Making a NASA Themselves

A moon base won’t save an ailing agency

NASA recently held a poll to pick a name for the newest module in the International Space Station, hoping to build public excitement for its imminent completion. But instead of “Legacy,” “Earthrise,” or other sterile, optimistic names suggested by NASA, the winning name was “Colbert.” Television personality Stephen Colbert had encouraged his fans to write in his last name, even though, as he joked, “Houston may have a problem with it.”

For Colbert, NASA was an easy target for a prank. It’s hard to imagine a government agency more past its prime. Nearly every major manned program undergone by NASA since the early 1970s has run over budget and been delayed. Now, with the shuttle program ending, NASA will likely have to rely on Russian rockets soon (as early as 2011) just to get American astronauts to the space station.

Why has NASA had such a dismal track record since the Apollo program? Reduced funding tells part of the story. The space program received around $40 billion a year (adjusted for inflation) in the mid-1960s, which was at least four percent of the federal budget. But, back then, Americans also had a much greater tolerance for risk: The first successful Apollo mission was launched just eight months after the three astronauts in Apollo 1 died during testing. NASA’s tighter leash today means that riskier programs like nuclear-powered spacecraft don’t make it off the drawing board. Ultimately, NASA’s 1960s miracles were enabled by widespread public and congressional support fueled by the Cold War race to the moon.

That’s why the primary thrust of the current Constellation program, which plans to build a permanent settlement on the moon as a stepping stone to Mars, seemed good on the surface. Its ambition rivals the Apollo program, and its announcement came on the heels of China’s first manned rocket launch, suggesting a new space race was underway. Constellation also seems to have the support of Congress, which this year proposed increasing funding for the program (at the expense of NASA’s science budget) in order to return to the moon by 2020.

However, a new struggle against communism won’t save NASA. The red menace is hardly what it was, and, besides, we already won the race to the moon 40 years ago. Going back proves nothing, and there may be little to no scientific value to a permanent moon settlement. Mars is hardly realistic, because the lengthy cruise to get there would severely disfigure our astronauts. Prolonged habitation in zero-gravity environments might permanently cost astronauts a quarter of their skeleton due to osteoporosis. While many Americans view China’s space program as a threat, there is hardly enough political will necessary to fund such an ambitious proposal on a rapid timescale. The Orion capsules that will replace the space shuttle have already been delayed to 2015. It’s only a matter of time before waning interest spurs Congress to push the timeline back even further. Although President Obama has voiced support for the moon mission as of now, he already proposed delaying Constellation to pay for science education during his campaign.

Perhaps diverting funds from Constellation into unmanned missions makes more sense, as robotic exploration accounts for most of the important science being done by NASA today. The conventional counterargument asserts that the manned space program justifies its expense and its danger because it attracts the most attention, not just to NASA, but to science in general. But, even if that’s true, NASA severely underestimates the appeal of robots. Tiny Mars rovers launched five years ago for nearly half the cost of a single shuttle mission continue to receive nearly constant coverage, even for minor milestones.

Our government also doesn’t understand the reason that people follow manned spaceflight. Yes, there’s a childish glee in imagining Americans sifting Martian soil through their gloved fingertips. But people gravitate back to the manned space program because they see it as mankind’s cosmic destiny, not a way of proving American dominance here on Earth. Human space exploration has enormous potential to unite the people of the world in a project of mutual benefit.

In fact, it’s likely that international cooperation to extend humanity’s reach past Low Earth Orbit would help bring about peace here at home, especially given that the major space players would probably be our erstwhile enemies China and Russia. The International Space Station shows that international cooperation is possible, at least on a small scale. Rather than try to leapfrog so far past China that they’ll never catch us, we should instead co-opt them into our plans for planetary exploration and let them help cover costs. It’s not too much of a stretch to hope that cooperation on space issues could lead to further cooperation on energy and climate issues as well.

NASA stated in the rules for its poll that the agency would reserve the right to pick the final name for the new module. Rumors suggest NASA may still use the name Colbert for a mission-critical component—the toilet. If nothing else, they’ve got a sense of humor.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.