Obama chooses successful new path for NASA

Credit: Molly Scott/Art Staff Credit: Molly Scott/Art Staff
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On Jan. 14, 2004, President Bush told us we were going back to the moon.

Last week, President Obama confirmed what many people had believed since that winter day: It wasn’t going to happen.

Maybe we were disillusioned by the decades of stagnation in NASA’s manned space program. Maybe it was the perpetual lack of Congressional funding of significant space initiatives since the Apollo program. Whatever the cause, few people actually believed there would be Americans on the moon by 2020. The last six years have borne out this suspicion, and the Constellation program is behind schedule and over budget.

And so now it is over. The Vision for Space Exploration, the grand project to return astronauts to the moon and send them onward to Mars, has been rejected. The space shuttles will stop flying this year, and there is no timeline or project for the next NASA manned space system.

The initial reaction to this announcement was outrage on the part of space enthusiasts. Another NASA program was being scrapped after years of development by myopic politicians trying to win easy votes. Instead of white stars on a blue field flying over the lunar surface, taikonauts would plant a red flag with gold stars. America’s prestige would fall, never to be regained.

Yet what at first appeared short-sighted now seems more persuasive by the day. NASA has never been able to recapture the spirit encompassed by the Apollo program in the 1960s. The manned space program since Nixon has consisted of space shuttles conducting scientific and technical missions in low Earth orbit. The International Space Station has been an enormous investment of time and resources without a clear objective. NASA, and the politicians who oversee it, have shown a complete inability to accomplish meaningful goals in human space exploration for the last 40 years.

Obama’s budget proposal reflects the report of a task force on space exploration. It reflects the reality, rather than the hopes, of NASA’s recent history. While it does end the national manned space program, it redirects this funding to more basic research and development. It provides funding for private space entrepreneurs who will find new ways to send humans into space without all the levels of bureaucracy that plague NASA.

The idea of private corporations leading America’s space exploration conjures images from Moon and other science fiction works, with corrupt executives colonizing the moon for profit or enormous conglomerates fighting over Earth’s natural satellite.

But this is the logical next step in humans’ exploration of the cosmos. Americans do not expect the FAA to operate airlines, and as technology advances, they will have no reason to expect NASA to hold a monopoly on space travel. In this near-future society, NASA’s role will be to regulate the many viable “spacelines.”
Perhaps more importantly, the new budget allows NASA to redirect its focus from manned space programs to robotics and scientific missions. Robotics research is one of the most underappreciated successes of NASA. Through partnerships with research institutions and with its own engineers, the agency has created systems like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which have remained functional after over 24 times their projected mission length.

NASA was created as a response to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik: It is an artifact of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and even in the years before, the agency has struggled to maintain a purpose that lacks its earlier urgency: It is time for NASA to transform from the only source of American space exploration into a guiding influence for future research. The United States may have to live with another country’s flag or business’s plaque on the moon, but in the end the country, and the world, will be better for it.