Craig Kluever’s dream was born as he found himself awestruck in front of a grainy black-and-white television screen watching Apollo 11 land on the moon. He was in kindergarten. As he puts it, “that just made a big impact on me. Of course, the first thing I wanted to be was an astronaut.” Those early dreams of becoming an astronaut turned instead into a pursuit of the science behind the rockets. Today, the MU Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering works behind the scenes to solve the kind of problems involved in designing space travel—such as how to take off, how to reach a target, and, more importantly, how to return safely to Earth.
The first space mission to use electric propulsion was Deep Space I. Launched in 1998, it was a test mission for electric propulsion, one on which a lot of people worked to see the mission to success. “It had a very modest target,” Kluever says – basically just to fly by an asteroid – “and it was able to complete that mission.” Since then there have been some very big plans to send spacecraft to Jupiter or other outer planets using electric propulsion. “But the problem with electric propulsion (and NASA) is that these technologies cycle,” observes Kluever. “Sometimes they’re politically in favor and sometimes not. Right now they’re out of favor,” largely due to budgetary restraints.
Asked why this research was important, Kluever responded in a surprising way. In an era of tight budgets, most researchers are accustomed to arguing for the importance of their work. However, Kluever answers ambivalently: “That’s the hardest question.” He could cite the many technological advances that were outcomes of the space program (from Teflon and computers to mammograms), advances that impact many lives. But that kind of response has become something of a cliché, he believes. Presently, roughly 75% of NASA’s budget is tied up in the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, with only the remainder left to fund basic science, biological, earth science, and robotic missions (to Jupiter, Pluto, and Mercury). Whether there’s a direct benefit to human spaceflight, Kluever admits, “I myself struggle with that question. In this day of tight budgets, I’m not sure if that money is justified to send a person to the moon.”