The Right Stuff

NASA. You can say whatever you like about spending priorities and government waste, but this is one program that a majority of Republicans and Democrats consistently back. Their reasons vary—advancing science, inspiring schoolchildren, maintaining American leadership, and, of course, lucrative contracting jobs. NASA—particularly when it comes to human spaceflight—remains a cherished institution, but it has its detractors. Looking back on the Space Shuttle program, costly as it was in both lives and treasure, one line of the naysayers' arguments makes a great deal of sense. Why, they ask, instead of using spacecraft to travel across space (a novel concept), have we been using them to go in circles—for three decades? Why, instead of accepting a mission that is worthy of the risks of human spaceflight, have we chosen to build a space station that serves no purpose? The answer is simple—nobody cares enough to change. If the President of the United States really wanted to show off America’s innovative prowess, he would call NASA Administrator Charles Bolden into the Oval Office and tell him that his astronauts are going to be shipping out. Soon. Then, he’d march out in front of the press, his trusty red tie and teleprompter at the ready, and announce that the United States is going to be the first nation to put a man (and a woman or three) on Mars. Also, NASA is going to use a rocket and a crew module that will support missions to other destinations—like the moon. In fact, just because we can, we’re going to test our new spaceship by sending it to the moon first. But make no mistake, the astronaut program is now the Mars program, and that’s where our resources are going to be directed. Speaking of resources, this is a time of budget constraints, and in light of that, NASA’s budget (currently at $19 billion per year, or .5% of the annual budget) should receive only modest, gradual increases to fund our new mission in space. We will make the most of our existing technology to implement Mars mission designs that have existed for decades now. One last thing. All this stuff? It is going to happen well before 2025, or Houston will discover what real problems feel like.

Barack Obama could make that announcement tomorrow, and he wouldn’t exactly run up against the limits of technical or political feasibility. In fact, he has already admitted as much.When arguing for clean energy initiatives in his State of the Union, he alluded to how limited NASA’s capabilities were when JFK announced the Apollo program. The reference was not entirely off the mark—America was very far away from putting a man on the moon in 1961, and America is very far away from having a fleet of electric cars in 2011.

Rather than merely making a vapid call to “win the future” with a recycled laundry list of Democratic spending priorities, the President should seize this moment—25 years after Challenger, and nearly a decade on from Columbia—and chart a new course for human spaceflight. Instead of simply throwing money at our education system, the President should lead the way in motivating American students to study math and science. Instead of pretending that the deficit doesn’t exist, the President should try to get the most innovative and scientific bang for the taxpayer’s buck. Finally, instead of acting as if most Americans find high-speed rail inspirational (they don’t) the President should point to our astronaut corps, and allow them to remind the world that the United States of America still has the right stuff.