to boldly try to go again. maybe. kind of…

April 16, 2010

President Obama has been trying to rejuvenate NASA and trying to move a great deal of spacecraft design to ambitious space tourism startups who’ve been just waiting for a chance to sell their skills to the agency, and in a recent speech, he tried to aim the engineers and astronauts towards landing on asteroids by 2025 and on Mars by the mid 2030s. While this is the strategy that’s really needed to prod NASA out of its rut from a very high level overview, it’s missing some crucial components. In reality, the planned upticks in funding are not as big as they seem at first glance, the long and rather vague timelines leave far too much room for the agency to loose its course, and there seems to be a lack of urgency and the kind of short focus needed to kick NASA into high gear. To once again lead the way in space exploration, the agency needs far more radical changes.

To really understand what’s going on at NASA, we need to start with what’s probably the most important thing about the agency: its history. Rather than a civilian group coming together to explore space, NASA is a spawn of a military R&D lab which was tasked with the singular goal of landing on the Moon. This is why JFK was so forceful in his famous speech challenging the United States to land on the Moon by 1969 and the agency’s goals were a top priority for the government, meaning that whenever NASA needed cash, it got cash. When the space race was won and it became clear that Soviet astronauts simply couldn’t match the Apollo program, the agency’s goals became more nebulous and less committed. Instead of going forward with ambitious military projects and high brow civilian concepts, the agency saw its budget drained in both real and relative terms, became saddled with a risk and innovation averse bureaucracy, and managed to start moving backwards in its technologies for what amounted to a very transparent effort to recapture the glory of its heyday.

Now, it may seem like great goal setting to tell an agency to land on asteroids in 2025, but where’s the rush or the challenge? Where’s the pressure from the media and the public? These ingredients just aren’t there. Over the next 15 years, another administration would have plenty of time to refocus the agency yet again, pointing it back at the Moon (where it should really be going). The same applies with the notion of a mission to Mars. We saw what happened to some three decades of similar plans and challenges and suffice it to say, we’re not on the Red Planet yet. Instead, if we really want to rev up NASA, we need to set a short term goal of going back to the Moon with technology to be provided by the small, nimble aerospace startups mentioned above. And not in a decade or two. No, let’s challenge NASA to do it within eight years with the plan to start setting up a base on the lunar surface. Rather than repeat the heyday of Apollo, have the agency go all out and push the envelope from a technical and scientific standpoint.

But of course, this won’t happen until we give NASA some serious monetary support. Sure, Obama promised a $6 billion addition over the next ten years which sounds impressive at first, but it actually averages just $600 million more per year for an agency with an existing budget of nearly $19 billion. That’s just over a 3% raise. It might keep up with inflation, but it certainly won’t help NASA go farther into space. And while half of American voters support this sad state of affairs, it seems that the government’s hands are tied. Even if Congress had a revelation and finally understood that heavy investments in science generate jobs and spur innovation, as well as contribute to higher literacy and education in such demand by military labs, lawmakers just wouldn’t be willing to do it in a fit of faux frugality. The offer of more money for new, far reaching programs in the coming decades coming from Obama was really the promise of a pittance to pursue rather vague goals outlined in a pep talk unlikely to be followed by any serious action from the government at large. How unfortunate that those who once explored the outer limits of human technology are now just an afterthought by politicians who care much more about partisan mudslinging than leading their nation and unwilling to commit to a real scientific challenge which could contribute decades worth of new technologies and jobs to the economy…

[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren ]

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  • Zar

    Looking at the current state of economics, politics, the pervailing state of conservatism and the slide into ignorance that you document so thoroughly here, I find it very hard to believe that NASA will ever achieve anything of note again. I’m not saying they wont continue to do good science and produce solid data, but with such wishy washy commitment to any outward progress I just can’t see anything being done.

    Even if they did actually get the money and the drive to put a man on Mars, we’d just have a repeat of Apollo. A short visit followed by program cancellation as public interest evaporated.

    I sincerely expect that the first person to return to the Moon will speak Mandarin, and so will the first on Mars.

  • jimijr

    Sure, we can send a man to the moon. But can we send a Buick to the moon? Now that would be cool, like maybe a ’71 Gran Sport!

  • Paul

    Zar: “I sincerely expect that the first person to return to the Moon will speak Mandarin, and so will the first on Mars.”

    This “If we don’t go to the moon, the Chinese will!!!!one1″ stuff is all over the web. So can I ask, why do you care?

    What are you worried about if the Chinese put astronauts/taikonauts on the moon? Chinese-germs? Missile bases inside lunar craters? What?

    Why is it so automatically scary that no one ever feels they even need to explain why it’s so bad?

  • Greg Fish

    What are you worried about if the Chinese put astronauts on the moon?

    It’s really an American thing. Despite the current neglect of space exploration, quite a few people here pride their nation for being the only one able to land humans on the Moon and seeing someone else match that feat would be a huge sting to their pride. This raises the question of why they won’t do anything about really boosting NASA’s capabilities and invest more in space exploration, but that may be a different topic…

    And of course we should mention that China, once an ally of the USSR and claiming to be a communist country, setting foot on the Moon brings back all sorts of fears and other negative emotions from the Cold War era…

  • Paul

    What are you worried about if the Chinese put astronauts on the moon?
    and seeing someone else match that feat would be a huge sting to their pride. … And of course we should mention that China … setting foot on the Moon brings back all sorts of fears and other negative emotions from the Cold War era…

    But that’s what I don’t get. China is mainly a trade rival, it’s not viciously expansionist, nor is there the huge ideological war-of-the-hearts-and-minds that there was with Russia. Why is the “zomg China will get there first” scare-cry so obvious (to everyone but me)?

    I’m not saying China is all fluffy kittens, I get strategic paranoia, but how does China reaching the moon somehow threaten the US strategically. That is, more than just a flags and footprints and national pride. (It’s not like the brief scare over China buying into the Panama Canal. Or owning US debt. Or worrying that new Russian Gen-5 fighters match US tech. That’s a sensible paranoia.)

    Personally, I like the idea of China putting astronauts/taikonauts on the moon. And I really hope India follows suit. It’s millions of square miles, the more the merrier. I think if Russia had built Salyut then Mir as lunar-habs programs, the US might have stuck with its post-Apollo plans.

    (Insert usual sucky grovel about awesomeness of your blog.)

  • Greg Fish

    That is, more than just a flags and footprints and national pride…

    Ah but that’s the most important thing. Millions of people watching the Moon landing weren’t watching one of the most important moments in human history and eagerly anticipating all the great science to be done. They were watching the U.S. beating the Reds to the lunar surface. To have “the other Reds” beat NASA back would be a big public relations letdown and a stark reminder that the U.S. is falling behind in many areas where it used to dominate the globe.