Farewell to NASA's days of glory

Outsourcing will soon hit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) hard, if president Obama has his way. The new Nasa budget unveiled last month calls for the US space agency to outsource rocket development for manned space flights to commercial companies. If US Congress approves it, Nasa astronauts will be stuck riding in commercial space taxis.

While some of the changes in the new budget, like the cancellation of the Bush administration’s Constellation programme, were not unexpected, the abandonment of rocket development for manned space flight in favour of privatisation came as a shock.

Nasa’s rocket programme for putting humans into orbit evolved out of the Redstone programme in Huntsville, Alabama, under the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun. In its lifetime, it had many firsts, none more spectacular than the Apollo Moon landing, which made Nasa a US icon around the world.

The space agency was created in July 1958 by president Eisenhower after the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit a few months earlier. Nasa’s early years were characterised by Cold-War competition and posturing between America and the Soviet Union as the two superpowers vied for supremacy in space exploration.

First step

Under the Kennedy administration the agency took on the challenge to be first to set foot on the Moon. The Soviets were equally determined to be first. The race became a symbol not only of technological prowess, but of the battle for the hearts and minds of the world. Money flowed into Nasa; at its peak, the agency’s budget was almost one per cent of America’s gross domestic product.

On July 20, 1969, America won the race. Televisions around the world broadcast images of the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking man’s first steps on the moon. An estimated 500 million people watched.

Forty years later, it is still amazing that Nasa pulled it off. The Apollo missions were a triumph of American engineering and teamwork, employing some 4,00,000 people.  Nasa sent astronauts to the moon five more times. No other space agency has managed to achieve that feat.

Its efforts led to a continuous flow of scientific discoveries of great benefit to people on earth. From air-cushioned sneakers to safer runways, from blankets for accident victims to better sunglasses, from satellite television to solar panels, all these innovations owe something to Nasa.

Now in its sixth decade, the space agency is very different from what it was in its youth. The unfettered funding it enjoyed during the Cold War has long since dried up. For years, Congress has kept its spending in check. Its budget today stands at $18.7 billion, less than one per cent of US government spending.

As a consequence, Nasa’s missions have grown modest. Its astronauts have not returned to the moon in more than 30 years. It has suffered disasters with the space shuttle and other missions. It is no longer the destination of choice for America’s best and brightest scientists. The fiery pioneering spirit seems to have given way to a more day-to-day ethos of survival: It has become another government agency.

In recent years, about a third of Nasa’s budget has been spent on scientific missions, while the rest was consumed by manned efforts. Most scientists think that the most valuable knowledge comes from the scientific missions. Yet the manned missions are very much part of Nasa’s history, and the US public has always been supportive of them.

All that will change if the Obama administration prevails. Nasa will hand over rocket development to commercial companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, a startup company which has yet to launch its first space-faring rocket capable of sending humans into orbit; the United Launch Alliance, a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Boeing; and other emerging companies.

The Obama administration’s decision will get Nasa out of rocket development for manned space flight altogether. Nasa has amassed a singular competence in the field, which will be hard to replicate by private companies. What will happen if they can’t deliver?

One of the most important attributes of a manned space programme is its ability to inspire young people to pursue careers in science. As someone who came to power on a platform of inspiration, President Obama knows about the importance of rekindling hope. Killing Nasa’s storied manned space programme and doing away with a timeline for space travel will snuff out much of inspiration and awe that has come to be associated with Nasa’s endeavours.

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