NASA, we have a problem: why America is lost in space

Does the US suffer from its desire to go it alone in space? NASA

In its newly released budget request to Congress, the Obama Administration is seeking to reduce NASA’s funding by US$59m to US$17.7 billion – a reduction of just 0.03%, not that you would know that from the furore.

More tellingly, some important realignments of NASA’s spending priorities have been proposed.

In essence, funding is being cut for two proposed robotic missions to Mars which were being co-developed with planetary scientists from Europe. The money saved from these cuts will be used to pay for regeneration of the manned space program and completion of the long-delayed, and way-over-budget James Webb Space Telescope.

Predictably, there have been howls of protest from those constituencies whose favourite projects face the axe and a polite silence from those whose projects continue to attract support.

We need to recall that, in the US system, all the President can do is request funds. It’s now up to Congress to accept or modify the President’s requests. In this process, sectional interests (including members of Congress whose constituents fear for their jobs because of the proposed cuts) can be expected to lobby furiously for these old jobs to be protected across the US.

Some wiser heads may see beyond preservation of the status quo and seek to restore NASA as an institution which innovates, leads and inspires. Sadly, these elected representatives are likely to be in a minority.

Dr Case

The NASA budget tells us three things about America’s approach to space:

  1. The rhetoric of collaboration in the US national space policy notwithstanding, the US actually struggles to collaborate in space matters and values collaboration less than going alone.

  2. The US regards space as an environment over which it seeks to maintain its supreme reign. This is best demonstrated by having the best and brightest manned space program on Earth.

  3. This supremacy in space is the overriding political and strategic objective of the Obama administration, with astronomy and planetary science running a poor second.

Some commentators have already been fast to criticise the cuts, suggesting they are minimal relative to the buckets of money lavished on the US defence establishment (which include classified and unclassified space programs).

Others have raised the multiplier argument pointing out that for every dollar invested in NASA, many other dollars (some say seven, some say up to 23) are returned to the economy.

These arguments miss the point. For all the good that NASA may have done in the past, today it’s an agency that can’t explain in simple, clear and compelling terms, what it does, what it seeks to do and why.

NASA needs to explain to politicians and voters how its aims and aspirations relate to the life of the US as a nation and to each of its citizens. If it can’t, it will remain a relic of the Cold War, trying to re-discover its mojo through projects and programs that have little relevance to science, some relevance to complex engineering and considerable relevance to America’s view of itself as the traditional owner of space.

Is NASA drifting aimlessly toward irrelevance? MGM

Such ambitions expose the agency to a slow and painful death.

If NASA is to restore its self-respect and, eventually, the faith of others in the Agency as an organisation which stretches boundaries and empowers innovators, it needs to make some serious changes.

For a start, NASA needs to embrace collaboration with China and other spacefaring nations – something that’s been limited thus far.

The agency also needs to approach Congress and the Obama Administration about the negative impacts on US science, technology and innovation created by the extremely strict laws which seek to prevent US space technologies from being available to others.

These laws stifle innovation and put a real brake on US industries and companies.

It’s also important for NASA to re-educate the American people about the its role in the modern era. The notion of the US’s supremacy as a nation-state – which was at the heart of NASA’s funding and success in the Cold War – is becoming unimportant, if not irrelevant. Such a view now serves to hamper not just NASA but the US as a whole.

The big challenges of the 20th century were technological, within the structure of a relatively stable nation states system. The big challenges of the 21st century relate to NASA’s complexity as an organisation and the changing structure of international space efforts.

In this there is a huge role for NASA, should it have the courage to take such a vision to the president, the Congress and the US taxpayer.