If all goes as planned, another unmanned cargo mission will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Tuesday to deliver scientific equipment, materials for research on fruit flies and flatworms, and an IMAX camera to the International Space Station. But if ferrying supplies sounds more like a job for UPS than NASA, it’s a reminder of how aimless the space-exploration agency has become, and how badly it needs a more clearly defined and inspiring mission for the 21st century.
The space station, which has been a temporary home to astronauts and cosmonauts for 14 years, is certainly a testament to international collaboration in space exploration, particularly at a time when China, India, and the European Space Agency are launching impressive programs of their own.
But the space station is also a costly symbol of how far the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has drifted from the go-go days of the Apollo program. US taxpayers have paid an estimated $75 billion for the ISS since 1994, according to a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, and the station will need billions more to function over the next decade. Supporting human residents at the space station makes it far more expensive, without necessarily leading to more or better scientific research.
In order to remain on the cutting edge, NASA should rethink further spending on expensive manned projects like ISS, embark on a focused plan to retool its mission, and reform its budget to eliminate wasteful projects like the useless $350 million steel tower recently mothballed in Alabama. In short, the agency needs to get its swagger back, and it needs to re-engage the help of Congress and the White House to do so.
Indeed, last year’s most inspiring space exploits did not involve the United States at all: India’s Mangalyaan probe reached Mars in September, and in November the world watched in awe as the ESA’s unmanned Rosetta mission landed a robotic probe on a speeding comet 300 million miles away. Although communication with Philae was lost shortly after landing, scientists hold out hope that it will reawaken and resume streaming data.
Those probes did valuable scientific research, and their popularity proved that expensive manned flights aren’t the only way to grab the public’s attention. So it is sobering to realize that the most inspiring US successes in space came decades ago, during the Cold War era. Unfortunately, President Obama has broken from that tradition. In 2010, he cancelled a program to return astronauts to the Moon — and has offered no clear mission for NASA in its place.
A clearly stated national goal will also have a significant side benefit: spurring interest in science and technology education. Making the case for an economic return on investment in science can be difficult, but space exploration drives innovative thought and pushes the government and industry to develop new technologies, many of which ultimately find their way into the consumer market, according to a comprehensive study of the US space program by the National Research Council. And continued US leadership in space is a useful demonstration of soft power, the NRC found. NASA should keep its eyes on the horizon, set clear goals, and make the difficult decisions needed to restore luster to American space exploration.