Confused NASA’s Role Lost In Space

The recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars was a great success. But it ought to be a bittersweet one, too. Rather than giving NASA a new lease on life, the landing underscores a big problem: the world’s premier space agency no longer has any idea why it exists.

This is not a controversial claim. At the same time Curiosity was landing on Mars, NASA was holding an independent investigation into the agency’s strategic direction. One former NASA chief put it this way: “I am utterly confused.”

Does NASA exist to put humans into space? The space shuttle program was cancelled last year and a replacement is probably a decade away – if there will be one at all. The shuttles were mothballed with no alternative in mind.

Is it to develop new technologies? Sending rovers millions of kilometres across space is a very roundabout way to subsidise innovation. Anyway, NASA deserves little credit for the inventions commonly attributed to it – Velcro was actually invented in Switzerland in 1948, Teflon by a New Jersey commercial chemist in 1938.

Is NASA’s job investigating basic science? This is certainly the most plausible purpose. But then why did NASA spend half a century symbolically placing people in capsules in the sky? And the agency’s public support, such as it has any, is based on a romantic notion of humanity touching the stars. Voters prefer astronauts – those demigods with the right stuff.

So the US Congress does not have much desire to fund a never-ending procession of robo-jeeps on Mars taking photos and doing chemistry – no matter how impressive that is. Support for a future rover program, a joint venture with Europe and Russia, disappeared when the US Congress realised it wouldn’t even be delivering samples of Martian soil back to Earth for a decade. Barack Obama’s budget dropped any American support of this ExoMars program in February this year.

America’s thrift is understandable. The US federal budget deficit is likely to be more than $US1 trillion ($954 billion) this year for the fourth consecutive year. Nobody has any real idea of how to pull the deficit back. And parachuting cars onto other planets is the ultimate discretionary spend.

NASA’s lot was not always so dire. In the beginning, the agency and its supporters knew exactly what it was all for: to demonstrate American capitalism was superior to Soviet communism. The space race and the arms race were two sides of the same coin. From Sputnik to Apollo 11, the space program was less about extraterrestrial exploration and more about terrestrial geopolitics.
It has been decades since NASA had that sort of clarity. Every other justification has been added later; awkwardly and uncomfortably welded on to rationalise NASA’s budget requests.

The firmest congressional backers of the future Mars program happen to represent districts with space-related industries. Entire programs – such as the space shuttle – have been the result of dubious claims about protecting manufacturing jobs and supporting local industry.

The space program exists to perpetuate NASA and the politically connected corporations that feed off it, not the other way around.

Hence the claims that NASA’s mission is ”to open human hearts to the Martian frontier” (as one planetary scientist wrote recently) or to “rethink our place in the universe” (in the words of a current NASA manager). No one doubts the impressive achievements of all those space missions. But basing major government programs on “feelings” just isn’t a good use of scarce resources.
Australians might be OK with all this. We get to enjoy the wasteful fruits of a dying superpower without having to pay for it.

Economist Robin Hanson, himself a former NASA researcher, has described the space program as “mostly like the pyramids”. That is, it offers prestige but is showy and expensive and pointless.
But it certainly is a monument. The moon landing will be forever tied to John F. Kennedy. Both Obama and George W. Bush tried to replicate JFK’s legacy by promising to put humans on Mars, and soon. Surely they knew this was fantasy. There is no taste for an exotic and expensive space program in our austere century.

There once was a political reason to be in space. Now, there is not. Politicians need political reasons if they are going to pay for things. That’s how democracy functions and that’s why NASA is lost.

But the private space industry is growing, rapidly. Commercial uses of space flight will be more sustainable than the goodwill of the US Congress.

And robotic missions are much cheaper than manned missions. Putting Curiosity on Mars cost little more than Victoria’s myki ticketing system. The global research and philanthropic community should easily be able to raise that sort of money. (Sound far-fetched? Then perhaps our imagination needs to start on the ground before it can dance among the stars.) They would probably be able to do it cheaper than the bloated, politicised and hopelessly confused NASA anyway.