The National Aeronautics and Space Administration ("NASA") was born in the late 1950s, nine months after the Soviet Union successfully launched the first Sputnik satellite into orbit. Its purpose was primarily one of national prestige and military necessity, and President Eisenhower formed it by pulling together a few government labs and engaging with the Nazi engineers we swiped from Germany after WWII. Project Mercury was inaugurated soon thereafter, which would result in putting Alan Shepard into orbit on Freedom 7 in 1961 because, well, that's what the Soviets were doing.
Now, here were are -- 50 years, over 1,000 satellite launches, and 100+ manned missions later -- with the agency's only launch vehicle for putting people into space on its last flight (the Space Shuttle program will be be shut down when Atlantis lands next week).
So what’s NASA's purpose?
The easy answer is to say it has none and that it's not government's job to explore space, especially in an era of tight budgets. This is not only wrong but stupid and historically inaccurate: Governments have always funded exploration voyages to push the boundaries of human knowledge, going all the way back to the medieval Age of Discovery and the journeys of the Chinese, Roman, and Norse explorers of the ancient world.
Further, these expenditures paid off handsomely, if not necessarily consistently. They were risky and their potential benefits somewhat impossible to predict, which is what made them untenable as private enterprises. Nobody could predict the benefits of retrieving potatoes from the Americas any more than we could have foreseen the uses for Velcro.
But they all had a purpose, and it was most commonly the desire for discovering new wealth (which led to worldly power). Sure, there were secondary merits, from dubbing the heathens Christians or enslaving them, and conducting science, but the searches were driven by the need for resources and gold. To relegate these activities to private enterprise, should it even be interested, is to ensure that we accomplish less with all of our brilliant technology and know-how what guys in knickers did on rickety little sailing ships 500 years ago.
I think NASA got off on the wrong foot. It never really had a purpose, but rather an anti-purpose: To do what the Soviets were doing, only do it better.
Even landing on the Moon was a huge and cool goal, but it was an objective with no stated purpose (other than national prestige and military necessity, as formerly noted). That's why we visited a half-dozen or so times and then gave up. There was no compelling reason to keep going back. We got there first. Check. Done.
President Kennedy's vision for space exploration was heavy on idealism and big words but short on the mercenary, self-interested purposes that drove the exploration of new worlds through all of human history. In this sense, he did NASA a disservice: His vision sounded nice, but it didn’t fuel our governmental, budgetary, or public interest once the race with the Soviets was complete. He didn't articulate a reason to go into space after that, and he missed the pecuniary reality of every other exploration in all of history.
So now what? Here are three thought-starters for NASA:
- Rename it the National Aeronautics Commercial Administration -- Why not give NASA an entirely new, explicit mandate to lead the commercial exploitation of space? I'm not talking selling ads on the sides of rockets but rather partnering with businesses and private investors to pull together the same sort of mercenary journeys that the Europeans put together to unlock the New World and build the planet's trade routes. Set a simple goal: Become a money-maker for the government.
- Dedicate NASA to alternative energy -- We can talk about waves and wind and whatnot until we're blue from the cold of Winter, but everyone knows that the truest and most powerful source of renewable energy is our Sun. The Sun is in outer space last time I checked, and its visible light (and other wavelengths) is very different beyond our atmosphere than it is when refracted closer to the Earth's surface. So why not announce that NASA's next man-on-the-moon-project will be to figure out how to harness the Sun's energy for America’s exclusive enjoyment and profit?
- Find aliens already -- Our government has a department or office to relate to any and every conceivable ethnic interest group, and often funds programs to serve them. It also maintains the State Department to manage relationships with other countries. This is all fine and well when it comes to relating with our fellow humans, but isn't there an argument to be made that America wants to be the first (if not the only) country on the planet to establish diplomatic and development agreements with denizens of another planet? Talk about an incomprehensibly huge goal with an uncertain payoff.
There'd be lots more to the rebranding effort, most notably a creative reinvention of the tactical ways NASA markets itself (or doesn't, really). The fact that there's no astronaut reality show ,or that the reality of outer space exploration has been replaced in popular consciousness with the fantasies of virtual reality, is a sorry, foolish failure. Nobody who has touched the NASA brand knows how to market themselves out of a paper bag. This could be a result of the lack of a clear vision, but it’s also an outcome of communications experts helping flush a great brand down the toilet.
With the shuttle all but mothballed, it's time to look to the future. We can and must afford it as a nation. But only if NASA looks at it with a different pair of eyes.
(Image credit: the Original 7)