What Future for NASA?

Viewpoint / by Lee Billings /

America's space agency faces uncertain future on its 50th anniversary.

President Eisenhower commissioned Dr. T. Keith Glennan, right, as the first administrator for NASA and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, left, as deputy administrator. Credit: NASA.

On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, authorizing the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and establishing its mission to undertake space science and exploration “for the benefit of all mankind.” NASA began operations some three months later, on October 1. Eleven years afterward, fulfilling a vision laid out by President Kennedy, men walked on the Moon, their actions destined to resonate through the remainder of human history.

Though they only encompassed four of the agency’s 50 years, the remembered glory of the lunar landings still overshadows all other subsequent NASA accomplishments. But Apollo ingloriously failed in one key way: It was not sustained, perhaps not sustainable. Apollo was planned and executed at breakneck speed; the goal was to reach the Moon as quickly as possible, not to develop a lasting ability to go there. The space race was the product of a unique sociopolitical situation: a post-war nation arguably near the peak of its hegemonic, economic, and industrial powers indulging in a noble substitution for warfare with its sole global competitor, the USSR. When Apollo succeeded, when the “battle” was “won,” Americans lost interest, politicians slashed funding, and a window of opportunity for humanity to advance outward and lay claim to the rest of our solar system closed. Mission accomplished.

Consequently, on its 50th anniversary NASA is unable to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, and thanks to the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle, faces a looming gap of at least five years during which it won’t even be able to do that. The remaining Saturn V moon rockets, each a marvel of engineering unmatched even today, languish as mere tourist attractions on the lawns of NASA centers around the country. Instead of celebrating successful human missions out to Mars, the asteroids, and even further, the agency finds itself scrambling to simply get back to the Moon by 2020.

Unlike in the good old days, when nearly four percent of the US federal budget went to a single-minded, Moon-focused space program, today the agency is being asked to accomplish more with fewer resources: Less than one cent of every tax dollar supports the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS), the awe-inspiring discoveries of Hubble Space Telescope and other orbital observatories, the wildly successful robotic armada exploring our the solar system, and the ongoing study of our own planet from space. To accomplish all this while also returning Americans to the Moon, NASA has resorted to extreme measures, cannibalizing many of its lesser-known programs. Research projects that promised major scientific discoveries have been curtailed or cancelled. New propulsion technologies that would enable a wide variety of breakthrough space missions have been neglected. The fundamental problem of exceedingly high launch costs remains unaddressed.

NASA’s 2009 budget is about $18 billion. For perspective, each year the US spends more than $300 billion just paying interest on the ever-growing national debt. In 2009 alone the US will spend $600 billion on defense and homeland security. This does not include most of the $12 billion spent each month in Iraq and Afghanistan on a war set to ultimately cost trillions of dollars. Entitlement spending on programs like Medicare and Social Security is projected to balloon later this century to crippling amounts of the US GDP. Now, with the increasingly volatile global financial markets sliding into turmoil, the US federal government plans to inject at least $700 billion into Wall Street to staunch the economic hemorrhaging.

In the face of mounting debt and instability, major decreases in science funding seem inevitable, starting with those programs whose ambitious goals and vision mark them as idealistic and frivolous. Space science and exploration will be tempting targets. Deep cuts to science funding would offer meager short-term gains, but in the long run would hasten the decline of America’s global preeminence and reduce our ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Just as scientific inquiry and technological innovation provide the best hope of overcoming the many challenges of the 21st century, activities like space exploration provide the inspiration and aspiration that create scientists and foster innovation in the first place. This unquantifiable contribution is arguably NASA’s greatest gift to current and near-future generations.

Today, as NASA commemorates 50 years of existence, the prognosis is grim. But the agency need only look to past experiences for potential solutions to many of its problems. In the twilight of Apollo, NASA collaborated with the Soviet space program to dock two spacecrafts together in Earth orbit. When the ports opened and the first handshake in space between an astronaut and a cosmonaut was broadcast around the world, it set the stage for later cooperation between the two superpowers, culminating in the ISS, which for eight years has been an outpost for people from many nations to live and work in space.

Human and robotic space exploration does not have to be a nationalistic enterprise, and harsh realities may soon force them not to be. Besides engaging with established spacefaring powers like Russia and the European Union and emerging players such as China and India, NASA must also promote and enhance opportunities for collaborations with private industry. Fortunately, great strides have already been taken in this area: In April, NASA awarded a contract for future launch services to SpaceX, a company started by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. On September 28, SpaceX launched its liquid-fueled Falcon 1 rocket into Earth orbit, a first for a privately funded company. Further launches and the development of human spaceflight capabilities are planned.

Space exploration will probably never be cheap, easy, and routine. But by spreading the cost and embracing new ways of doing business, and with a little bit of luck, NASA — and mankind — may have much more to celebrate and look forward to on the agency’s 100th anniversary than on its 50th.

Originally published October 1, 2008

Tags development governance leadership policy politics space

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