Many in the aerospace community have been saddened to witness the stifling effects of increasing conservatism that has come to overlay so many of the programs that NASA now pursues. Costs have skyrocketed, schedules have stretched, and content has diminished both in boldness and reach. While one can understand the pressures for assured success, the institutional reaction to that pressure — attempting to avoid failure often regardless of cost — is ultimately eroding NASA’s capabilities and mortgaging its future.
To reverse the decline and once again propel NASA into clear and indisputable international leadership, the agency must be allowed — actually encouraged — to take the risks that come with pursuing bold and far-reaching, scientifically and technically challenging missions.
Especially now that the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee — known as the Augustine committee after the panel’s chairman, former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine — has rendered its findings, the hard work of determining how to best shape NASA’s charter must begin anew. The Augustine committee offered considerable insight into the realities of limited funding and the subtle, but key, differences between vision and architecture. But the panel did not (as it was not really within its charter) address the boldness with which NASA should be asked to pursue its mission. Lasting policy, however, must address not only content and funding but also the tenor, or vigor, with which the NASA mission is to be pursued.
Reinvigorating NASA’s programs means that space policy change is essential. The human exploration experience has served to highlight just how difficult it is to alter the nation’s space policies and how difficult it is to regain the broad base of support necessary for restoring vibrancy to the nation’s space programs. NASA, as an institution, can only be influenced through its stakeholders. It can do little to right itself without their support. Criticism, and advice, must be directed at those who control policy. NASA needs a thoughtfully crafted purpose with strong, consistent and committed political support. It needs daring deeds. If the nation wants a future NASA befitting its iconic past, then we must enter into a meaningful dialogue on risk and adventure. Risk-taking must be reconnected, through political leadership, with the NASA mission.
NASA must be asked to attempt unimaginably bold missions across the breadth of its portfolio. These must be missions of discovery. NASA’s charter must leverage the public’s appetite for adventure, Hollywood’s imagination for daring deeds and the nation’s strategic need to continually push technology. Let us put robotic submarines and snow cats on Europa, boats on Titan’s methane lakes, and landers near the Enceladus geysers, by planetary volcanoes or in a canyon on Mars; cruise about in Saturn’s rings; launch an aerostat in the martian atmosphere; move an asteroid; solve the challenge of global warming! Most of these are within reach. Those that are not soon will be.
Do missions crisply, visibly and affordably. Yes, I said affordably. Allow occasional failure in exchange for bold attempts. Apply humans where it moves the vision forward. Use technology and innovation to the maximum. Better integrate the human and robotic efforts. They must be coupled, not one in lieu of the other. It is the synergy of both that will enable sustained exploration and sustained success.
Take risk and initiative. That is different from being careless. If attempting the impossible — the undone — occasional failure will become acceptable. But whatever is done, NASA’s mission must be bold and exciting, and nearly impossible to imagine as being achievable. Risk-taking, with the tremendous benefits of success and the possibility of heartbreaking failure, must again become the mainstay of the NASA mission. Without it, there is no longer a meaningful and enduring mission for civilian space. NASA was born, thrived and endured under this paradigm. It is the recipe for a lasting presence.
Policy change can come through education and the persistent and determined efforts of the academic and industrial community, or it can come as the result of political urgency when our national pride has been threatened or lost, overtaken by the bold accomplishments of other nations. The value of civilian space — of bold scientific and technological adventure — has seemingly been lost in this nation. If we want it reconstituted, it must be made relevant to the audience that watches, and pays, NASA to perform. This will require visionaries and champions. Civilian space will always be performed on the public stage and as such must be continually exciting and amazing to the NASA customer base. Anything less is not sustainable.
Accomplishing the exciting, often on the edge of spectacular failure, will keep interest high, enable the United States to regain international leadership in space exploration, and stimulate funding for bigger and bolder ventures. If we start small, but aggressively, and can inspire and amaze the world with such deeds, then civilian space can again become a hallmark of national pride and an engine of scientific accomplishment. Anything less is doomed to deepen the downward spiral of an admired but declining national treasure, NASA. We should engage the opportunities that are emerging from this time of political change and work boldly toward the revitalization of space exploration.
Daniel N. Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado,