Commentary: NASA May Take a Licking, But it Keeps on Ticking

Jul. 08, 2004
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

With the possible exception of the Postal Service, NASA seems to garner top honors as everyones favorite, federal fall guy.

Among space aficionados, the Agency is routinely rebuked for being bloated and lacking in nerve.  A series of high-profile blunders, ranging from Hubbles faulty mirror to the Challenger and Columbia disasters, have convinced many that NASA is short on competence.  At the same time, a lot of non-technical folk regard the Agency as a sinkhole for money that could be applied to social programs, but is instead being frivolously expended on launching motorized skateboards to Mars.  In a case of pop art imitating pop perception, Dan Browns recent thriller, Deception Point, portrays NASA as not only massively wasteful, but politically malevolent.

Numerous people -- including its supporters -- feel that the Agency has wandered off the yellow brick road, and has lost sight of meaningful goals.  I recently attended a space conference at Cape Canaveral; a three-day event that finished up with an awards ceremony for school kids.  Presiding at the ceremony were a handful of Mercury and Apollo astronauts, including Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, and Al Worden.  These guys are not spring chickens anymore, although their minds are keen.  On stage, they poked one another, joking over past missions and who among them was the oldest.  I sat in the audience tingling with a faint sadness: these were the now-frayed heroes of my youth.  Giants going to seed before my eyes.  Where are todays space heroes?  Were the boots of these men so impossibly large?

Its NASAs fault, many say.  The Agency, wed to the crushingly expensive Space Station and still reliant on the inefficient, doubtful Shuttle, needs a shake-up.  Thats been the decade-old mantra intoned by hundreds of editorials in the space press.  Shake-up.

Well, the agitation has begun.  First there was the Columbia Shuttle investigation, which pointed its finger at bureaucratic stumbling as much as at falling foam.  Then, in January, President Bush sharply delineated a new objective for NASA: return to the moon, and send humans on to Mars.  Last week, the Presidents Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy added its own fillip: streamline the organization chart, focus on missions rather than projects, and involve the private sector in a far larger share of the work.  The obvious appeal of this last point was underscored on June 21, when Scaled Composites, a privately funded aeronautics firm, lofted a rocket plane to a height of 100 km, the near neighborhood of space.  They did this for a fraction of the cost of a NASA launch.

The suggested changes are practical and, importantly, politically palatable.  Theyre a well-reasoned response, framed in accord with contemporary practice.  Today, when an organization suffers a dramatic setback, the most common reaction is to first indict, and then to reorganize.  (Neither seems to have been considered when Britains Royal Geographic Society sent Robert Scott on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1911.  Times change.)  The shake-up of NASA will undoubtedly prove beneficial in the long run.

But while Im convinced that an organizational shuffle might do the Agency some good, I also recognize that Americans are notoriously tough on their government.  NASA (and were talking about the space and astronomy work here: few citizens seem to be aware of the Agencys efforts on behalf of aviation) may be easy to criticize, but its accomplishments surpass any other space program you care to name.  Of course it beat the Soviets to the moon, but even in contemporary times, NASA has booked success when others were racking up failure.

The Soviets put some landers on Venus, but their probes only managed to take a few photos before expiring of heat exhaustion.  NASA hardware, on the other hand, orbited that world for years, and mapped nearly the entire surface with radar.  The Red Planet -- everyones favorite solar system target -- is an elephant graveyard for spacecraft.  The Soviets tried 16 times to reach Mars.  Their probes succeeded twice (and one of those successes only operated for 20 seconds).  NASAs score is 12 wins in 18 tries.  Only NASA has sent spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and a handful of asteroids.  Those are uncontested triumphs.

NASA also put together the most ambitious SETI experiment of its time.  It was ended early in its observing phase, not because of Agency failings or lack of interest, but because of Congressional action.

True, the space program has killed 17 U.S. astronauts.  But is there anyone who would deny that exploration is dangerous?  In the 18th and 19th centuries, European explorers who sailed into the unknown waters of northern Canada frequently disappeared -- forever.  NASAs safety record is incomparably better, and nobody would argue that Canada is a more treacherous place than space.  Just last year, 21 Brazilian workers were killed in a missile explosion.  In 1960, the Soviets wiped out more than 100 people who were attempting to launch a military rocket.  That disaster alone should put the Agencys failings in perspective.

NASAs current budget is $15 billion.  That may sound like a lot, but there are people whose personal worth is greater.  The expected outlays for the federal Department of Health and Human Services this year will be $543 billion.  The Senate just passed a 2005 funding bill for the Pentagon that totals $416 billion.  NASAs neither expensive, nor a significant tap on social programs.

Our space agency may have gotten a needs to improve on its latest report card.  But Im reluctant to pile on with the critics.  Theres a NASA T-shirt in my closet, and frankly, I still wear it with pride.