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NASA's Place in Space
By Jeff K. Brunello December 9, 2003

The recent Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report is appropriately critical of the widespread problems at NASA. Our National Aeronautics and Space Administration is not the awe-inspiring powerhouse of genius cowboys it once was. To be fair, no matter how good or bad NASA's personnel and administrative structure is, tragic accidents are inevitable. Spaceflight is the riskiest mode of travel yet devised, and most every space agency around the world has had its share of mishaps. NASA will certainly suffer more disasters in the future, even after it implements the CAIB's recommendations. That is the nature of exploration.

Beyond these issues, there is still the question of what purpose NASA will have in the future of space. The socio-political climate of today is more complex and fluid than that which NASA was born into. Sure, NASA is still going strong. They have a deep commitment to both a continued human presence in space and scientific discoveries throughout the solar system and beyond. But the NASA of today is a shadow of its own reputation.

What happened? Historically, the human and technological triumphs of NASA have been driven by competition with the Soviet space agency. President Kennedy's challenge of lunar exploration set a knowable, achievable goal and galvanized the combined efforts of NASA and third party companies such as Grumman and Boeing. But would Kennedy even have proposed the idea at that time had there not been political pressure to best the Russians? As today, in those early days during Project Mercury there were tangible, materiel benefits to be gleaned from space exploration. Experiments in micro-gravity give us insights into human physiology and earth sciences, and lead to new alloys, medicines, crop strains, etc. But the massive effort that led to men walking on the moon was far out of proportion to those more subtle achievements reached along the way. The space race that began in the 1950's and continued through manned and unmanned missions for the next two decades was one of national pride and propaganda between the US and the USSR. Arguably, the vast resources that both countries poured into these efforts were what made the rapid advances in space travel possible.

One could look back and say that the Apollo missions were the end of a lap of the space race. When Russia gave up trying for the moon, they ceded temporary victory to the United States. However, both superpowers continued their competition through Skylab, Mir, and various unmanned probes in the following years. But those missions focused more on scientific knowledge and not on making headlines. So we floated along through a decade of increasingly routine space shuttle flights and data received from the Voyager probes launched back in the 70's. Aside from the loss of Challenger and her crew, there wasn't much sensationalism coming out of Houston in the 1980's. The public heard hardly a peep about what the Soviets were up to, and a marcescent NASA plodded along without any real purpose or unifying goal.

The end of the Cold War environment removed the pressure of the space race from NASA's shoulders. Moreover, that pressure was now off the shoulders of the White House and Congress. Like high school board members cutting funding for their chess club, Congress demonstrated fiscally that space exploration now has little importance in the minds of our nation's representatives. Whether or not Congress's view actually reflects the curiosity and desires of fully two generations of Americans--whom incidentally were raised in expectant wonder of real astronauts' heroic explorations on live television, not the implausible Buck Rogers-styled radio adventures of the "Greatest Generation"--our legislators have effectively reduced NASA's ability to do its job by almost half. There are never enough federal funds for every worthwhile cause, and certain earthbound problems admittedly have a more short-term impact and cause for attention than space travel. Just as societal forces have ebbed the tide of American space exploration, there will soon be a time when the use of NASA as a political tool will come into play again.

The Chinese, if you haven't noticed, will imminently be the third nation on earth to launch people into space of it own volition (as of this writing). The space program in China appears to have all the government-backed zeal and public interest as the US's did when Alan Shepard was preparing for his historic first flight. People may scoff at this new kid on the block, doubting their chances of success. Today's global technological level is far more advanced than that which the aerospace engineers of the 60's began with, though. Given the commonality and flow of technology around the globe, there isn't too much "catch-up" to do between developed nations. Knowing simply that something is possible can be all you need to build the thing yourself. Doubtful? Read about the college kid who just built a nuclear fusion reactor from parts found in salvage yards. Needless to say, China's advances in space exploration will come at a rapid rate. Their schedule is simultaneously secretive and ambitious: a man in orbit within the next few weeks, and Moon landings probably within the decade. Regardless of how attainable China's goals may be, the United States would be foolish to let this new political challenge go unanswered. Sad but true, an arms race against the Chinese would be most likely reason Congress would reinvigorate.

However, there will soon exist a new variable of competition in human spaceflight: private enterprise. NASA, and all government operated space agencies the world over, will no longer hold the only ticket into orbit. Consider the upcoming X Prize, a milestone contest challenging anyone to build a working, reusable spaceship from scratch. To win the $10 million purse, the spacecraft must take passengers up to the edge of space twice in a fortnight. The first flight seems to be less than a year away. This amateur space race, and any future ones, will probably be as pivotal to the eventual commercialization of spaceflight as the cross-Atlantic races were for the early days of air travel. One can imagine that manned and unmanned craft will be plying the Solar System for materiel riches and lucrative services such as tourism within the next few decades. No longer will government-controlled personnel be solely privy to living and working in space.

If air flight's past is any indicator as to how space's future might look, earthbound governments' ultimate role will likely be regulatory. If you disagree, just think of how many daily passenger flights Uncle Sam operates from Los Angeles to Newark. True, the United States Postal Service does fly freight, but it too competes with private enterprise. And every time postal rates increase, we were reminded how thinly spread Congressional funds are, and how weak they stand against the fruits of profit-hunting capitalism.

Will NASA eventually be rendered obsolete, a husk of a once proud agency now desperately trying to compete in various space industries? It's difficult to imagine NASA even getting involved in the game to that extreme because that isn't the agency's purpose. NASA is not structured to make profit. It is designed to innovate. This isn't to say that it shouldn't try. Perchance NASA will someday find itself selling $20 million tickets for trips into orbit, as the Russian government has already done. This is merely pointing out that government tends to be less flexible and successful in commercial enterprises than privately owned companies. It simply cannot take the same risk of failure that an upstart corporation can.

The greatest strength that any space faring government has is access to cutting-edge, classified military technology. The resources that government pours into its space faring efforts continue to produce the vehicles and tools of tomorrow. In everything from instant coffee to miniaturized circuit boards, both the public and commerce benefit from declassified successes in space. Of course, space industries in the future will themselves make innovative advances that will benefit off-Earth presence and the general public. But that is still far in the future, while NASA has that momentum in place right now. If Congress can keep the wheels of genius rolling, there is no reason that the trickle-down effect of technology cannot keep fueling advances in space exploration.

From a standpoint of national pride, American companies can be at the forefront of space endeavors for a long time to come, representing the best that this country has to offer. They will benefit from the prototypes and discoveries that come out of NASA. And eventually, continue its proud legacy themselves. But if Washington continues to ignore the importance of space exploration, the United States will soon fall from its leadership position. The space race isn't over; it is simply entering the next lap. And the competitors are gaining ground and multiplying.

NASA, you are not alone.

Copyright © 2003 by Jeff K. Brunello

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