Forty years ago this week, a man walked on the moon. The ultimate prize in the decade-long "space race," the two-and-a-half-hour moonwalk by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin remains a testament to American exceptionalism, technological prowess and nationalist fervor. And face it, it's pretty thrilling to watch. In honor of meeting the scientific challenge that defined the 20th century, Aldrin recently called for a mission to Mars: It is "time to go boldly once more," he declared. "Let the lunar surface be the ultimate global commons."
Retired Major General Charles Bolden, recently confirmed as the first African-American head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is at the helm of this new mission. The former astronaut has taken four space flights with over 680 hours spent in Earth orbit, and—like so many of the racial "firsts” that Obama has casually brought to power—that, too, is cause for cheering. First lady Michelle Obama used Bolden as an example of success when speaking to graduating students at Washington's Math and Science Tech Public Charter High School. "He grew up in the segregated South and became a fighter pilot in the Marines," she said. "Each time he broke away from gravity's hold, he shattered stereotypes."
It is a lovely story—retold at the president's meeting with Bolden and the crew of Apollo 11. However, in the midst of a financial crisis consistently reported as the worst "since the Great Depression," it's not obvious that America should do as Aldrin wants. NASA does a world of scientific good, but the human spaceflight program that is the most prominent and nostalgia-provoking is also the most wasteful and the least necessary. Given the host of other priorities facing America, it might be time for the U.S. to hang up its moon boots.
Of course, NASA, which stopped manned moon missions in 1972, now does much more than "go boldly where no man has gone before." NASA supports valuable research that teaches humankind more about the universe. The nearly $19 billion budget for 2010 covers the space shuttle, the international space station, crew exploration vehicles, human and robotic technology, and various "aeronautics and science activities" that are key to U.S. primacy in engineering and science. These vague-sounding "activities" have produced important breakthroughs in the past (think Velcro or the Hubble telescope) and in the present (NASA expertise helped build the bodysuits that broke more swimming world records than ever at the Beijing Olympic Games).
But is the agency’s continued quest for outer space good for America?
NASA is part of the Department of Defense, whose spending has ballooned consistently, despite the changing economic and social landscape of the last 40 years. Two wars begun under former President George W. Bush yielded a 75 percent budget increase. And NASA plays its part in the cost overruns. Just weeks after Bush declared his widely ignored plans to conquer Mars, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office proclaimed, with a shake of its head, that NASA consistently “lacks a clear understanding of how much its programs will cost and how long they will take to achieve their objectives.” The process of estimating costs was undisciplined, the GAO reported, and none of the programs reviewed met the industry standard for oversight. Only 3 of the 10 had even bothered to explain just what exactly they were doing.
Columnist Taylor Dinerman described the chaos in the Space Review: “We are attempting to develop major new systems with 10-year technology, eight-year programs, a five-year plan, three-year people, and one-year dollars,” he wrote. What’s more, large, corporate contractors dominate the federal procurement process—hiking up the costs of aerospace technology for taxpayers. The consequences of this lax management can be both embarrassing and deeply wasteful: It took engineers six costly tries to get the shuttle Endeavor, carrying the last Japanese pieces of the International Space Station, into orbit last week.
Legislators and activists have frequently compared the race for environmental sustainability to the Apollo program. “We still have the ability to launch a technological revolution, as we did in 1961,” says Congressman Jay Inslee, who authored Apollo’s Fire with Bracken Hendricks in 2007. “We need a New Apollo Energy Project to spur economic growth, reduce carbon emissions and break our addiction to foreign oil.” This ambitious project will rely heavily upon the same skills profile on tap at NASA, where investments in research satellites, sensors, models and analysis have already expanded understanding of climate change and its effects. The American Clean Energy and Security Act, recently passed by the House of Representatives, calls for investments in biofuels, next generation batteries, electrical and mechanical engineering models and solar nanotechnology. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act did the same.
It is, of course, dangerous to engage in these zero-sum hypothetical scenarios. But the human spaceflight program is up for review in August—and Major Bolden could take the agency in a bold new direction. It’s clear by now that he must solve the agency’s inefficiencies and find ways to deploy the scientific capital at NASA in ways that will best serve America. Why not give the world’s best engineers a mission to Planet Earth?
Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.