The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) helps keep track of the billions of objects swirling around in outer space. It can predict the path of planets and asteroids with extreme precision and must plan years in advance to launch probes within short time windows so they will reach their final destination. Despite these impressive technical accomplishments, NASA appears unable to keep track of its own money.
In a disturbing revelation, NASA’s inspector general’s office discovered last month that the agency had been bilked, robbed and ripped off multiple times in the last year by contractors and employees. The amount of money involved has not been disclosed, but the individual examples of fraud show how serious the lapse of oversight has been. One NASA contract worker billed the Hubble Space Telescope Program for $27,000 of collect phone calls from prison inmates, according to The New York Times. In another shocking case, three students who worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston stole a safe full of moon rocks. They were caught when they later tried to unload the illicit geology on the miniscule market for authentic lunar objects.
Many of the acknowledged cases of fraud concerned spare parts for NASA airplanes, which could have led to safety problems if they had not been caught. Moreover, such problems erode the public’s trust in a part of the government that has overseen some of the most inspirational feats of engineering and triumphs of science in the past half century. Americans are losing their sense of wonder about outer space, which bodes poorly for NASA and the future of American space exploration.
In an effort to reach out to today’s students, NASA has allowed undergraduates to fly along on the KC-135 microgravity research airplane, otherwise known as the “Vomit Comet.” (Weightlessness is notorious for inducing vomiting.) The students enter a competitive process to design experiments that need to be done in a weightless environment. The program is meant to drum up interest for the agency’s research among young people born after the space shuttle started flying in the early 1980s. NASA also announced this September the design it has chosen for the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The instrument, called the Next Generation Space Telescope, will likely be located at a special point in space nearly a million miles from earth where the gravity of the earth and the sun counteract each other to keep the telescope in stable position. Such a location has also been suggested as a manned station in space that could be used in future expeditions throughout the solar system.
These plans are laudable, but they will never bring NASA back to the special place it held in the American consciousness during the moon race in the 1960s. Although risky and expensive, sending astronauts to the moon and beyond stokes some primal part of human curiosity. Thus, we hope that NASA will send astronauts to Mars within our lifetime, so we may vicariously experience the incomparable thrill of discovery. Evidence has shown that the red planet has water and may have once had oceans. If more than a handful of astronauts are sent, there is the possibility of having a small, self-contained human community on Mars. Then, one day, a child will be born on the red planet—and there will be someone in the universe whom you can rightfully call a Martian.