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What'll it take to get nation excited about NASA again?

What'll it take to get nation excited about NASA again?

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The challenge now is how to get the nation inspired about the space program. And if that is not possible, maybe we shouldn't do it or at least take a break from it. John Dodge

The Wall Street Journal editor who wrote the headline "Panel Urges NASA to Reset Priorities" in the Wall Street Journal might have dropped the re off reset. NASA, it would seem, doesn't have priorities or ones that are remotely realistic.

That's the conclusion of a panel chosen by President Obama to figure out what the underfunded and overly challenge agency should do. Now, I don't agree with my fellow blogger Dana Blankenhorn that NASA should be scrapped and space exploration handed over to private enterprise. Every earthling alive today or yet-to-be born has an interest in space exploration and leaving most or all of it to private companies raises many concerns.

The report offers nothing radically new and says we have to make hard choices within the current mission framework AND even then, give NASA $3 billion more each above the $18.68 billion request for FY2010.  The report seems half-hearted and rather than offering a vision and clear path forward, it details rehashed options that won't give anyone goosebumps.

Planned Ares V heavy lift rocket

Looking back, NASA was created in the late fifties specifically to go to the moon. It's singular focus was to land astronauts on the moon and get them back to earth safely. NASA had the full backing of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as well as the nation. Americans were juiced about going to moon and It took their minds off the Vietnam War.

Back to the Future: What the Orion capsule might look like.

Ever since, the Apollo program, NASA has drifted and been a side show to other federal priorities. This report won't change that. The challenge now is how to get the nation inspired about the space program. And if that is not possible, maybe we shouldn't do it or at least take a break from it.

Here are some of ther reports conclusions:

Private enterprise within a national space program should be encouraged and toward that end, the report recommends that a commercial launch vehicle fire crews into low earth orbit (LEO). That makes sense, but safety would be an enormous issue.

"Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach. While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and life cycle costs than government could achieve," the report says. What's more, international partnerships should be sought out to defray costs and create good will. Did NASA administrators have to be told this?

This would free up NASA to focus on more challenging exploits such as developing two versions of the Ares heavy lift vehicle for exploration beyond LEO. Along with that would be a new Orion space capsule for lunar landings, circling and free space exploration where we can, in essence, practice and prepare to eventually go to Mars.

The report also urges extending the life of the Space Station (it took 25 years to put it together for a measly five years of operational life, the report notes) and retiring the Space Shuttle in 2011 instead of 2010. Once the Space Shuttle is retired, NASA won't have anything to launch to astronauts into space for six and more likely seven years. How did that happen?

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure