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 ]