Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pragmatism and Vision on the occasion of an Anniversary

Today is July 20th, 2009 – the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. One thing I can assure you is that before the day is out, a great deal of ink will have been spilled on both looking backwards and forwards to the past and future of NASA. Childhood memories of that fateful step will abound, as will calls for a bold new way forward, or assurances that we are already on our way back to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Some may even speculate about colonization or draw comparisons between the initial exploration and ultimate return to Antarctica. But the fact remains that there seems to be no real urgency in the air. Something seems to be missing.

Like any living creature, an agency needs a sense of purpose in order to survive. This purpose is articulated through achievable and desirable goals. For many agencies and government departments this is a straightforward exercise. Each of their overall goals can be broken down at many levels into prioritized subtasks to be carried out by individual people. The organization remains relevant and current through constant re-evaluation and by pruning off side tasks. Altogether, this is a remarkably pragmatic process.

While this formula works well for many departments, NASA has always been a little different. At the start it was very pragmatic, and very highly focused on “placing a man on the moon and returning him safely” prior to 1970. But since then the ultimate goal of the agency has broadened and become more ephemeral then most, despite attempts to bring it into the realm of the pragmatic. What is NASA’s purpose today? At its most broad (2002-2006) is was: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

But what does this somewhat circular statement really mean? Is NASA a builder of rockets and spacecraft and maintainer of an elite corps of explorers? Or is it a funding agency for fundamental knowledge about the earth, solar system and the universe? Or is it an inspirational vehicle whose benefits are indirect and therefore inherently less measurable? In many ways, all three have come to apply, giving a very broad set of potential mandates which defy attempts at focus.

To make matters worse, each area is in tension, and even within each subgroup there are many disagreements. To illustrate, let me recount a conversation I had a few years back in Tucson with another planetary scientist and an astronomer. Each of us felt that NASA’s overarching goal was to explore the universe, but we disagreed about the way to go about it. The other planetary scientist felt that human exploration was critical, despite the cost, since only “boots on the ground” would inspire the next generation of explorers. At the time, I felt that shuttle launches were a waste since for the cost of each we could explore several places in the solar system robotically. The astronomer felt that we should instead be investing the money in fundamental astrophysics because it alone could answer the big questions about the universe.

If three people closely aligned in interest and profession can have this kind of debate within a single phrase of the motto, it begs the question as to whether these areas are really reconcilable. Thus, should NASA be split up?

There is certainly a good argument to be made that terrestrial, planetary and astronomical research could be conceptually accommodated under the National Science Foundation (NSF). As well, with the new Global Exploration Initiative, the way forward through 2030 seems to be largely settled and negotiated with international partners. An agency entirely focused on implementing this plan might be more effective. It would also mean less uncertainty for those of us working within the field for whom funding seems to be framed as a zero sum battle between the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and the Space Exploration Directorate (SED) for limited resources.

Ultimately you have to ask the question: why does NASA even exist – why do we do this? Despite all the arguments about technology transfer, innovative management examples and fancy mattresses, it isn’t about the tangible benefits (though these are real and important). One part of the equation, still relevant even after Apollo, is national pride. We want our nation to be a leader in space, and we are willing to pay a certain amount for that. Another is the appeal of the unknown and our curiosity about it, the visionary aspect. This pioneering spirit has been close to the hearts of many Americans, even if it is not lived day to day, and is probably the reason that per capita spending on space agencies in the US is the highest in the world at about $56 per person. Compare that to $17 for Japan, $9 for Canada, $7 for Europe, and $1.10 for India.

But even the per capita funding within the United States has fallen from a peak of almost $180 (adjusted for inflation) per person in 1965 (when the federal budget was much also smaller). Why has this drop-off occurred? Paradoxically, it could be a sign of increasing prosperity on Earth combined with the decreasing novelty of space travel from which the average citizen sees little direct benefit. For instance, grand plans for cities in space from the 1960s and 1970s looked good when conditions at home were poor, but lost their lustre when things improved. “Going to work in space” may have helped people relate to NASA in the 1980s, but it wasn't long before they started to question why they were being asked to cough up $2 every time someone needs to ride the space bus. Finally, today there is very little non-governmental space industry that is viable, so there isn't a whole lot of direct interaction.

So what can an agency caught in transition do? Crewed exploration purely for the benefit of simply refining science works well for Antarctica, but may be too costly to be done off planet. Of course, this may be a good way to stimulate industry, as the return to the Moon is trying to find out. But if we want to have a more relevant mission statement then a make-work program, instead we need to use our resources to answer the big questions. It’s no longer enough to have flags and footprints and after Apollo, I’m not sure that just landing on Mars or some other piece of real estate in the solar system, exotic as it is, will be enough. We need to capture the public’s imagination if we are to justify the expenditure of so many of their tax dollars. Thus we don’t so much need a place to go as a quest of sorts. Mallory’s famous quote no longer suffices.

And what could be better then determining the role played by life in the universe? This is a theme that we all can relate to at a fundamental level. Who hasn’t wondered about their place in the world? It’s a dream that we can chase, from Mars, to Europa and Enceladus and beyond. So let’s go to these places and focus intently on getting there and uncovering the story. Let's be sure to communicate our enthusiasm to the public so that they can share in our adventure.

This idea is just one of several possibilities. But no matter what we choose to do we need to be sure that along with the ‘how’ we’ve got a good answer for the ‘why.’ I’d happily pay 56 bucks for that.

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