I was born after NASA completed all of the Apollo missions, so my appreciation of what it meant to watch American astronauts leaving our Earth for the first time to walk on another celestial body and return safely home – for the first time ever – was lost on me until I realized later in life that I might never witness such feats ever again in my own lifetime. Instead, when my family watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” “going boldly where no one has gone before,” I would hear my parents lament, “I wish you were old enough to have seen us go to the Moon.” It got to me. They were basically saying, “we were great once, but then we abandoned that greatness for the ‘me’ decade of the 1970s with its disco balls and bell-bottom pants.” I grew up in Ohio – birthplace of aviation, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong – and I still remember a research scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center telling my grade school class in 1991 how the space station would be built within the decade. Almost 20 years later, we’re still building it.
I came to appreciate what NASA meant to our nation’s psyche at a very young age when the Space Shuttle Challenger accident occurred. I was in kindergarten and the school had everyone, K through 6, watch the launch on television. When we saw the white plumes of the explosion, some kids started to cry. We were sent home early that day, and we watched the accident over and over again in slow motion on television with our families. Everyone from my generation remembers where they were that day; it is part of our collective experience.
When it comes to space exploration, I sometimes think that the generation of Americans who followed after the Apollo era should be called the “Lost Generation,” with all the disillusion inherent in the knowledge that what we are doing in space since I was born, to this day, and for the foreseeable future is nothing compared to what the Greatest Generation built and achieved. I think this is the true meaning behind U.S. President Barack Obama calling NASA “adrift.” Let’s face it, by comparison, low Earth orbit is boring. While I fully appreciate that the international space station is a technological marvel and necessary steppingstone to learn how to live and work in space for longer trips to Mars than the Moon, it is not necessary and sufficient by itself. We need to be going somewhere. And when I hear that our nation cannot afford such journeys, I have to ask: Why can our government afford so many other things? Look at how little is spent in space exploration today compared to 40 years ago, and compare that investment and what the achievement meant to our nation and the world, even 40 years later.
When the Augustine Commission spends this summer re-examining where our nation should be heading in space exploration and how little we’re spending today, I hope that there’s some recognition that the path we are on will only get us even more adrift and lost, and eventually lead us to nothingness. We need to recognize the impact and implications of what maintaining the status quo in space exploration means to a generation of Americans who were inspired by the idea – in the wake of another space shuttle accident, this time the Columbia tragedy of 2003 – that we might actually be going somewhere again. The extra money promised to carry out these new journeys never materialized, as the green eyeshade-types in Washington decided it is better to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. So, I hope that Mr. Augustine is bold enough to speak such truth and explain forthrightly the impact and implications for what being “Lost in Space” means to our nation and future generations of Americans.
I also hope that the Augustine Commission will speak out about the political arm-twisting that goes on with how NASA spends the funds provided and how the political process is stifling innovation amongst those within the agency who are trying to make a difference in how NASA leverages the investment of the commercial space sector. According to news reports, the recent scrum over the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) funding is a great example of such behind-the-scenes arm-twisting. In the stimulus bill signed by President Obama in February with an additional $1 billion for NASA ($400 million for Exploration), NASA proposed to spend $100 million on COTS to buttress those efforts, which people are now realizing have become indispensable to support the international space station after the shuttle is retired. While an additional $100 million could be spent on NASA’s Constellation program, it is a drop in the bucket toward reducing the gap. Unless those politicians and their staffs simply wish to continue to ship even more
taxpayer money overseas to
, we need to add more chips to the carefully considered gamble NASA is taking with
commercial space companies on COTS.
Further, the congressional appropriations committees are also stifling risk-taking by cutting NASA’s Innovative Partnership Program (IPP). The House appropriations bill cuts $21 million (almost 11 percent) from NASA’s request for IPP funding to instead pay for their earmarks. The IPP funds microgravity experiments on the commercial Zero-G plane, Centennial Challenge prize competitions for revolutionary power storage systems, solar and other renewable energy technologies to benefit life here on Earth as well as for space exploration and Seed Fund initiatives where every $3 spent by NASA leverages another $8 in funding by the companies and other government agencies involved. While members of Congress speak out in favor of these small, meaningful, innovative initiatives, when it comes to following NASA’s money, every generation understands: “No Bucks, No Buck Rogers.”
Dan Cano is currently a consultant and former political appointee in NASA, having worked on Capitol Hill and several political campaigns.