NASA at 50: A local editorial
This morning I opened my Internet newspaper (Columbus Dispatch) and read the following editorial:
What next for NASA?
Glittering past, dull present, murky future mark agency's golden birthday
Saturday, March 8, 2008 2:55 AM
This year, on its 50th anniversary, NASA has many successes to celebrate, but it also faces a big challenge: offering a compelling vision for the future.
In recent years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seems to have run out of steam. Setbacks since the mid-1970s sometimes have overshadowed the agency's thrilling early days.
NASA has been the government agency that has given the taxpayers the most dazzle for the buck, firing up huge rockets that propelled Americans into Earth orbit and then on to the moon.
Ohio has long and strong links with NASA. John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth and Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.
But the glory of those early years has eluded NASA since. The moon missions, now nearly 40 years past, appear to have been an ending rather than a steppingstone to the universe.
Vice President Spiro Agnew convened a space task force in 1969 that recommended a manned mission to Mars, a lunar base and a reusable shuttle to go back and forth. But the nation had other priorities, and the only thing that Congress approved was the shuttle, which has been universally decried by aerospace engineers as a terrible replacement for the Saturn V moon rocket. The shuttles are overly complicated, hugely expensive to maintain and grow more dangerous with age. When shuttle missions attract widespread attention, it's often because something has gone wrong.
The lack of momentum has been devastating to morale among NASA engineers and it has been deadly to Americans' interest in manned space exploration.
In 1964, the total federal budget was $132.6 billion; NASA got $5.1 billion of that, or about 4 cents of every tax dollar. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $34 billion today. But for 2009, NASA will get $17.6 billion, or 0.56 percent of the proposed federal budget. One month of waging war in Iraq costs $10 billion.
Many Americans might not realize this, but the U.S. no longer has the tools to return to the moon. The shuttle was not designed to go there, and the Saturn V rocket's production sites were mothballed in the early 1970s. The generation of engineers that designed and launched the Saturns likewise faded from the scene.
Further, once NASA retires the shuttle in 2010 and while it awaits the development of a new spacecraft in 2015, astronauts will have no way to reach orbit. They will have to hitch rides on private commercial spacecraft or rely on the kindness of the Russian space program to get them to the International Space Station.
Once the new craft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, is ready, the next frontier is the Constellation missions, which are intended to put people back on the moon by 2020. Astronauts are to build a lunar base by 2025, eventually using it as their springboard to Mars, by 2037.
But this is President Bush's program, so it might not outlast his departure from office next year. Even when he unveiled the proposal, it provoked little interest in a nation more worried about health care, terrorism and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the shuttle missions have been marked by tragedy, one of NASA's greatest recent successes has been unmanned exploration, namely, the wholly unexpected and remarkable careers of the two Mars rovers, which have have remained functional for 16 times longer than their three-month life expectancy. This success fuels a long discussion about whether space exploration is best conducted with manned missions or by machines such as the rovers.
In its early days, NASA's stimulus was the competition with the Soviet Union, and its focus was crystal clear. Since then, the agency has been less adept in defining and articulating its mission in a way that energizes public support. Is its purpose space exploration? Science? Aeronautics research? NASA should use its 50th anniversary to explain itself and remind Americans why space exploration is still important.
I think one of the reasons why NASA has gone to the wayside is because now the US is the only superpower in the world. The spirit really wasn't to explore space, but rather, to compete with the Russians (and probably keep them under tight surveillance).
Unfortunately, I think the only way for there to be regained interest in the space program is for France to start a space program. There's no "hurry" to get anything done becuase we're not competing with anyone.
Admittedly, I don't know how we can renew interest in space without there being a "race" so to speak. Maybe one way is to improve the quality of life for Americans, so that space exploration can be a priority again.
I would add one more thing which could spark a rebirth in America's space program: our current or near-future generation of probes discovering any hints which may indicate the chance of life elsewhere in our solar system. Perhaps some kind of fossil evidence or existing organic materials, either on or underground at Mars, or out farther at the moons of Saturn or Jupiter.
Presumably we won't always have such an anti-science bent administration, and such a resumption of discovery and exploration could well spark new interest in space programs (and funding of them).
Given how risky and expensive manned spaceflights are, I think it would take an "wow" moment to get people looking up to the skies with wonder and curiosity... not to mention purpose... again.
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