In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama implored the nation to rise, together, to "our generation's Sputnik moment," referring to the broad challenges presented by a competitive global economy, a faltered domestic economy, and his governments plans for a solution--from increased emphasis on science education to investment in clean energy.
Comparing America's response to these issues to its storied mobilization after the successful launch of Sputnik is apt, and emotionally effective. But it's also poorly timed, as America's space program wallows in an era of unprecedented uncertainty. That there was just one mention of NASA in the 6800 word speech--a quip about how the agency didn't yet exist when Sputnik reached orbit--is telling.
An article in today's New York Times flags a worrying line from a report issued by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, using it to kick off a discussion of a crisis of identity, budget and objective within NASA: "What is NASA’s exploration mission?"
Digging further into the report, it's obvious that this line wasn't taken out of context. The panel, which is charged with "evaluating NASA’s safety performance and advising the Agency on ways to improve that performance," seems at a loss for what, exactly, it will be overseeing in the coming years:
Clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House are the ASAP’s overarching concerns.
While we are seeing the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the proposed termination of the
Constellation Program and its budget authorization, we have yet to see any clear articulation or
funding for a new plan. In this discussion, the ASAP makes a basic assumption that the United
States desires to retain a human spaceflight and exploration program, although the precise form and
extent have yet to be defined
Note that this panel must assume that NASA's future involves a human spaceflight element. Beyond the near-term commitment to resupplying and re-staffing the International Space Station, this evidently cannot be taken for granted. And when it comes to private spaceflight initiatives, the panel has just as many questions, some of which are surprisingly basic:
Even for commercial transportation to LEO, we find uncertainty. What is to be the acquisition strategy to integrate commercial programs to support NASA’s LEO mission? What is to be the system of oversight that protects both NASA astronaut safety and general public safety, given a system of commercial providers? If something goes wrong, who would be liable?
The report continues to say that "uncertainty has become a critical issue."
Granted, the ASAP is an advisory panel that reports to both NASA and to Congress, so its uncertainties about NASA's plans could be chalked up to a simple lack of communication.
There are plenty of other reason to believe, however, that ASAP's concerns represent more than a messaging problem. The Times found a strain of anxiety infecting NASA from top to bottom, centered mainly around budgetary worries and recently altered or closed projects, from the planned ending of the shuttle program to the recent defunding of the Constellation program.
These worries expand beyond NASA, too. Just a few months ago, it was reported the other space agencies, all of which take leadership cues from, and work in concert with, NASA, were beginning to worry about the agency's nebulous objectives. The intervening months have done little to calm nerves at JAXA or the ESA.
It's worth noting that NASA's crisis isn't yet of the urgent variety, and that the agency is likely to be guaranteed a hefty budget for many years to come, regardless of how well it performs or how completely it solidifies its goals and objectives. And I take comfort in knowing that an organization of this size is still subject to existential questions. (If any $20bn-a-year agency has the need to be imaginative or ask difficult questions of itself, it's this one.)
And I fully expect the next few years to be exciting ones not just for NASA, but for man's accumulated adventures into space. Early successes by companies like SpaceX are a heartening reminder that mankind's reach into space will never stop expanding, at least for long; and that our place in the cosmos isn't necessarily determined by the whims of one government's decisions.
But long term, human-exploration-centric goals, like those laid out for the recently canceled and unfortunately mismanaged Constellation program, are what has consistently made NASA great, brought about its most momentous achievements, and cultivated its image among Americans and non-Americans alike. The agency may be able to survive or even thrive by working towards its goals of maintaining the ISS and spurring private spaceflight, or turning its efforts back towards Earth-based research, but not for long.
NASA needs a mission, and it's not clear where its next one will come from.