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Friday, September 21, 2007

NASA Faces Hard Choices on "Essential"

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In its latest issue, and online, Scientific American offers a pair of articles on the "future of space travel," giving a detailed overview of what exactly NASA is doing, and what it has the potential to achieve - if funding and politics allow. They're must reads, for anyone who cares about the agency's future.

NASA, argues the magazine's main piece, is facing a time of radical change, and is experiencing something of an identity crisis. Ambitious goals to launch manned missions to the moon and Mars are cutting into funds for other, critical scientific goals.

From the piece: Essential Things To Do In Space

At the very least the agency is going through its most unsettled period of transition since Nixon shot down the Apollo moon missions 35 years ago.

To a child of the Space Age, books about the solar system from before 1957 are vaguely horrifying. How little people knew. They had no idea of the great volcanoes and canyons of Mars, which make Mount Everest look like a worn hillock and the Grand Canyon like a roadside ditch. They speculated that Venus beneath its clouds was a lush, misty jungle, or maybe a dry, barren desert, or a seltzer water ocean, or a giant tar pit-almost everything, it seems, but what it really is: an epic volcanic wasteland, the scene of a Noah's flood in molten rock. Pictures of Saturn were just sad: two fuzzy rings where today we see hundreds of thousands of fine ringlets. The giant planet's moons were gnats, rather than gnarled landscapes of methane lakes and dusty geysers.

All in all, the planets seemed like pretty small places back then, little more than smudges of light. At the same time, Earth seemed a lot larger than it does now. No one had ever seen our planet as a planet: a blue marble on black velvet, coated with a fragile veneer of water and air. No one knew that the moon was born in an impact or that the dinosaurs died in one. No one fully appreciated that humanity was becoming a geologic force in its own right, capable of changing the environment on a global scale. Whatever else the Space Age has done, it has enriched our view of the natural world and given us a perspective that we now take for granted.

"NASA continues to wrestle with its own identity," says Anthony Janetos of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a member of a National Research Council (NRC) panel that scrutinized NASA's Earth observation program. "Is it about exploring space? Is it about human exploration, is it about science, is it about exploring the outer universe, is it about exploring the solar system, is it about the space shuttle and station, is it about understanding this planet?"

The magazine's editors provide a detailed look at five "essential" missions: tracking climate change, monitoring the danger of asteroids' collision with Earth, searching for signs of extraterrestrial organic life, explaining the origin of the planets, and sending a useful probe outside the solar system.
All of these are endangered or underfunded under current plans. The magazine offers an action plan to get each one back on track. For anyone who's wondered exactly what NASA's core business ought to be, this is essential reading.

Earlier this week, I complained here that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin wasn't providing the kind of visionary, charismatic leadership needed at a time when we're on the verge of revolutionary progress in our public and private space programs. This article shows in part why - he has too many things on his hands, missions that compete for resources, and an uncertain mandate for his agency.

However, the magazine gives Griffin credit for his political helmsmanship.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is steering a slow but steady course that he argues can be sustained on a limited budget-an approach that many commentators wish his predecessors had pursued 30 years ago.

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