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What Should NASA Do to Secure Its Future?

To get the funding the agency desires, space advocates have some explaining to do.
September 23, 2009

Last week the panel charged with reviewing the future of U.S. human spaceflight went before Congress to discuss its summary report (which we covered here).

The Augustine panel took quite a bit of heat from the House Committee on Science and Technology, which was dismayed that the panel had not been more specific in its recommendations. Some chair members were also disgruntled that the panel had provided alternative options to NASA’s current exploration plan even though it did not find any evidence of mismanagement or technical problems.

It’s clear from the panel’s report that NASA needs more money if it is to send humans to other bodies in the solar system–even if the agency uses the commercial sector–and that the Obama administration has some hefty decisions to make on the future of U.S. space exploration in the coming weeks.

The Space Review’s editor and publisher, Jeff Foust, has written a nice article here analyzing the one question that needs to be answered for NASA to receive its desired funding (an additional $3 billion per year): Why should the U.S. have a human spaceflight program at all?

The “real reason why we continue to do civil human spaceflight,” says Foust, is “because we have for nearly 50 years, starting with that incredible surge in the 1960s when we raced the Soviet Union to the Moon and won.”

Foust continues:

If we were to stop doing it, the reasoning goes, we would look weak and lose prestige, regardless of what else we decided to do in space or elsewhere instead of human spaceflight. It’s not an exciting argument to starry-eyed space enthusiasts who dream of going to the Moon and beyond, but it does explain a great many things.

In addition, Foust argues that the benefits of “the frontier”–traveling into the solar system–need to be brought back to the people so that civilians understand the value of space travel.

While Foust says it may be too late in the near term for a compelling argument for human spaceflight to be made to the public so that NASA can get the $3 billion (the administration does have more pressing issues like healthcare to deal with), there is hope for the future, assuming the administration gives NASA just enough to sustain its current program.

He concludes:

If NASA’s human spaceflight program is to survive, and thrive, its supporters would do well to take that message to heart: to better explain to the public, the White House, and Congress how it is aligned with national interests and provides “better value” (another phrase from [NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver’s] speech [at AIAA Space 2009]). To do so may require a shift from the tired old reasons of the past to new ones that put the space agency at the heart of a new mission to open up human spaceflight to a wider range of applications and a greater degree of relevance and importance to all.

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