Mars Curiosity Rover and Soyuz Rocket Landing Prove Space Exploration is Still Worth Investing In

Ready to escape from hearing about politics for a while? Excitement in the space program occurred just this week with the safe landing of the Soyuz module from the International Space Station. While the comings and goings from the International Space Station may seem almost commonplace now, it is pretty amazing that we've come so far from the first walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong in 1969 to astronauts traveling to and from and living and studying for extended periods of time in a laboratory and temporary home in space. 

On September 17, the Soyuz TMA spacecraft returned from the International Space Station carrying two Russian cosmonauts, Gennady Padalaka and Sergei Revin and American astronaut Joe Acaba. As amazing as deploying the Curiosity on Mars, the Soyuz with Acaba and his cosmonaut colleagues undocked from the space station over Nairobi, Kenya and 3 1/2 hours later made a perfect precision landing about 50 miles north of the town of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan.

The Russian-manufactured (S.P. KOROLEV ROCKET AND SPACE CORPORATION -Energia) Soyuz TMA spacecraft has three main parts: the Orbital Module, the Decent Module, and the Instrument/Propulsion Module. The crew occupied the Descent Module. The Orbital Module provided the extra living space for the crew on the trip to the space station; it is not needed for the trip back to earth and is released with the Instrument/Propulsion Module prior to re-entry and burns up in the atmosphere. 

Four parachutes are released about fifteen minutes before landing to slow the descent of the module. One second before touchdown, two sets of three small engines further slow the craft.  The crew's seats have custom-molded liners to protect them from the impact.

After their extended gravity-free living, the astronauts were lifted onto reclining chairs to help them comfortably acclimatize. "Looking relaxed and smiling broadly while sipping a mug of tea and basking in the mild sunny conditions, Padalka waved at cameras that descended on the site soon almost immediately after landing," reported Fox News.

The astronauts received medical attention immediately after landing and were taken by helicopter to the base in Kostanai before continuing their return home.

The Soyuz passengers, half of the Expedition 32 Crew, left the space station in hands of the three astronauts who arrived on the space capsule in July. Commander, NASA's Sunita Williams, who took over from Padalka, and Russians Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan, will continue service until their scheduled return to Earth in November. Next month U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin will join them. 

Williams, 47, is the second woman in history to command the 14-year operating station. She holds the record for the longest spaceflight for a woman, 195 days in 2007. She is a U.S. Navy captain, on her second "long-duration" space mission.  She trained for more than two years with her Expedition 32 and 33 crewmates. She celebrated her birthday on September 19.

While women were part of the astronaut testing program in 1960 and 1961, only military test pilots were invited to apply to the astronaut-training program. At that time, the military did not except women into pilot training. The first woman astronaut was not an American but Russian Valentina Tereshkova.  In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American female Astronaut. Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle pilot in 1995.  

This past weekend Sunita Williams completed the Nautica Malibu Marathon from the space station; in 2007 she completed the Boston Marathon from the space station. Astronauts must exercise about two hours each day to prevent loss of bone and muscle density using a stationary bike, a treadmill with a harness so they don't float away, and the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, ARED, a weightlifting machine.

In July 2011, NASA announced the selection of CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space Inc, to run science research on the American part of International Space Station. NASA will pay CASIS up to $15 million per year to manage the U.S. part. The intention is for the facilities to be used by many U.S. scientists and researchers.

With the decommissioning of the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet, the Soyuz remains the only means for international astronauts to get to the space station. A Soyuz capsule took the first crew to the International Space Station in 2000. In July of this year another Soyuz capsule safely returned three astronauts from the space station that had spent approximately seven months in space. Since the Space Shuttle Discovery accident in 2003, the Soyuz has been the transport for all of the astronauts going to the space station. One Soyuz is always docked at the space station to serve as an emergency "lifeboat" for unexpected returns to Earth.

Reporting on the recent Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover, Bethany Johns, Fellow at the American Astronomical Society, wrote that "the public may be excited, but we scientists have work to do to make sure they understand how NASA is applicable to their everyday lives."

With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, capped this week by the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor to its resting place in a museum in Los Angeles, we risk losing sight of our many accomplishments, traction in our ability to inspire future scientists and leadership in the exploration and discoveries in space.

Coming back to politics, which is hard not to do at this time of year, the American Astronomical Society's President, David J. Helfand, in a recent newsletter, writes of his concern for the "decade after decade shift in government spending from investment in the future — where science holds pride of place — to transfer payments commonly known as entitlements." He says, "We continue to live in a golden age of astronomical discovery. The length of that age in the U.S., however, will depend not only on our effectiveness at selling Congress and the public on how exciting and compelling the questions we pose really are, but on an escape from the fiscal nightmare toward which we are careening ... Unless a fundamental restructuring of the federal budget occurs, it is difficult to see a bright future for research and discovery."

Mr. Helfand makes an important point. Entitlements are making it difficult to spend on things that will benefit America in the future because we are spending too much on band-aid programs that have no return on investment. Science has been bearing some of the brunt of this spending problem, because it is being crushed out of the budget by spending on the 47% of Americans receiving money from the federal government. We do have choices and the more in debt the nation is, the less we will be able to focus on science.