You’ve probably heard someone say it before – “didn’t NASA close?” The source of this rumor is unclear, but likely can be explained by a series of key events beginning back in 2003 with the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. The aging space shuttle fleet faced its second crisis in as many decades. Just half a year later, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued its recommendations to either recertify or end the program. The timeliness of this came as election season in the United States was ramping up. Then president George W. Bush would eventually go on to win re-election, and with it, budget cuts.
As with most U.S. presidents, Bush spoke positively of the future of space in his address on U.S. space policy as he slashed NASA’s budget. In the address, the president indicated that the Space Shuttle program would come to an end in 2010, unwilling to commit to the recertification that was recommended by the investigation board. During this speech, Bush also laid out the framework for the future: returning to the Moon through what would eventually be called the Constellation Program.
Fast-forward two years. In 2008, the U.S. experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Once again, the U.S. was in election season. With President Barack Obama taking office in 2009 and a financial crisis at hand, NASA was a low priority.
The Constellation Program was over budget and behind schedule, and as so the president cancelled the program in his address on U.S. space policy in 2010. This was perhaps at as untimely as possible, as by now the public was generally well aware of the final flights for the Space Shuttle program taking place that year (though, as with everything else in space, shuttle outlasted its expiration date and made it into 2011). In summary, a decade of catastrophic failures, poor programmatic performance, continual underbudgeting, and an untimely cancellation left the public with little or nothing tangible to understand NASA as.
It’s no secret that NASA has encountered many of these roadblocks in recent history. These roadblocks have caused NASA to become highly risk averse – failure is truly not an option. NASA, in today’s day and age, must avoid failure at all costs, or face the consequences of setback, budget restriction, or cancellation. It’s even more evident that NASA’s goals, such as human exploration of Mars, have become more complex than ever before. This, mixed with the aforementioned risk aversion, means that these goals are no longer easily completed in one presidential time frame. As such, NASA is not just averse to risk, but also resilient to change.
A Bigger Picture
Of course, this only takes into account NASA’s human spaceflight program. People tend to be unaware of NASA’s involvement across the board. For example, NASA manages every National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) space mission from conception until operation. That is to say, every spacecraft used to make accurate and timely weather forecasts was managed, tested, and launched with NASA at the helm. Other NASA ventures include dozens of interplanetary missions across our solar system, rovers on Mars, and space telescopes peering into the depths of our universe.
The question still remains: is NASA still the leader of the Space Age, or just a dying agency? Perhaps neither are true. Perhaps it is the space age itself that is dying. During the Space Race, NASA was an absolute necessity to bring to reality larger-than-life endeavors such as putting humans on the surface of the Moon. The commercial infrastructure did not exist, and the immediate economic benefit of the private sector investing in space was neither viable or apparent. This much is still true today regarding space exploration beyond Earth. However, with pioneering private industry companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, that gap is rapidly closing. We are on the verge of the second Space Age, and NASA is into the position of Agency Emeritus.
NASA still serves an immense role in facilitating these private endeavors and will continue to for some time. So long as there is inaccessible economic opportunity in space, NASA will always serve its role as a pioneer of the future. While NASA may never be the unstoppable agency that it was in the 1960s, it has become more pragmatic than ever before. The second Space Age is coming; when somebody finds a way to profit on human spaceflight, NASA can step aside from its full-time role as the leader. After that, it will continue to be a pioneer in the shadows, helping to answer questions about the origin of our Earth, our solar system, and our universe.