The Future of NASA

The Future of NASA

[Excerpted from “NASA Needs to Out-Crazy Elon Musk” published in WIRED]

On July 20, I will celebrate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s moon landing with my mother, an astronomer at Princeton University and the former chief scientist of NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute. Our family’s ties to NASA run deep. My father, also an astronomer, helped start the Hubble Space Telescope program and protected it over the years from Congressional budget-cutters. He lived long enough to help ensure funding for the final Hubble service mission, STS-125, which has kept the telescope going to this day, twice its original life expectancy, but not long enough to see that mission.

As a tribute to my father, the astronaut John Grunsfeld brought my parents’ weddings rings with him on STS-125. To this day, my mother wears those fused wedding rings—which traveled five million miles in space, orbiting the earth 197 times—on a light gold chain around her neck.

I am, by heritage and personal commitment, a friend of NASA. So it is painful to witness the Agency in decline. NASA is the victim of a rapidly evolving space landscape: private industry, academia, and the military are squeezing it from all sides.

A holy trifecta of capitalist superheroes—Musk, Branson, Bezos—has inspired the public with dreams of space and adventure the way NASA used to, and now rarely does.

New technologies that were unimaginable fifty years ago allowed university scientists with ground-based telescopes to achieve the astronomy spectacle of the decade—the first image of a black hole. NASA was not invited to the party.

Meanwhile, as shadowy nation-state actors rapidly populate the final frontier, generals and geopolitical experts have argued that we should not cede this far, far upper ground. So in February, with the Pentagon’s support, the president signed Space Directive Policy-4, the first step in establishing a sixth branch of the US military: the Space Force.

But NASA’s most dangerous foe is Congress. NASA isn’t helping its case. When projects like the James Webb Telescope—with the resolution to probe life outside our solar system—fall years behind schedule and nearly a billion dollars over budget, oversight committees sharpen their knives. NASA scrambles to justify itself on economic grounds, but those arguments often fall flat. On one of its websites, NASA takes credit for inventing athletic shoes, wireless headsets, and artificial limbs. It’s hard to read those pages without wincing. The absurdity of the claims undermines NASA’s seriousness of purpose.

All of this translates into a franchise in crisis.

The 50th anniversary of NASA’s greatest triumph is a time to reflect. But the Agency should look not to past glories. Instead, it should look to the stories of two other legendary franchises that were once threatened by a rapidly evolving landscape.

One teaches the right question to ask. The other offers an answer.

Continued here in WIRED: “NASA Needs to Out-Crazy Elon Musk

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