therefore take 4.37 years for a spacecraft travelling at the speed of light to get there.
But today’s spacecraft, and most likely the spacecraft of future generations, travel at speeds much slower than that.
The fastest spacecraft humans have ever created is the New Horizons mission, which, right now, is headed toward Pluto at a speed of about 36,000 miles-per-hour.
At that speed, it would take about 80,500 years to reach Alpha Centauri.
And New Horizons isn’t even a manned mission!
Sending humans to other stars would require two things we’ve never done before:
- Live longer in space than anyone in history – 6 months is the longest consecutive amount of time a single human has spent on the International Space Station
- Reproduce in space, so that there are actually humans aboard the spacecraft when it reaches Alpha Centauri
Even with next-generation rocket propulsion systems, we can’t hope to reach Alpha Centauri within a single generation.
While we joke that this is an impossible dream, Culberson’s hopes for advanced rocket propulsion systems are encouraging and hopefully mean that NASA will be funded well enough to develop some amazing new technologies that we’re going to need to meet NASA’s goal of setting the first astronauts on Mars by the 2030s.
“We’ll certainly do everything we can to support you,” Culberson said. “It’s a real privilege for me to be in this position to help make some of those dreams of future young people come true.”
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