Space exploration begins at home

Despite Discovery's successful landing this morning —— and despite brilliant recent successes with the Mars rover and comet impact missions —— the prevalent mood at NASA headquarters this morning may well be frustration. It's as if a vaudeville acrobat were to risk his life to perform amazing feats and receive only a mild patter of applause. According to Google News, English—language newspapers in the past month published fewer articles in the shuttle flight than on terrorism, cancer, the Supreme Court, or even the stock market. Why has the public lost interest in boldly going where no one has gone before?  

It wasn't always this way. NASA was created, as an aftermath of our humiliation by Sputnik, for the purpose of showing the world that the U.S. was as technically competent as the USSR. During the 1960's, its primary mission was to fulfill the pledge of an assassinated president that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by 1970. These were political rather than scientific goals but they had the wholehearted support of the public, who was after all footing the bill. And in response, NASA took bold risks and triumphed. Everyone in the world with access to TV was eagerly watching when a NASA astronaut became the first human being to set foot on the moon.

During the '70s and '80s, the goals were mainly technical —— to develop a reusable spacecraft, to find out whether there was life on Mars, and to get a close look at every planet in the solar system. (There also were, and still are, possible military considerations that are beyond the scope of this article.)  These technical objectives were somewhat less popular, but the public was interested if not wildly enthusiastic. But by 1990, NASA was suffering from the embarrassment of success. It had achieved all of these objectives and there seemed to be nothing more that the public very much wanted it to do. So NASA started to invent goals for itself. Its official mission is now 'to advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe' and 'to advance human exploration, use, and development of space.'

These are admirable goals but they have only tepid public support. The Space Station is certainly a romantic idea but it doesn't seem to have any urgent purpose except keeping the space program alive. The Human Exploration Initiative—putting a base on the moon and sending men to Mars—is a glamorous vision and would certainly require enough effort and money to keep NASA busily expanding for a long time. And it certainly has the support of the "Mars or bust" enthusiasts in the Planetary Society. But does the public really think these are the most urgent needs of the country for the next fifty years? Unfortunately not. The public is frankly jaded; if you've seen one spacewalk, you've seen 'em all. Even scientists are not universally supportive of NASA's current goals. Ask a physicist what he wants for Christmas and he'll promptly say "a supercollider'—not a Mars base.

This lack of enthusiasm has caused NASA to bend to every breeze of public or political opinion. A case in point is the microgravity program, which had the original goal of learning more about the effect of gravity on physical and biological processes, a goal that NASA has made considerable progress in achieving. But in order to appease business—minded congressmen, NASA reluctantly added the objective of commercial manufacture in space, a far—fetched concept that, after billions of dollars of research and space missions, is still questionable. This is one of many cases in which NASA has proved itself to have changed (in the words of JPL's William Carroll) 'from an organization with a mission into an organization whose mission is survival.'

What should NASA's mission be? Let's turn the question around and ask not what the country can do for NASA but what NASA can do for the country. Oddly enough, the public seems to be more mature than its scientists; their primary NASA—related concern seems to be preserving the environment. Nowadays, it's words like 'ozone hole', 'global warming', and 'extinct species'  that get on magazine covers and bring crowds to protest marches. And NASA can do a good deal about these problems and has in fact been a major source of data for proving that they exist. But unfortunately for the empire—builders at NASA Headquarters, such activities are too modest and mundane. They can be done by Earth satellites and do not require the development of expensive new space craft. In short, they are too pedestrian for NASA's glorious vision of itself.

Nonetheless, public environmental concerns have generated a new goal for NASA from within its own ranks. A NASA project manager (who discreetly prefers anonymity) has proposed the integration of NASA into an overall national (and world) objective of:

'...a clean, healthy, life—sustaining Earth, by identifying the barriers to achieving that safe world and by implementing a comprehensive plan to overcome the problems.... For the space program, it would mean that searching out an understanding of our planet and of planetary processes will be justified by a goal that is critical to the survival of all mankind.'

For laymen like us, such a goal has the common—sense obviousness of genius. For NASA top brass, however, it would have the disqualification of forcing NASA to abandon the solo prima donna role it is accustomed to and to become part of a team, sharing tasks (and the limelight) with the Departments of Commerce and the Interior and with other national and international agencies.

Under this plan, NASA's first priorities would be (a) extensive satellite mapping of all aspects of our planet, including distribution of life forms, climate, and pollution, and (b) a systematic monitoring for asteroids and other extraterrestrial dangers.  A parallel and perhaps integrated effort would be global surveillance to detect military and terrorist activities. Unmanned planetary exploration would have priority only to the extent that it substantially contributed to a better understanding of present and future conditions on Earth. Other areas, such as astronomy and microgravity research, would have their subsidiary place but only to the extent that time, budget, and public interest permit.

Once Project Earth is well in hand and we have confidence in our ability to maintain safety and good housekeeping on our own planet, we can then think about sending men to the other planets and the stars. Eventually, after we have done all that we can to keep Earth habitable, we may have to think about finding another home somewhere in space. But by then, in the process of learning how to keep our present home livable, we should have developed a more advanced technology for performing such missions without impoverishing ourselves.

Like charity, space exploration begins at home———but should not end there.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with business and everyday life. His scientific credentials may be viewed here.

