Mitch Daniels, former governor and current Purdue University president, will have a new task soon – co-chairing the Committee on Human Spaceflight. Good. Purdue has a long history with spaceflight that includes 21 graduates who have flown into space, so perhaps he’s the right one to help NASA get its focus and energy back.
The committee, an offshoot of the National Research Council, is to study the long-term goals, capabilities and direction of the spaceflight program, including missions beyond low Earth orbit, and recommend how to make its mission sustainable.
In the beginning, NASA was one of the greatest points of national pride. Spurred on by a desire to beat the Soviet Union into space, the agency was driven and single-minded. It had but one goal – to get a man on the moon – and threw everything it had into it. But once that goal was achieved, NASA began drifting. Instead of having a mission to go somewhere, the nation let it settle for flying around and around in orbit with the space shuttle.
Now NASA is a pale imitation of its former glory. Even the shuttle mission is gone, and the budget has been slashed. President Obama may cut it even more. The agency’s goals are vague and diverse. Maybe it will go to Mars – and maybe it will be a manned flight, and maybe it won’t. Perhaps it will devote most of its energies to studying the heavens from here. Maybe it will – heaven forbid – increase its role in global-warming research.
The committee’s job will be a tricky one. Steven Schneider, a Purdue professor of aeronautics and astronautics, says the committee not only has to arrive at a sensible mission for NASA, it must find one most Americans can support and that can be sold to the president and Congress. Times change, he says, and recommendations that appeal to one president and Congress can later be changed by later administrations.
A report in December from the National Research Council warned how bleak NASA’s future could be if such a focus – and the funding for it – is not found. Work by other countries and by private companies in this country could take NASA’s place.
There’s nothing wrong with private enterprise getting into the space business – in fact, it’s a healthy development. But consider the unity of purpose that can only come with a vision. Government can be a cheerleader for that vision.
The need to keep NASA strong is about more than a mere mission. It’s about fulfilling the human need for exploration and knowledge. A government that turns it back on that isn’t worth much.