Spaced Out

/ by Emily Anthes /

As NASA fumbles and more nations set their sights on the Final Frontier, the scientific reputation of the US hangs in the balance.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy stood before Congress and announced his wish to land an American on the Moon “before this decade is out.” But, Kennedy noted, “It will not be one man going to the Moon…it will be an entire nation.”

And indeed it was. During the Mercury and Apollo years, space exploration was so iconic that astronauts, the nation’s heroic ambassadors to space, inspired songs and saw their names appear on food products — and scores of infants. Space came to represent the US itself, becoming a symbol of America and American science.

Americans took a pride in NASA that was uncommon for endeavors in science. But today, as an aging NASA struggles under a load of public embarrassments, is the agency’s tattered reputation threatening the esteem of America’s entire scientific enterprise?

NASA was part and product of the Cold War, so in the 60s, it was natural for the US to perpetuate the notion that space supremacy would send an unmistakable signal to the world about its scientific prowess and competitiveness. Exploring space was sold to the public as an imperative, a prerequisite for being a world leader. “In short,” Kennedy said of the space push, “our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort.”

Today the notion that a journey to the Final Frontier is representative of a nation’s scientific capabilities persists. And new nations are staking their reputations on space: China recently became the third country, after the Soviet Union and the US, to launch a man into space with its own rocketry. India has expressed hopes of doing the same, and Nigeria has embarked upon its own ambitious program. Though the Cold War is long over, a space presence still implies global leadership.

“It’s no longer a symbol of your military capability that you can put something into space,” says Dwayne Day, a space policy analyst and historian. “But it is a symbol of Great Power status.”

The world’s newest space-faring nations are embracing the accompanying prestige and publicity of space and involving their citizens in displays of national pride. Malaysia’s first astronaut, who will blast off later this year, was selected for the job after a nationwide contest allowed Malaysians to vote for their favorite candidates via text message. This spring China was planning to use its first lunar probe to broadcast 30 Chinese songs, which were selected in part by public vote and included songs titled “I Love China” and “Singing Praises of Motherland.” South Korea hopes to send kimchi, a national dish, into space with its first astronaut in 2008.

The remarkable fact isn’t, of course, that pickled cabbage may soon be orbiting the Earth; it’s that as more countries make space their own, they are involving their citizens and using space as a medium for expressing national identity. As they do so, space exploration is less and less frequently being associated with America.

While many nations are ramping up their investments in space, the US itself appears to be letting its leadership in the Final Frontier slip away. The space program today barely resembles that of Kennedy’s era. NASA, struggling to find direction and generate enthusiasm, is no longer the beacon for American science.

NASA, which once carefully managed its public image, has been plagued by a spate of bad press. The missteps range from technical flubs (the stuck antenna on the space probe Galileo, the originally flawed mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope) to unmitigated disasters (the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia). The most recent embarrassment is the disovery of an astronaut love triangle. Even the most benign problem — such as the now seemingly routine delays in shuttle launches — chips away at the agency’s credibility and support. NASA, once the stuff of Life covers, is now parodied in a seemingly endless number of YouTube spoofs.

“Because going to space in the US has always been more for political purposes than pragmatic purposes, there’s always been a need to get people very excited about it,” says Gerard DeGroot, a historian at the UK’s University of St. Andrews and author of Dark Side of the Moon, a history of the American lunar quest. “In a way, that’s been an asset. But it’s becoming a liability. If NASA has always depended on public support and excitement, and then suddenly they can’t generate it anymore, what do they do?”

The agency’s struggles go beyond bad press. Experts and industry insiders have questioned whether the space program can accomplish its goals at its current level of funding, which for years has remained steady at just under 1 percent of the federal budget. In 2002 a federal commission on the future of the US space industry concluded, “Instead of the excitement and exuberance that dominated our early ventures into space, we at times seem almost apologetic about our continued investments in the space program.”

Since the Columbia disaster in 2003, there have even been calls to utterly dismantle NASA. That’s not happening, but in 2004 President Bush announced — with almost nonexistent fanfare — a new vision for space exploration. This re-envisioning of America’s space future will retire the aging shuttle program and focus on sending humans back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. Despite these grand plans, however, Congress has not significantly increased funding for the agency.

“Politically, there was this decision that we want to send NASA on a new path, but we don’t want this new path to cost any more money than we’re spending now,” says Day, who served on the board assembled to investigate the 2003 Columbia accident. “The reason why after Columbia we didn’t say, ‘Let’s get out of human spaceflight completely,’ is that would have been viewed negatively by the world. We don’t want to do big things because it makes us look better; we want to do big things because not doing them makes us look bad.”

It’s impossible to blame any one party for the state of affairs at NASA, but the combined effects of the agency’s own screwups, insufficient funding, and the public’s own uncertainty about the importance of space create a perfect storm for the agency and its reputation. The sad truth is that in many ways, it’s a golden age for space research: The US has rovers on Mars, probes observing the Sun, a spacecraft orbiting Saturn, and others headed toward Mercury and Pluto. And yet the US is letting this impressive scientific work be trumped by headlines about poor funding, loose foam, and pepper-spray-wielding astronauts in diapers.

Though the answer to NASA’s woes probably isn’t shooting a reality TV show in space, the US can learn from the publicity stunts being staged by other nations. Just because war is no longer motivating our space efforts doesn’t mean that national pride in them is unimportant. The agency’s survival depends upon public support, and its death could have far-reaching effects. If the US appears to retreat from space exploration, the world could equate it with a retreat from science and innovation altogether.

“If we ever got to the point where the Chinese were very interested in space exploration, and we decided to pull out of it, I think it would be a symbolic gesture that we no longer want to compete in a technological economy,” says Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University in Washington, D.C. “That would be a very dangerous thing to do.”

Originally published July 1, 2007

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