Despite Discovery's successful landing this morning —— and despite brilliant recent successes with the Mars rover and comet impact missions —— the prevalent mood at NASA headquarters this morning may well be frustration. It's as if a vaudeville acrobat were to risk his life to perform amazing feats and receive only a mild patter of applause. According to Google News, English—language newspapers in the past month published fewer articles in the shuttle flight than on terrorism, cancer, the Supreme Court, or even the stock market. Why has the public lost interest in boldly going where no one has gone before?  

It wasn't always this way. NASA was created, as an aftermath of our humiliation by Sputnik, for the purpose of showing the world that the U.S. was as technically competent as the USSR. During the 1960's, its primary mission was to fulfill the pledge of an assassinated president that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by 1970. These were political rather than scientific goals but they had the wholehearted support of the public, who was after all footing the bill. And in response, NASA took bold risks and triumphed. Everyone in the world with access to TV was eagerly watching when a NASA astronaut became the first human being to set foot on the moon.

During the '70s and '80s, the goals were mainly technical —— to develop a reusable spacecraft, to find out whether there was life on Mars, and to get a close look at every planet in the solar system. (There also were, and still are, possible military considerations that are beyond the scope of this article.)  These technical objectives were somewhat less popular, but the public was interested if not wildly enthusiastic. But by 1990, NASA was suffering from the embarrassment of success. It had achieved all of these objectives and there seemed to be nothing more that the public very much wanted it to do. So NASA started to invent goals for itself. Its official mission is now 'to advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe' and 'to advance human exploration, use, and development of space.'

These are admirable goals but they have only tepid public support. The Space Station is certainly a romantic idea but it doesn't seem to have any urgent purpose except keeping the space program alive. The Human Exploration Initiative—putting a base on the moon and sending men to Mars—is a glamorous vision and would certainly require enough effort and money to keep NASA busily expanding for a long time. And it certainly has the support of the "Mars or bust" enthusiasts in the Planetary Society. But does the public really think these are the most urgent needs of the country for the next fifty years? Unfortunately not. The public is frankly jaded; if you've seen one spacewalk, you've seen 'em all. Even scientists are not universally supportive of NASA's current goals. Ask a physicist what he wants for Christmas and he'll promptly say "a supercollider'—not a Mars base.

This lack of enthusiasm has caused NASA to bend to every breeze of public or political opinion. A case in point is the microgravity program, which had the original goal of learning more about the effect of gravity on physical and biological processes, a goal that NASA has made considerable progress in achieving. But in order to appease business—minded congressmen, NASA reluctantly added the objective of commercial manufacture in space, a far—fetched concept that, after billions of dollars of research and space missions, is still questionable. This is one of many cases in which NASA has proved itself to have changed (in the words of JPL's William Carroll) 'from an organization with a mission into an organization whose mission is survival.'

What should NASA's mission be? Let's turn the question around and ask not what the country can do for NASA but what NASA can do for the country. Oddly enough, the public seems to be more mature than its scientists; their primary NASA—related concern seems to be preserving the environment. Nowadays, it's words like 'ozone hole', 'global warming', and 'extinct species'  that get on magazine covers and bring crowds to protest marches. And NASA can do a good deal about these problems and has in fact been a major source of data for proving that they exist. But unfortunately for the empire—builders at NASA Headquarters, such activities are too modest and mundane. They can be done by Earth satellites and do not require the development of expensive new space craft. In short, they are too pedestrian for NASA's glorious vision of itself.

Nonetheless, public environmental concerns have generated a new goal for NASA from within its own ranks. A NASA project manager (who discreetly prefers anonymity) has proposed the integration of NASA into an overall national (and world) objective of:

'...a clean, healthy, life—sustaining Earth, by identifying the barriers to achieving that safe world and by implementing a comprehensive plan to overcome the problems.... For the space program, it would mean that searching out an understanding of our planet and of planetary processes will be justified by a goal that is critical to the survival of all mankind.'

For laymen like us, such a goal has the common—sense obviousness of genius. For NASA top brass, however, it would have the disqualification of forcing NASA to abandon the solo prima donna role it is accustomed to and to become part of a team, sharing tasks (and the limelight) with the Departments of Commerce and the Interior and with other national and international agencies.

Under this plan, NASA's first priorities would be (a) extensive satellite mapping of all aspects of our planet, including distribution of life forms, climate, and pollution, and (b) a systematic monitoring for asteroids and other extraterrestrial dangers.  A parallel and perhaps integrated effort would be global surveillance to detect military and terrorist activities. Unmanned planetary exploration would have priority only to the extent that it substantially contributed to a better understanding of present and future conditions on Earth. Other areas, such as astronomy and microgravity research, would have their subsidiary place but only to the extent that time, budget, and public interest permit.

Once Project Earth is well in hand and we have confidence in our ability to maintain safety and good housekeeping on our own planet, we can then think about sending men to the other planets and the stars. Eventually, after we have done all that we can to keep Earth habitable, we may have to think about finding another home somewhere in space. But by then, in the process of learning how to keep our present home livable, we should have developed a more advanced technology for performing such missions without impoverishing ourselves.

Like charity, space exploration begins at home———but should not end there.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with business and everyday life. His scientific credentials may be viewed here.