The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) turned fifty last year, and the space agency is both reflecting on the triumphs of the past five decades and navigating the difficult process of mapping a way forward in a climate of tight budgets and changing technologies.
“NASA is having a mid-life crisis,” said CCST Council Chair Charles Kennel, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “What should it do after it retires the shuttle? Can it, should it, recreate the glories of its youth? Or should it mature into a wise enabler of technological and institutional leadership?”
Kennel, along with CCST Council member Wanda Austin, served on the NASA’s Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. The Committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, was tasked with analyzing the current state of U.S. human spaceflight and presenting the President with alternatives, released its report in September.
“Our core conclusion was that, while the current budget can lay the groundwork for manned missions beyond earth orbit, the present program or any other that aspires to send humans beyond earth’s orbit cannot be accomplished in the next decade,” said Kennel. “To conduct a meaningful human spaceflight program, we would need to spend an additional $3 billion a year.”
The reason for space exploration, according to the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) is to serve national scientific, security and economic interests. The committee noted that there are now alternatives to accomplishing these goals, with space offering more opportunities for international collaboration than ever before. Other important changes include the rise of private companies with the resources and know-how to seriously contemplate space missions, such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has secured a contract to provide supplies for the International Space Station next year.
The committee suggested a flexible approach to moving forward, keeping the Space Station active beyond its currently planned termination in 2015. Kennel believes also in the importance of leadership and maintaining effective support of programs to understand our own world as well as others.
“Leadership in using Earth-observing satellites to diagnose climate change will be as or more important than human space flight in fostering a fundamental belief among nations in America’s benevolent purpose,” said Kennel. The committee’s assertion that NASA’s plan to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 with currently projected funding levels is unrealistic met with mixed reactions in Congress. However, the committee stressed that there is much NASA can still accomplish.
“NASA is at a critical juncture,” said Kennel. “It’s important to consider how we move forward carefully. At its best, NASA exemplifies the best of America; our optimism, our curiosity, our ingenuity, our courage. It communicates positive values to the American public and to the world at large. It leads young people to the study of science and engineering. We explore space because human space flight connects with the global public, and NASA’s leadership in space promotes American leadership in the world.”