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We need to shield the US space program from election cycle chaos

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Space exploration is a long-term endeavor. It takes many years and boatloads of money to get a single spacecraft off the ground and out of Earth’s atmosphere. Getting it to destinations outside the planet’s orbit is even trickier. And if the plan is to send humans along for the ride, you can expect development to take longer than most US presidential terms.

That’s a problem, given that the executive office is in charge of shaping the US space program and its overall goals: when different administrations have different ideas on what to prioritize, the space program faces whiplash that creates chaos and slows projects down. In just this century, NASA has seen its focus shift from the moon to Mars and back to the moon. In 2005, President Bush said we were gearing up to go to the moon with the Constellation program. In 2010, President Obama said we were headed to Mars. In 2017, President Trump decided it was actually the moon again.

With less than a month to go until an election that could lead to a new administration under Joe Biden, the space community is bracing itself for yet another possible pivot. The circumstances once again highlight the need to stabilize the US space program so it has the support it needs to pursue projects and achieve goals, secure that they won’t be abruptly upended by the whims of a new president. 

The next four years are critical. Under Artemis, NASA’s program to return humans to the moon, we’re seeing the development of technologies like lunar spacesuits, lunar habitation modules, landers, rovers, Gateway (a lunar space station designed to enable human exploration in deep space), and tons of other new technologies meant to make moon missions work. Only some would be immediately suitable for a Martian environment,

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SpaceX reinforcing heat shield of its Dragon spacecraft ahead of planned October flight

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He said there “was nothing to be concerned with at all times. The astronauts were safe, and the vehicle was working perfectly.” The heat shield is a vital component of the spacecraft that protects the astronauts as they plunge through the thickening atmosphere, creating temperatures that reach as high as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to reinforcing the part of the heat shield, he said the company is refining how it measures the capsule’s altitude as it returns to Earth. During the August test flight, the drogue parachutes deployed at a slightly lower altitude than the company expected, but still well within safety parameters, he said.

Finally, SpaceX and NASA are working with the Coast Guard to create a 10-mile “keep-out zone” around the spacecraft once its splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

During the test mission, recreational boats swarmed the vehicle, still loaded with volatile propellant, after it landed in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a safety hazard. “We’re going to have more boats on the next go-round, and make sure that the area is really clear of any other boats,” Koenigsmann said.

The test mission saw Hurley and Behnken spend two months on the International Space Station before their return. Now SpaceX is scheduled to launch a crew of four astronauts — three Americans and one Japanese — in the wee hours of Oct. 31. It would be the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and the first time the company has flown four people at once on what will be a long-duration mission to the station, lasting six months.

NASA said it is close to granting SpaceX the final certification that would pave the way for the company to fly astronauts to the space station on a regular basis under NASA’s “commercial