NASA at a turning point
NASA at a turning point
Atlantis, the last mission of the space shuttle program, touched down Thursday. Even before she becomes a permanent museum display, it is imperative that we recommit to the U.S. role as the leader in human space flight.
Just 50 years ago, a young politician had the vision and courage to challenge our nation to aspire to a great adventure. President John F. Kennedy knew that the benefit was not landing men on the moon, but what it would take to get there â€” the technology, the initiative and the will to do it. In two extraordinary speeches, Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon in nine years, spelling out the resources and commitment it would take, then explaining that space exploration was a scientific and national security priority â€” whose benefits to Americans, and all humanity, transcended mere tangible terms.
However, last year President Barack Obama shifted NASA policy away from human spaceflight. His budget cancelled the next-generation Constellation human flight system rather than modifying any deficiencies â€” wasting a $9 billiontaxpayer investment.
Instead, NASA was directed to pursue a riskier course, diverting billions of dollars to a group of companies â€“ most devoid of experience in manned space vehicles â€“ to take over operations to low-earth orbit and the transport of astronauts to the International Space Station. The goal was to generate a private marketplace to support the cost of these manned missions.
Meanwhile, NASAâ€™s plan for deep space exploration, requiring development of new heavy lift rockets and crew vehicles, leaves them without a specific destination and timetable. Really, without a mission.
We donâ€™t believe that a private market capable of supporting a low-earth orbit system, independent of government, exists in the near-term. If it did, it wouldnâ€™t need government support.
Space exploration is likely to continue to be a government-sponsored mission for the foreseeable future â€” if the U.S. is to retain its preeminence in space. This investment is vital to national security and our ability to remain competitive in science, engineering and technology. China, Russia, India and Japan continue to pursue their human space programs at breakneck speeds, and are likely to surpass us if we stop.
NASA has been subjected to the whims of changing budget and policy priorities for several decades, fostering bureaucratic inefficiency in an organization that had prided itself on original thinking and team-driven, can-do attitude. With last yearâ€™s NASA Authorization law, Congress placed a roadblock in front of much of the administrationâ€™s plan. But even if we had a clear direction, we will be reliant on the Russians for transportation to space for a number of years â€“ at a cost of more than $60 million per seat.
We are at the crossroads. The direction we choose will affect not only foreign perceptions of the U.S., but our economy and national security.
In coming weeks we, with others committed to the HSF program, will offer a more detailed plan to return to flight. Not as passengers on Russian rockets, but as explorers in U.S.-made vehicles able to blaze new trails in the star-filled sky.
By establishing a long-term strategy, with specific policies, led and endorsed by Congress, we can again make NASA and the human space program credible and beneficial. To this end, we must:
â€¢ Spell out a coherent HSF mission, goal and timeline for the next 20 years. Manned missions to the Moon, and then Mars, should be part of this timeline
â€¢ Return to the earlier NASA model of success: Adopt best practices to reform contracting, foster better communication between centers, eliminate activities not essential for space exploration and clear away bureaucracy.
â€¢ Assess the near-term potential and costs for commercial space companies to support both cargo and manned LEO missions to better understand the potential investment required by private investors, and the degree it may free NASA resources to focus on the deep-space mission
â€¢ Make a quick decision on a heavy launch system and the necessary related technologies;
In their new homes, Atlantis and her sister orbiters are likely to inspire little in the next generation of Americans if there is nothing for our children to aspire to. Let us hope that Atlantasâ€™ return to Earth will be the harbinger of a new era of U.S. human space flight and American exceptionalism.
Col. Walter Cunningham (USMCR Ret.) served as the NASA lunar module pilot for Apollo 7. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) is the former ranking member for the House Science Committee, Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. He represents the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.