The Glory Days of NASA Are Over

Many people were left gasping when President Obama unveiled his new plan for outer space, including his proposal to cancel NASA's Constellation program. It turns out that the great recession of 2008 and 2009 has claimed yet another victim, and this time it's the manned exploration of the Universe.


Back in 2004, President George W. Bush laid out an ambitious plan. The space shuttle was to be phased out this year, and five years later the replacement for the space shuttle (the Ares system) would be fully functional and operational. Then by 2020, the plan was to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, and after that maybe even the planet Mars.

Forget about iteverything is out the window!

As if President Obama doesn't already have enough on his plate, between health care, Afghanistan, education reform, budget deficits, etc., he now plans to visit Florida this month to host a space summit and discuss his Administration's new plans for the space program. According to the White House's official release: "The President and the NASA Administrator both believe that we have to be forward thinking and aggressive in our pursuit of new technologies to take us beyond low-Earth orbit."

In fact, over 4,500 people may lose their jobs outright when the space shuttle is phased out in the new strategy. Not to mention that over $9 billion was already spent on research to create the replacement for the space shuttle, the Ares 1 booster rocket. NASA's website states that "the Ares 1 is the essential core of a safe, reliable, cost-effective space transportation systemone that will carry crewed missions back to the moon, on to Mars and out into the solar system."

What does this all mean? It means that in the near term we'll have to depend on the Russians for access to outer space. Eventuallyand this is the ultimate goalwe aim to get private enterprise to take over the manned space program. In the future, perhaps you'll see a Coca-Cola advertisement on the booster rockets as astronauts go into outer space with a Google logo on their space suits.

The main problem is that private industry has no experience at all in sending astronauts into outer space. They do of course engage successfully with cargo launches into space, but a manned space program is totally different and much more complicated. There are many things to worry about, including safety, life support systems, redundant systems, extreme temperatures, space debris, etc. So who's going to pick up the slack? The obvious answer is the Russians, and they are going to be the ones that benefit from all of this.  

I think that some historians of the space program are smiling right now. Who would have thought at the height of the space race between Russia and the United States...when the future of communism and capitalism was at stake...when we had a huge propaganda war over space travel...who would have thought that we would be depending on Russia almost exclusively for access to outer space?

Lets face itthe glory days of NASA are over.

Many analysts have noted that the coming change in the space program is going to be dramatic and affect space travel for the next thirty years. Remember, this just isn’t a few tweaksthis is the first major overhaul, and the Yanks aren't coming!

I suppose we will have to wait until April 15th to hear the full details of the Obama Administration's plan for our space program. But I'll say one thingthis change WILL affect space travel for a generation.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.