In light of a small conversation on NASA, here are some thoughts by Daniel Sarewitz,
In fiscal 2012, NASA spent on the order of $10 billion on space exploration. Perhaps 70 percent of that total was devoted to human spaceflight, both to operate existing facilities like the International Space Station (which alone got $2.8 billion), and to plan future programs. The rest of the budget went to unmanned (a word that, in other contexts means emasculated or castrated) exploration—space based telescopes, robots on Mars, solar probes, and the like. Are we spending enough or too much on space exploration? Is the balance between human and unmanned appropriate? Scientists, politicians, and interested citizens have been arguing those questions for decades.
Besides the direct beneficiaries of NASA’s programs—engineers, scientists, government administrators, aerospace contractors, and others—there are apparently many Americans who view space exploration as a worthy, even noble, goal of humanity. At one extreme are those who see planetary exploration and even colonization as humanity’s manifest destiny. At another are more economically or environmentally minded people who see space exploration as providing access to a potentially unlimited source of natural resources (especially certain strategically important metals found in asteroids), or to future habitats for a species that is ruining its home planet. A third perspective views space exploration as intrinsically worthwhile, for intellectual, aesthetic, or even spiritual reasons.
All of these are valid, of course, but they are also largely post-hoc rationales for a space program originally justified and funded during the height of the Cold War for military and geopolitical reasons. Landing on the moon was cool, but if we hadn’t been trying to show the Soviets—and the world—that the U.S. was truly the Master of the Universe, then one wonders if the nation would have been so enthusiastic about spending on the order of $170 billion (inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars) for the Apollo project—or about three times today’s entire annual government investment for all non-defense science and technology.
Since Apollo, successive major NASA initiatives (especially the space shuttle and the space station) have been justified by the government as “the next logical step” in building humanity’s capacity to explore space. One might ask “logical step toward what?”, especially given that our reach into space, at least through human spaceflight, has contracted rather than grown in the four decades since a man last hopped on the moon. To a considerable extent, today’s national space program needs to be understood not as a vision for the exploration of the unknown, but as a relict of the budgetary, bureaucratic, and political momentum created by the initial investment in Apollo, an investment made for reasons that have almost entirely disappeared in the intervening years.
In a world that doesn’t exist, one might restart the space program from the ground up, building an entirely new federal program—one that’s lean, risk-seeking, efficient, and not ham-strung by incumbent interests that depend on NASA’s current organization of programs, contractors, and political patrons. One might canvass the interested public to get a sense of what vision of space exploration was most exciting to a wide variety of citizens, what they’d be willing to pay for it, and where the money would come from. Higher taxes on the rich? Cuts to Medicare? Even as an act of imagination, it’s hard to see how the nation’s space exploration program can possibly escape from the political and technological inertia of its Cold War origins.