NASA Needs a Rebirth

Yesterday marked the long-awaited liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Media outlets paraded the advent of commercial spaceflight, surely an exciting event, but yesterday’s historic launch also may come to represent the day the commodification of outer space started to eclipse the grander mission the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has traditionally held of exploring space for the benefit of humanity. Such a possibility is saddening, as the value of space exploration beyond tours to the outer reaches of our atmosphere is indeed vast, and mankind is the worse off for ignoring it.

Last fall, NASA reported that its spacecraft Cassini had completed its mission flying around Saturn’s moon Enceladus and taking photos. The moon was a point of curiosity due to its mysterious jets of salty water vapor and ice. The ocean-like salty water had tremendous implications, as Nicolas Altibelli, the European Space Agency’s lead scientist for Cassini, explained that this showed that life- supporting conditions on ice moons and planets were possible. Reports like these often take us far beyond the everyday realms of Earth. We are forced to ask questions of philosophy and existence: Where did life come from? Where could it be going? Are we alone?

However, these research missions and the questions that follow them often do not produce profits, while representing enormous risk. The privatization of space travel has made extraterrestrial tours likely, but companies like SpaceX will try to minimize costs while maximizing revenue. With the excitement surrounding commercial spaceflight, the exploration of space for the purpose of finding out more about our universe may become a secondary concern, both politically and culturally.

In 2010, President Obama announced that he would be canceling the Constellation spaceflight program—the replacement for NASA’s storied space shuttles—along with plans for manned spaceflight to the moon. Under this new initiative, the first possibility of manned spaceflight to an extraterrestrial body would be an orbit around Mars sometime in the 2030s. Though the use of commercial vehicles is not an entirely negative development, as NASA’s bureaucracy often needlessly increases costs, the significant reduction of NASA’s influence caused by the cancellation of the Constellation program and the lunar missions is. President Obama needs to increase NASA’s budget as well as state a more definite goal to reach either the Moon again or Mars in less than twenty years.

Due to Congressional budget cuts, NASA’s budget is steadily declining, to the detriment of everyone living on our planet. An increase in NASA’s budget, no matter how ambitious, would be pennies relative to other significant governmental spending. NASA’s budget for 2011 was a bit under $20 billion, but put that number in context: the United States spent over $20 billion for air-conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011. While the return on investment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been at best questionable, the engineering ingenuity required to send vehicles and humans to space is so vast that NASA’s research has spawned countless masterpieces of engineering that are now commonplace. Though NASA should not function as a government-sponsored research and development center for useful inventions, the positive externalities of NASA’s research have been so monumental that they are hard to ignore.

Clearly, something can be done to increase NASA’s yearly budget, but public support (or lack thereof) is the problem. NASA’s yearly budget has been decreasing as a proportion of the federal budget every year since 1965, but people do not realize, or care. In a paper published in Space Policy, Roger Launius, the curator of planetary exploration programs at the Smithsonian Institute, found that in 1997 the “average estimate of NASA’s share of the federal budget by those polled was 20 percent. If this were true, NASA’s budget in 1997 would have been $328 billion.” The vast ignorance that surrounds NASA’s budget is a significant reason it has been shrinking.

President Obama needs to specify a mission to either the Moon or Mars and set a firm deadline à la John F. Kennedy ’40. This would create a target for NASA to work towards and a tangible goal that the American public can easily understand. The money that would be needed to expand NASA to allow manned flights to the Moon and Mars is there, but public support to open the Congressional purse is not. Increased educational outreach efforts would help Americans understand how important NASA continues to be, and if persuasive enough, might let them be more generous with their money. Most of all, we need to dream again. After all, $30 or $40 billion a year for an institution that transports human beings beyond the confines of our rock is anything but expensive.

Whan Lee ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, will live in Kirkland House.