Brain drain hurts Russian space program, U.S. in turn

Monday, August 24, 2015

It's probably hard for today's teenagers to relate to the the excitement space nerds who grew up in the 1960s feel when they see the latest photos posted on the NASA website.

We're still checking out the photos of Pluto snapped by the New Horizons probe that took so long to reach the planet that it was no longer a planet by the time it arrived.

Now new photos are arriving of Saturn's moon Dione from the Cassini space probe, which is looping aroung the planet primarily to study gravity, but is also examining the planet's rings and some of its 62 known moons -- so many of them that nine don't even have names.

That probe is a cooperative effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

It's been a successful partnership, but another one, on which we are much more dependant, is running into trouble.

The United States is currently unable to launch a human being into space and the private industry poised to take over, such as SpaceX, have had some spectacular failures to resupply the International Space Station.

That leaves us dependant on Russia, which is in a state of crisis, according to observers.

A Russian supply ship failed in April and a Space X attempt blew up in June, and while other trips have been successful, there is understandable consternation.

Russia still launches more rockets than any other other nation, but its space industry lost a lot of brain power after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened the door for experts to find better-paying jobs in the West.

Salaries are improving in Russia, but a cosmonaut made $26,000 a year in 2012 compared to $63,000 to $139,000 for NASA, according to a Russian state agency.

While we depend on Russia to reach the ISS, its ability to finance a space program is being undercut by low oil prices and economic sanctions.

Low morale has led to needless failures, such as the 2013 failure of a Proton rocket that was lost because a worker installed a sensor upside down and hammered it in to fit.

All these factors serve to make space less attractive for younger, up-and-coming scientists and technicians, and fewer and fewer of them are getting involved, unless they happen to be Internet billionaires.

It's ironic that at a point when the fantasies portrayed in science fiction decades ago are coming true, young people who should be contributing to those advances are finding careers in other fields, and a special effort has to be made to interest students in STEM classes -- science, technology, engineering and math.

Let's hope the latest images from space help rekindle the excitement we felt in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Check out Cassini photos here: http://1.usa.gov/1U9taG0

Check out New Horizon photos here: http://1.usa.gov/1U9th4v

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: