Recently, Nature posted an article outlining the results of a survey on what steps NASA should take over the 2013-2012 time frame. This is no regular survey. Leading scientists were polled, and they weighed out various proposed missions in light of the likely budget NASA will have. Not only does this survey take the pulse of the scientific community, the results will be a large factor in NASA’s decision-making process for the near-future.
The results? Though there will be minor “economy” missions elsewhere, it looks like robotic missions to Mars will be the focus for the coming ten years… but only if the budget holds together. And manned missions? Those aren’t even mentioned, but I imagine the budget only includes keeping the International Space Station limping along.
The budget… Back in the days when the U.S. was trying to demonstrate technical superiority over rival nations, the government threw money into the space program and had an unmatched focus. This is readily apparent when you consider that in just over nine years from Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbital flight, the U.S. had landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Nine years!
Fast forward 42 years and the U.S. space program has all the same excitement and issues of our Social Security program – everyone wants it, no one wants to pay for it, and who knows what it will look like in the future if it actually makes it that far. On top of that, each administration makes different mandates. What one President funds, the next one cancels.
NASA, in my opinion, is suffering what every government-funded agency suffers: a lack of clear goals and focus, unrealistic funding based more on political maneuvering than reality, fickle and shifting leadership, and a disconnect from some sort of customer base. Contrast this with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and the difference is stark. If asked which company will be around in 20 years, I’d go with Virgin Galactic every time.
Like all problems, there are no easy fixes. But if NASA wants to survive, they need to get off the government’s leash and tap more into the private sector. Only when they can truly chart and fund their own way, will they actually be an agency worth saving.
What do you think?