* Robots roll on Mars, probes peer at distant galaxies
* Human spaceflight has routinely been more expensive
* Space science a NASA priority from the start
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON, Aug 4 Now that the shuttle fleet is
permanently grounded, the U.S. space spotlight could shift
toward the path-breaking astronomical science that NASA does
without human beings on board.
Human spaceflight has historically grabbed most of the
public's attention and NASA's budget, but robotic probes and
observatories have brought the biggest leaps toward
understanding the cosmos, from roaming around Mars to looking
billions of years back in time to see how galaxies are born.
There was a symbolic torch-passing moment this week, when
shuttle astronauts visited the White House to collect kudos
from President Barack Obama for the 30-year shuttle program
that ended on July 21. [ID:nN1E76K019]
At the same time, NASA announced a probe of the asteroid
Vesta, a look into the dark heart of a galaxy and the upcoming
launch of a spacecraft headed for Jupiter.
The proposed NASA budget for fiscal 2012 allots more than
$8 billion for manned spaceflight, compared to some $5 billion
for space science, and that's without any U.S. human-rated
space vehicle in immediate prospect. Astronauts will hitch
rides on the smaller Russian Soyuz capsules to get to the
International Space Station through 2020.
Americans on Mars? Maybe by 2035. But robotic rovers have
been rolling across the Martian surface since 2004.
Because human spaceflight requires simulating Earth-like
conditions -- temperature, stability, air -- it has always been
more expensive than unmanned exploration or ground-based
observatories. It began in the Cold War 1950s, when reaching
the "ultimate high ground" was a geopolitical imperative.
Even then, science was a top priority. The National
Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which set up the space
agency, listed as its first objective: "the expansion of human
knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space."
NASA's chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati, said space science
may be getting short shrift when it comes to public attention.
BIG BANG FOR THE BUCK
While human spaceflight is "critical to advancing
civilization," Abdalati said in a telephone interview, "I think
the science we do at NASA really speaks to something at the
core of the human spirit."
Robotic probes and so-called uncrewed cosmic laboratories
have done their work during the shuttle era, delivering a big
scientific bang for the buck, compared to experiments done by
human space voyagers.
The biggest bang of all, the theoretical explosion that
gave birth to the universe, has been a focus of the Hubble
Space Telescope, arguably the most important astronomical
instrument since Galileo looked through a lens.
Launched in 1990 at a cost of $3.1 billion, it has been
repaired and upgraded five times by shuttle crews, bringing its
lifetime cost to about $10 billion, since each shuttle mission
cost $1 billion or more.
In its two decades of observation, Hubble has managed to
look back in space-time to just 400 million years after the Big
Bang, revealing some of the first galaxies formed following the
initial blast. In July, scientists reported Hubble's discovery
of a tiny fourth moon around Pluto. The orbiting craft could
keep going through the end of this decade.
Other uncrewed NASA spacecraft have determined the age of
the universe -- 13.7 billion years -- and the microwave
remnants of the Big Bang. They've helped figure out more about
comets and asteroids, found water ice on Mars and supermassive
black holes at the heart of galaxies.
X-RAY ASTRONOMY LED TO CAT-SCANS
Not all robotic space discoveries are explained with such
dramatics. Most offer unprecedented glimpses into the workings
of the cosmos rather than science that can be quickly turned
into Earthly profit.
"The search to answer fundamental questions in science
always leads to the biggest discoveries," said John Grunsfeld,
deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in
Baltimore, which manages Hubble. He has seen the orbiting
telescope close up, as a veteran shuttle astronaut when he
worked on three missions to upgrade the observatory.
Grunsfeld said X-ray astronomy led to airport scanners, CAT
scans and MRIs, though that was not the initial intent: "People
didn't go out and say, I'm going to find a device that's going
to be able to image tendons, shoulders and knees. They were
studying the properties of the nucleus of atoms."
Grunsfeld sees human exploration of space as "our destiny."
But as a scientist and official at the telescope institute, he
is troubled that NASA's science budget has been sliced by more
than $2 billion to divert more money to crewed space programs.
He blames poor national management for the 2010 Obama
administration decision to scrap the $10 billion Constellation
program that aimed to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon by
2020. Instead, the United States would finance commercial space
taxi services provided by private companies that are developing
spaceships designed to carry people and cargo. [ID:nN1E76205S]
NASA is a frequent target of budget-cutters, with space
science more vulnerable than human spaceflight. NASA projects
that aim to document climate change came under fire this year,
when six members of Congress urged reductions in this effort
and reallocating those funds to spaceflight.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Anthony Boadle)