NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Rethinking NASA's Mission

February 17, 2003

In the wake of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, there are calls for rethinking the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). To get the agency on the right track and restore confidence in America's space program, observers say NASA should do the following: (1) Retire the shuttle and rethink the space station; (2) go to Mars, Saturn and the moons of Jupiter -- and do it now; (3) improve spacecraft to send humans deeper into space; and (4) tap the ingenuity of U.S. companies.

There's not much reason to keep the space station in orbit, except as a destination for the shuttle, and the shuttle has little utility except to ferry astronauts to the station.

  • If NASA stopped pouring more than $7 billion per year into the shuttle and space station, we could fund development of spacecraft with small nuclear reactors or fund trips to Mars and other planets.
  • Although the technology and the dollars aren't there yet to send astronauts, robots are willing and able to go to Mars, Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.
  • But we still need better, safer, cheaper ways to ferry people into orbit such as a mini-space plane that would piggyback on a rocket and glide home -- and for deep-space voyages, we need new propulsion systems.
  • Companies are doing everything from building cutting-edge space probes to experimenting with rocket designs -- it's essential to inject these ideas more quickly into government programs.

 The Columbia tragedy could be a brave beginning, in which NASA's existing budget is consecrated to visionary ideas. According to one observer, "We're on the verge of a second Space Age."

Source: John Carey, "How to Make the Space Program Soar Again," BusinessWeek, February 17, 2003.


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