Saturday, September 27, 2008

NASA Turns 50, US Has To Hitch A Ride Into Space

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the NASA agency just as the Chinese made their first successful spacewalk and as the U.S. Senate was forced to approve a plan allowing U.S. astronauts to buy seats on Russian spacecraft so we can reach the International Space Station, just as the ISS nears completion.

The achievements of our efforts in science and space exploration are too often viewed with nostalgia for the past rather than vision for the future. NASA - and science in general - has been pushed to the sidelines by recent leadership in Washington, a move which will only serves to hamper the nation's role in cutting edge development across a wide range of scientific research and development and education as well.

Aviation Week had a fine piece attempting to connect the past with the present and future challenges of space science:

The ISS is arguably an engineering triumph for NASA comparable to the Moon landings, in difficulty if not historic impact. Humans have been living on the station continuously for eight years now, operating through an intricately choreographed construction project that has merged hardware from three continents into a functioning outpost more than 200 mi. above Earth's surface.

"But space exploration is still in its infancy, and there is a new generation of engineers and managers coming along at the field centers who have the intelligence, skills and confidence that powered their fathers and grandfathers from Explorer to Apollo to the Hubble, space shuttle and ISS.

Today they are planning an international outpost on the rim of the Moon's Shackleton Crater and a new flagship robotic mission to one of the outer planets. On the aeronautics side of the house, "the first 'A' in NASA," plans and technology are being developed for the next generation of the U.S. air transportation system.

In an election year, the ball isn't in the agency's court. NASA's next half-century - indeed its next year - will be determined by the voters, and the leaders they elect. It's probably a good time to remember John F. Kennedy's statement on picking national challenges "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

I'd expect we can lump this program into all the others the Bush administration has left in a tangled mess, like the current financial meltdown: balance the cost of doing nothing against the costs of the failure of everything.

It's the Bush approach to bumble between failure and over-reaction to problems which have been allowed to fester and grow. When typical agency response botches the job of just getting ice and water to the ravaged Gulf Coast after Katrina, NASA has over the last eight years done remarkably well. Billions have been lost to fraud and waste in military contracts abroad and to domestic programs feebly attempting reconstruction along the Gulf.

What awaits the next president and the next Congress is a sprawling nest of critical mistakes so large and complex it will affect each citizen of this nation and those of countless others.

A recent AIAA Space Conference in San Diego offers some much needed perspective on how the politics of today and the future are linked:

Space has proven to be the silent backbone underpinning our commercial, civil, and military sectors. Three of the top issues in the upcoming election—economic competitiveness, the global war on terror, and the need for increased global climate change monitoring—are all dependent on our technological and operational achievements in space."

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