NASA's Unhappy Birthday

NASA was 45 years old last Wednesday.

The space agency was chartered on Oct. 1, 1958, almost a year to the day after the nation was shocked by the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, in response to that event. We had believed that we were technologically superior to the communists, and being beaten into space (a field closely aligned with military prowess and the new guided missiles that could rain death and destruction on our cities with no defense) woke us to the urgent need to regain the lead.

I've written before about how that response both began our space age, and in a very real sense, planted the seeds for its ultimate decline as well.

For people, birthdays are usually something to celebrate. For government agencies, it can often be more appropriate to commemorate such anniversaries by reflection on their purpose, particularly when they may be getting long in the tooth. Here is NASA's own rosy assessment:

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has accomplished many great scientific and technological feats. NASA technology has been adapted for many nonaerospace uses by the private sector. At its forty-fifth anniversary, NASA remains a leading force in scientific research and in stimulating public interest in aerospace exploration, as well as science and technology in general. Perhaps more importantly, our exploration of space has taught us to view Earth, ourselves, and the universe in a new way.

While NASA's achievements are indeed many, so are its failures (in the apparent interest of public relations, not mentioned on that particular web page). While space is indeed challenging, there's no excuse for many of the management mistakes that have given us near-sighted telescopes, misguided space probes, the fiery loss of billions of dollars of hardware with its crews, and most tragically, the squandering of billions of dollars, and irreplaceable years, on mismanaged and misbegotten programs that were ostensibly to reduce the cost of space flight, but instead ended up lining the pockets of contractors while delivering, at best, hangar queens.

In light of that, the age of the agency should particularly give us pause when we consider the tragic event at the beginning of this 45th year of its existence, and the urgent calls for reform and change--calls that may, in fact will likely, as in the past, go unheeded.

Let's review the history. Periodically, there have been national commissions set up to either investigate some particularly egregious failure, or to provide new direction to a seemingly rudderless space agency.

In 1986, a citizens commission chaired by former NASA administrator Tom Paine put together a set of recommendations on what the agency should be focused on in the future. Those recommendations included not just doing space and earth science, but reducing the cost of access to orbit and the planets and exploring and settling the solar system. Unfortunately, its release occurred a few months after the Challenger disaster and, overshadowed by that event, it remained unread by anyone who mattered.

NASA was chastened by the loss of Challenger in 1986, and abandoned the lofty (and unrealistic) goals they had for the shuttle, focusing on finishing the space station (still being designed) and implementing the recommendations of the Rogers Commission Report, satisfied merely to avoid a repeat. In 1987, a new report compiled by Dr. Sally Ride (first American woman in space) was released with much more subdued recommendations than the much more expansive Paine Report.

After an almost 33-year hiatus, the shuttle started flying again in late 1988 (almost exactly 15 years ago) and in 1989, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first Apollo landing, newly-elected President Bush (the current president's father) boldly made a speech on the Washington Mall seemingly calling for a return to the goals of the Paine Report. He declared that we would go "...back to the moon, back to the future, and this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars..."

But NASA had other plans. The agency wanted to continue its focus on low earth orbit, and actually actively lobbied against the initiative on Congressional Hill. In response to a White House request to come up with a plan and a budget, the agency came up with a plan that included every wish list and hobby horse that every center had ever dreamed of, with a sticker price of half a trillion dollars.

The initiative died shortly thereafter (and astronaut Admr. Richard Truly, then NASA administrator, was eventually fired).

Obviously, it was time to get more advice. Ignoring the Paine Report, now gathering dust on shelves, a new commission on the future of NASA was assembled, this time led by noted aerospace industry executive Norm Augustine. The Augustine Report was released with great fanfare in 1990. It was politically unrealistic, calling for a 10 percent increase in NASA's budget every year, which made it yet another non-starter.

Now, in the wake of the CAIB report, NASA is once more confronted with a need to change, something that it has never been able to do in the past, and seems institutionally incapable of doing now. It retains its monopoly on civil space, and its defenders continue to claim that there's no problem--it's just that space is hard. This is certainly a convenient excuse, because it allows them to continue to ask for more money, despite the disastrous track record for the past three decades.

It's often noted that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting to get different results. By that definition, our current space policy continues to be insane.

For humans, with modern nutrition and medicine, age 45 is now considered, at least in the west, to be the prime of life. But for government bureaucracies, it can be an age that's over the hill and down the other side, perhaps deep in their dotage. This is particularly the case when the political circumstances that brought about their creation disappeared years, if not decades ago.

While euthanasia remains a controversial topic for humans, it shouldn't be off the table for an agency that may have lived long past its usefulness. But abandoning a flawed governmental approach need not mean an abandoning of the high frontier. In fact, it may be a necessary first step.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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