Consensus: NASA’s in Trouble. Solutions: Varied


The New York Post, better known for tabloid headlines and scantily clad scants (??) than science policy, has three (count ’em three) op-ed pieces today about what to do with NASA.

All commentators – astronomer Philip Plait and former astronauts Tom Jones and Buzz Aldrin – all agree that the beloved space agency is in trouble. However, the differ somewhat in their prescription.

Jones believes there’s not much wrong with NASA that couldn’t be fixed with sufficient funding:

Once satisfied that our trajectory in space is correct, the President should dedicate the funds to meet those goals. In spending terms, NASA’s annual budget is miniscule: $18.3 billion next year, just one half of one percent of the $3.6 trillion federal outlay. Failing to correct NASA’s chronic budget shortfalls, on the other hand, will cede U.S. leadership in space even as we celebrate Apollo’s landmark achievements.

Here’s how the President can ensure America will continue to lead in space: Restore funding to keep Orion and Ares on track. Make the science and technology investments that will keep the space station’s laboratories humming. Send our explorers not just to the moon, but far beyond. Orion astronauts can explore nearby asteroids, where they will collect samples from the dawn of the solar system, tap valuable space resources, gain the engineering skills to guard our planet against a cosmic impact, and inspire us with views of a breathtakingly distant Earth, five million miles away.

Our nation needs a new generation of scientists and engineers. We should turn our young people loose to explore the moon, the asteroids and the solar system. This same world-beating corps of explorers will also conquer terrestrial challenges in energy, defense, environmental protection and high-tech competition.

Plait echoes those sentiments in his op-ed piece:

NASA needs a modern Apollo. As a nation, we need it. In the late 1960s, our culture and our global reputation were crumbling. But for a few shining years we were the envy of the planet. And rightly so. We went to the Moon. NASA’s manned and unmanned programs have done incredible things since then, extending our knowledge of the solar system and the Universe to places we couldn’t fathom just decades ago. But can we take that next giant leap?

NASA is about exploration, and about science. Both of these need to push at the boundaries, or else they’ll stagnate and die.

I want NASA to push against the frontiers again. We should give NASA more money, not starve it of what little it gets now.

In a real sense NASA costs us very little, but it has the potential to give us the stars. We just need the will to reach out for them.

Meanwhile, Aldrin focuses on the 16-nation space station which he does not see as sufficiently international:

With the support and agreement of our current partners, by welcoming nations with space ambitions such as China, India and Brazil to the station, we enhance our own statue, not weaken it. We should take full advantage of China’s manned space program to carry American astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. We currently purchase flights aboard the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, and with our expanded partnerships we would also have opportunities to partner with China for use of its Shenzhou for this same purpose. We should also welcome India’s new fledgling manned space program to the new global commons that the space station can represent for the world.

Through partnering, the resources of many nations will lower the cost of access to space while forging stronger bonds that we can build upon to journey to more distant destinations in space: the moon and Mars beyond. A true low Earth orbit outpost that brings the strengths and accomplishments of each partner into developing research capabilities, logistics vehicles, and launch support to sustain the station well beyond current plans to end its life by 2016. With global use, the station can continue to serve mankind — and Americans — for many years to come, reaping the rewards from the billions we have invested in its use.

But we must start in Earth orbit. It is time we made the International Space Station truly International.

I find myself in disagreement with most of this sentiment. My sources tell me that Ares is deeply flawed; hence, the need for the Augustine review. I do agree that whatever Obama decides to do, he should fund it properly.

I also can’t see why it makes sense to make ISS needlessly more complicated by bringing in additional countries. The facility is almost complete after a quarter century and $100 billion. I would prefer the partners focus on getting as much out of it as possible without bringing in a whole host of additional political, technological, managerial and cultural complications.