As Congressional negotiators are looking at the budget and trying to find a compromise that both cuts spending and avoids a government shut down (the government wouldnít actually shut down but thatís for another column) one of the agencies perennially on the chopping block is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Politicians from both sides tend to bash NASA and talk about billions poured down the ďrathole of space.Ē
They of course ignore all the spin offs from space technology from Velcro to microwave ovens and thousands of others most of us donít even realize were pioneered by the space program.
However, itís not hard to join in the bashing when you realize NASAís record the last few yeaÖ er, decades, hasnít been exactly one of shining success.
The shuttle has been something of an expensive boondoggle, Hubble was nearsighted and required a corrective lens, a Martian rover crashed because the landing radar was calibrated in metric but the software was written for standard measurement. I could go on for hours ó in fact, like most space enthusiasts, Iíve been known to.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s NASA was a shining example of American prowess in science and technology. We remain the only nation to put a man on the moon and we did it a scant eight years after President John F. Kennedy said we would. Now itís not certain we even possess the technology to do it again.
Iím a space geek (actually Iím just a geek but thatís neither here nor there) and have been fascinated with space exploration since watching the joint U.S.-Soviet space mission on the nightly news as a young boy.
I also agree with the late, great Robert A. Heinlein that Earth is far too small and fragile a basket to keep all our eggs in.
To that end I have a couple of suggestions where NASA is concerned.
First we need to split the agency into two separate entities. The first would continue to be called NASA and would function much like the Federal Aviation Administration.
This new NASAís job would be to create the rules and regulations managing commercial space flight. NASA already does this to some degree but would have a greater role in this, as well as licensing pilots and companies and making sure astronaut training meets standards. They would also be tasked with promoting commercial space industry. This is important because itís something NASA currently does itís level best to discourage. It would also get NASA out of the commercial space business. NASA currently gets a big chunk of itís budget from lofting satellites for private companies at the same time theyíre supposed to be regulating the private launchers. This is known as a conflict of interest and in the private sector itís considered to be a Bad Thing.
The second agency would be the National Aeronautics and Space Research Agency. My proposed NASRA would be tasked with pure research, much like NASAís current Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Itís entire mission would be to conduct space research. From robotic probes to figuring out how to put a man on Mars. Missions like a Mars shot would fall under NASRAís purview. NASRA would design the craft, but it would be up to private companies to bid for and build the ship. It would not preclude, however, private companies from sending missions to the Moon or the asteroids. Any private entity which can find a commercial reason to do so, should be allowed to venture into space.
Columbus didnít sail the ocean blue just to see what was there, after all, he was looking to make a buck. When we finally do move off this ball in big way, it wonít be governments leading the effort, but greedy capitalists who figured out a way to make a dollar or two ó and thatís O.K.
For us to stay in space we have to have a reason to do it. Profit is a pretty good one.
All IMHO, of course.
(Patrick Richardson is the managing editor of the Columbus Advocate and the Baxter Springs News. His publisher has threatened to send him to space once or twice. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.)