NASA since Apollo: failures and successes

What has NASA done right since Apollo? Where has it erred? Are there other space programs in the world that perform certain functions better than NASA?

The two agencies within NASA
Were we to bring a citizen from the past -- an ancient Roman, a hunter-gatherer-scavenger or an early 20th century barnstormer pilot -- to the present and show her or him what NASA does, I should hope they would be very impressed -- blown away might be more like it. NASA does great things.

The question for us as modern citizens is this: Does NASA do what it does well enough? Could the missions and goals of the organization be better achieved by others, other governments or other private companies? The answer, roughly: It depends.

If you want to put a communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit, commercial companies probably have NASA beat.

If you want to put a spacecraft right down on another planet or in the path of a passing asteroid and get good data for years on end, NASA is pretty much the best in the world. Other agencies are good; NASA has just been at it longer (without interruption) than anyone else.

But if you want to get people up and back from low-Earth orbit, NASA right now has, by one reckoning, a 1.6% chance of killing your crew. Few among us would do any sort of travel with those odds. Dangerous as it remains, human space exploration inspires us.

NASA, it seems, has somehow become two agencies. One group advocates robotic exploration, sending spacecraft to watch the sky from above our air, and to Mars, Mercury, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, even to icy Pluto. The other group wants to send humans into low-Earth orbit and go back to the moon -- using the English system of feet and gallons, with temperature measured in degrees Rankine. Sorry, that's not the stuff of the 21st century.

The space shuttle has proved to be an unreliable, expensive rig, hardly the easy-to-fly space bus we hoped for in the 1970s. It's been deadly for 14 people and deadly for NASA. The next system simply has to work better.

Scientists, who've spent time with this problem, point out that a robot can do in a day what a human scientist does in about a minute. When we use our robots to find a very, very likely spot to look for life on Mars, NASA's astronauts must be ready to explore like no one has done before. That sort of discovery would change this world, and will prove well worth the risk.

It's up to our new NASA administrator to calm the Cold Warriors and focus the agency on what it does best: inspiring us as we explore stars and worlds from space. As you read this, tiny plaques on the Spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration rovers await, glistening in the Martian sunlight, wishing those who visit there a safe journey and the joy of discovery. Here's hoping our new administrator can make it so.

Bill Nye hosted the Emmy-winning series "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on PBS from 1992 to 1998. He is a member of the board of directors and the vice president of the Planetary Society.

NASA trashed its own brand
In 1961, President Kennedy issued a dramatic challenge: "This nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." At the time he said this, many of the key technologies and techniques required to accomplish this astounding feat did not exist yet.

The famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." When NASA did the seemingly impossible and pulled off the Apollo moon landings, astronauts became our brave heroes and NASA was viewed almost as an academy for wizards and alchemy.

Through the extraordinary results of key missions, NASA earned the solar-system equivalent of unparalleled "street credibility." This success fueled the emergence of the NASA "brand," one of the most recognizable and powerful franchises on the planet. When the public thought of NASA, it often thought of science, integrity, discovery, credibility, high technology and the future of humanity. NASA made being a techie nerd cool.

But in 1972, President Nixon shut down the Apollo program and approved the development of the space shuttle. As you point out, Bill, the shuttle "has proved to be an unreliable, expensive rig, hardly the easy-to-fly space bus we hoped for." Historically, this was probably the moment when NASA plans and strategy began to drift and the agency itself became "lost in space."

NASA's brand, once its greatest strength, became a major weakness. The Apollo battle cry of "failure is not an option" somehow gave way to a twisted bureaucratic mantra. The agency has become staunchly risk-averse, slow, inflexible and at times arrogant. Sadly, this transformation has not prevented failures but has actually facilitated them.

NASA has assembled perhaps the largest group of world-class talent on science and technology. But rather than inspiring its bright minds to excel, it has instead smothered them with bureaucracy.

All brands have life cycles. Importantly, an organization cannot manage its brands entirely by public relations and spin. Brand values have to be primarily driven by strategy and earned by results.

To enhance its space credibility, NASA needs to focus on what it does well. The agency has had some great success with space probes, rovers and basic research and development. NASA should transition itself out of as many operational activities as possible. Countries such as India and China are now able to accomplish a tremendous amount with much more modest investments than ours. These countries are also willing to take greater risks.

Most important, NASA has shown humankind the universe. Now let's go back.



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