Has NASA lost its way? The space agency has been severely criticized by friends and foes, by insiders and outsiders, for a string of unprecedented launch disasters--but also for lack of purpose and for the absence of a coherent, readily understandable, compelling exploratory objective. Part of this criticism is misdirected.
NASA is responsible for reliable launches and for trailblazing scientific exploration. It is not in the business of setting its own goals. The nation must do that, through Congress, and especially through the President. NASA is a mission-oriented agency; tell it what to do--even ask it for the moon and the planets--and frequently it has delivered on time and on budget.
But part of the criticism is justified. It is NASA's business to know what goals should drive the U.S. space program, what steps should be taken to reach those goals , and how to get its perspective understood by the President and Congress.
Its feeble response to the Paine Report of the National Commission on Space is illuminating. The report, which recommends a bold series of steps moving toward human exploration and settlement of the solar system, was requested by the President, and was submitted to him more than a year ago. He has yet to say a word about it.
Neither has NASA. Instead, the agency selected a popular astronaut and let her issue the response, as a recommendation to the agency administrator. This way, NASA takes no stand that might offend the distracted occupants of the White House.
The astronaut, Sally Ride, and her team issued a forthright and incisive study, critical of the present condition of the U.S. space program--and recommending a range of new initiatives for the nation consistent with the Paine Report: systematic study of the Earth from space; robotic exploration of the solar system; an outpost on the moon; and a program of Mars exploration culminating in the first landing of humans on another planet. The report cites Mars as the "ultimate objective of human exploration." We concur.
But there is a curious and revealing incongruity in the report. Despite this "ultimate objective," Ride found the Mars goal premature and claimed it would lead to a "wasteful space race" if undertaken now. How did this incongruity come about? Reading the charge to the Ride panel, we find two unusual constraints on its deliberations: Do not consider U.S.-Soviet cooperation (or any other international cooperation) on a mission of humans to Mars; and consider only quick (so-called sprint) missions. As nearly as we can tell, these are the only two mission-particular constraints imposed on the Ride panel from above. They are precisely the opposite of what makes prudent space policy, and they straitjacket the possible recommendations.
International cooperation, especially between the two superpowers, is one of the principal justifications for a voyage of humans to Mars. Congressional resolutions have cited it as a rationale; it has been a major topic of every symposium held on Mars exploration in the last several years; it broadens the scope of available technical talent and decreases costs; and the Soviet Union appears to be amenable to the proposal. Prohibiting the Ride panel from even considering joint missions to Mars severely undercuts the reason for going. Similarly, a "quick" mission (by 2005) of humans to Mars requires an expensive and perilous leap in technology inconsistent with prudent steady evolution of flight programs, and forces a pessimistic assessment.
Why the incongruity? Because of the constraints from above. And why the constraints? Since they make no technical sense they must be political; perhaps they are a way to scuttle joint Mars missions without taking explicit responsibility for so doing--perhaps by those fearful that cooperative work on a great exploratory endeavor will make perpetual strategic confrontation a less viable way of life for the United States and the Soviet Union. But these political constraints are likely to change as the present Administration prepares to leave office.
The planet Earth and the solar system exploration focus of the Ride report will serve us well.
However, the lunar outpost--neither as exciting as robotic planetary exploration nor as practical as observing the Earth as a planet, and far more expensive than either--is more problematical. We've been to the moon; it neither stimulates the public imagination nor provides the impetus for international cooperation in space nearly as well as Mars does. The Ride report justifies a lunar base as a stepping stone to Mars. We're not so sure: Earth and earth orbit are better and far easier places to test the engineering systems, and the moon's surface (with no atmosphere and no water) is so different from Mars that science testing there is of limited relevance. But this will get sorted out as technologies and capabilities are developed by a reinvigorated NASA.
The goal of multinational exploration of Mars by humans is the best way to achieve such a reinvigoration. We agree with Ride's conclusion that human exploration of Mars should take place early in the next century, after renewal of American capabilities in robotic exploration of the solar system and long-duration human flight. NASA now seems to recognize the need for such a revival. We look forward to the time when it will be able to lift its head--and again look to the frontiers.