Volume 86 Issue 46 | p. 54 | Insights
Issue Date: November 17, 2008

NASA Celebrates 50 Years

Space agency should focus more on robotic missions, less on human ones
Department: Government & Policy
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NASA
captivated the imaginations of young and old alike when it sent astronauts, including Aldrin (left), to the moon and rovers to Mars.
Credit: NASA
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NASA
captivated the imaginations of young and old alike when it sent astronauts, including Aldrin (left), to the moon and rovers to Mars.
Credit: NASA

WHEN THE National Aeronautics & Space Administration was established in 1958, people likely had little idea that during the next five decades, the new agency would successfully send satellites into orbit, men to the moon, and probes deep into space. After spending many billions of dollars on developing new technology, the agency has done just that, and it continues to explore the universe.

NASA’s plans to push forward with bold space exploration missions, however, have been hampered in recent years by limited funds. Its current goal of setting up a manned lunar outpost before targeting a human mission to Mars is in limbo because of below-projection budget increases. The dearth of funding has raised many questions about NASA’s future, including whether it would be more cost–effective and equally informative to move away from human space exploration and focus on robotic missions. I think it is a strategy well worth considering.

For some, however, such a strategy amounts to blasphemy. After all, not only has NASA’s human exploration program inspired a generation of scientists and engineers, but its work has also led to numerous spin-off products that benefit society. These include water filtration systems, biomedically useful polymers, and environmentally safe lubricants.

NASA came into being at a pivotal time in history. The Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, and fears grew among Americans about our lack of space presence. In part as a response to this launch, the agency was established one year later.

Charged with pioneering space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research, NASA got its biggest challenge a few years later when President John F. Kennedy directed the agency to send an astronaut to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Thus began the Apollo lunar program.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Jr. became the first people to walk on the moon, thereby meeting Kennedy’s challenge. The Apollo program continued for several years, with 10 more astronauts visiting the lunar surface. Americans were hooked on space, and many a youngster aspired to be an astronaut.

As NASA continued to evolve, it moved away from lunar sorties in the 1970s. It entered a new era of human space flight in 1981 when it launched the space shuttle—a new, reusable, winged spacecraft—into Earth’s lower orbit. Americans were again captivated by this giant airplanelike spacecraft.

THE EXCITEMENT of the American space program has been tempered by tragedy, however. On Jan. 27, 1967, during the early days of the Apollo program, three astronauts perished when a fire broke out in the command module they were locked in during a preflight test. Almost 20 years later, on Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. And most recently, on Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry, killing seven more people.

But as space travel became a regular occurrence—there have been more than 120 shuttle flights—NASA’s ability to captivate and inspire seems to have disappeared. In fact, prior to the Challenger explosion, shuttle missions were launched with little to no fanfare.

President George W. Bush created some renewed excitement for human space travel when he rolled out his space exploration plan in 2004. The plan included a directive for NASA to develop new spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, the moon, and eventually Mars. NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin referred to this new plan as “Apollo on steroids.”

To NASA’s dismay, the funding to make this happen never materialized, prompting former NASA official Wesley T. Huntress Jr. to call the new plan “Apollo on food stamps.”

Add to this lack of funding the fact that each shuttle mission costs nearly $500 million, according to NASA, and it becomes easier to understand why some observers question the need to continue sending humans into space. After all, NASA’s robotic missions, which have been ongoing since the agency’s inception and cost much less than human missions, seem to be where the excitement is these days.

Take, for instance, the Mars rovers—Spirit and Opportunity. The pair landed on the martian surface in 2004. The rovers have sent back countless images and data about the red planet. Not to mention the fact that they were designed to roam for three months but have been sending back data for more than four years. The cost for all this is reportedly less than that of two shuttle missions.

Perhaps NASA should take this milestone anniversary to think seriously about its future direction and fully embrace robotic technology to recapture the nation’s imagination.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 

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