NASA is, as always, in search of its mission. It wants to go back to its roots to the era of the Moon race when it had a clear goal on which to focus. But in reality, NASA left its roots not at the end of the Moon race, but at its start. Before 1962, NASA was a science and technology agency, like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and parts of the Department of Energy are today.

Each project was expected to produce new aerospace technology or new scientific knowledge that would justify its cost. The astronomical and planetary science programs continue this principle; Earth observation also is solidly justified, though it has gotten inconsistent support in recent years as the environment has lost its cachet.

But for manned spaceflight it was always different. Sputnik, and later the Soviet Union’s launch of Yuri Gagarin, stunned the world. It was essential to demonstrate the superiority of the American system over Communism. Our objective was to send a man to the Moon as an instrument of international competition. Science was quite literally an afterthought. The original lunar module specification had no weight allowance for rock samples. Ironically, the space station, after many false starts, finally found political support in the opposite role, as a catalyst for international trust and cooperation between the United States and Russia.

There seemed little likelihood of another goal-directed human spaceflight program, so the unexpected announcement of the presidential vision of human flight to the Moon and Mars was greeted with both relief and surprise. But while the spacecraft will be new, it will essentially be a modern version of Apollo technology. Cost to orbit will remain about the same as for the shuttle, perhaps $70 million per seat.

Can we really afford to sustain a permanent Moon base with expendable launch vehicles, let alone a permanent base on Mars? If not, we’ll be in the same position we were after the first Moon landing, when support for Apollo fell so precipitously the final three missions were simply cancel ed. A single human landing on Mars would be tremendously exciting, but what purpose would it really serve?

Consider an analogy. In 1912 humans first reached the South Pole with dogsleds after a gripping international race. Imagine it is 30 years later, in 1942, and we have just decided to go back to the South Pole again with newer dogsleds. Would it make sense? In reality, no one at all returned to the Pole until 1957, when they returned with aircraft that could sustain a permanent base and make human research there cost-effective. For human spaceflight to actually be practical as a means of exploring and doing research, we need the launch vehicle equivalent of the C-130 cargo aircraft, not bigger and faster dogsleds.

Moreover, while we must learn from our failures. We should be careful not to learn the wrong lessons. The error of the shuttle program was not in the concept of a reusable launch vehicle; this is still the only practical way to put the large mass in orbit that humans require. Rather, our error was in the conceit that we could build a radically new manned vehicle when we had no flight experience at all with many of the critical systems. As a result our predictions of cost and safety, and our design decisions, were based solely on analysis. Analysis is simply not equivalent to experience.

Yet we were well on our way to getting that essential flight experience with the DC-X, X-33, X-34 and X-37 technology demonstrators. None carried a crew, and none could reach orbit unaided. They were saddled with unrealistic contracts that suggested that “commercialization” was a panacea. Yet together they could have provided the real flight experience vital for design of a new generation of reusable launch vehicles that would finally make human spaceflight practical and safe.

But all these programs, the seed corn of NASA’s future, were cancel ed to save a few billion dollars and balance the books in the out years of the international space station — only to embark now on a new program that will dwarf their cost without providing any obvious long-term benefit.

There is an even more fundamental issue. Aircraft carry almost eight orders of magnitude more people than spacecraft. Surely aeronautics should command the bulk of our efforts. In the fifties, America indisputably led the world in aviation; NASA’s role was to fund and test the new concepts that could keep our aerospace industry in the lead.
Just as it was in the 1950 s, this is an exciting time for aviation, with intuitive displays and dependent surveillance that may finally prevent collisions, new materials finding application in everything from ultralights to airliners, and of course a new airliner bigger than any now flying.

But where is NASA in all this? Each new administration reminds us that “The first ‘A’ is for aeronautics,” while year after year the real advances seem to come from homebuilders, manufacturers, users like UPS and the airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration and other countries.

NASA doesn’t have to come up with the new ideas by itself. Boeing had two radical and ingenious proposals, one for flight just above the surface of the sea, and another just below the speed of sound. But without a government partner to help fund a prototype they were doomed.

There are hundreds of others with new concepts and proposals; all we have to do is post a Request For Proposals and we’ll be flooded with ideas, and some will be brilliant. But if America is to advance the state of the art, NASA must provide the jumpstart needed to find out which ideas really work, not just on paper, but in flight.

We all want human spaceflight to play a meaningful role in the exploration of the Solar System; I have waited most of my life to see it. But to achieve this we must first do something more difficult than simply landing on Mars; we must make it easier to leave the Earth. We can do this, and many other things of lasting value, if we can only remember our original mission; to advance the technology of flight.

Dan Woodard is a doctor from Merritt Island, Fla.