Jul 31, 2008

World - NASA @ 50

WHEN asked what he would like as a birthday present for the organisation he runs, Michael Griffin answers: “An understanding that not everything that is worthwhile can be justified in terms of immediate dollars and cents on the balance sheet.” It is an artful reply. But NASA, America’s space agency, did not survive to be 50 years old without being artful. The agency was born on July 29th 1958. It was thrown together in response to Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which was launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957, and it was given extra impetus by the flight of the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961.
That led to the space race, and NASA’s finest hour. John Kennedy, America’s president at the time, responded to Gagarin’s flight by saying that an American should go to the moon by the end of the decade. In doing so, he turned on a tap of dollars and cents that, within five years, was running so fast it gave NASA access to three-quarters of 1% of America’s GDP.

Dr Griffin said of that period that “the moon race was more than exploration for its own sake, and a lot more than an exercise in national pride; it was considered a real-life test of the viability of our open society—a vindication of the very concept of freedom.” This is, perhaps, an exaggeration. Nevertheless, he is right that there was something heroic about the Apollo project. In its way, it was a counterpoint to the counterculture, an escape from the woes of 1960s America staffed not by long-haired hippies but by crew-cut engineers brought up on Buck Rogers and Isaac Asimov. It captured the world’s attention and changed humanity’s view of itself by broadcasting pictures of the Earth as a frail blue dot hanging in a hostile void over an unchanging lunar desert. It thus succeeded brilliantly in demonstrating that not everything that is worthwhile can be justified in terms of immediate dollars and cents on the balance sheet. And then it was over, because the guys with the balance sheets realised that now it had succeeded, there was nowhere for it to go.

Guiding star
It might have been better for NASA’s reputation if it, too, had closed down at that point, but bureaucracies never do. Like people, their idealistic and enthusiastic youths are eventually overwhelmed by quotidian reality, and they do what they need to to survive. And survive NASA has, through a space-shuttle programme far more expensive than the “throw-away” rockets it was supposed to replace, through the construction of an orbiting space station that will have consumed $100 billion when it is finished, though it has produced little of scientific value—and also, it must be said, through a programme of unmanned scientific space probes that have, literally, pushed back the frontiers of human understanding.
Dr Griffin is the 11th administrator of this two-headed beast of spectacular profligacy and scientific nous, and perhaps the one with the boldest vision since the early 1970s. For it is he who is trying to realise George Bush’s almost casual announcement, made in 2004, that America should return to the moon, and then go on to Mars. Though it will be expensive, this might be the thing that brings the “manned” and “unmanned” parts of the organisation together.
At the moment, about a third of the agency’s $17 billion budget is spent on unmanned science. There are the missions to Mars and other planets. There are the less spectacular but more vital observations of the Earth from orbit in search of answers to questions about climate, weather and geology. There is the examination of the sun. And there is the scanning of the universe with orbiting telescopes that range across the spectrum and can see almost as far back as the Big Bang itself. If you believe that pure science is a public good that deserves to be paid for out of taxes, most of this is money well spent.
The remaining two-thirds of the budget, however, is consumed by manned space flight—in other words, the shuttle and the space station. The agency often refers to this as “space exploration” but in truth both shuttles and the space station are barely out of the atmosphere. The real exploration of space is being done by the unmanned missions.
The result is a tension between the “manned” and “unmanned” sides of the organisation. There are those in each camp who see little value in the work of the other. In particular, many of the scientists reckon that a lot more useful stuff could be done in space if the manned budget were spent on robot probes. Dr Griffin, however, believes this is naive. He says that without the human-exploration side, the science side would be “a mere shadow of itself today”. During the Apollo decade, he points out, science got not a third, but a sixth of the agency’s budget. Indeed, NASA’s science budget is, he says, almost as big as that of the National Science Foundation, America’s main funder of non-medical research. The implication is that without the fluffier but politically appealing bits of human space exploration, space science would not do so well.
That is a nice, almost Machiavellian argument to keep the scientists on side. But it only works if manned spaceflight can be justified to taxpayers in its own right—not in terms of dollars and cents, of course, but for its inspirational value. Historically, that is questionable. The voyages of discovery to America, with which it is common to compare spaceflight, were entirely about dollars and cents (or, rather, guineas and doubloons). Even truly scientific expeditions, such as that of Captain Cook, were interested in plants that might turn a profit, and were keeping half an eye out for places that might be colonised.
Nevertheless, it is an argument that keeps the dollars and cents rolling in, for Americans, whether inspired or not, do seem reluctant to abandon their manned space programme—as Mr Bush cannily noticed. To replace the shuttle, there will be some shiny new rockets (known as Ares) and a new type of spaceship (known as Orion). These will let Americans visit the space station without having to go cap-in-hand to the Russians for a ride. There will also be a moon lander, and eventually a mission to Mars, both of which will justify a lot more unmanned exploration of those two bodies before any frail human beings dip the toes of their spacesuits in the regolith. NASA, then, may get to relive its youth after all. But, like many middle-agers, it may find that the reality of youthful experience has moved on.

Space 2.0
In particular, the agency is no longer alone. In one sense, of course, it never was. From the beginning, it was defined by the competition with its Soviet counterpart—and even these days the odd reminder that China, too, plans to send people to the moon might help Dr Griffin swing crucial votes if money looks tight. But technology has moved on since the 1960s, and so have attitudes. A lot of people other than national agencies want to play in space, and NASA is under pressure as a result. In particular, it is under pressure to collaborate—something it is not always terribly good at.
A small illustration of this is the experience of Richard Garriott. Mr Garriott is a successful games designer who is due to fly to the space station in October, as a private tourist. Initially, NASA was sniffy about the whole idea of space tourism—but the Russian space agency, whose budget is rather smaller than NASA’s, made it happen, and now the Americans do at least accept that they will have to share their digs with holiday-makers from time to time. Mr Garriott, however, is not just a holiday-maker. He also hopes to do some commercially valuable protein-crystallisation experiments, which might help drug companies, when he is in orbit. Just the sort of application, it might be thought, that should be encouraged. NASA, however, wants to charge him $350,000 to send e-mails to his collaborators on Earth—even though the actual cost of doing so is peanuts.
If NASA cannot see that this is silly, it bodes ill for more sophisticated forms of collaboration. Yet such collaborations are almost certainly part of the way forward. In a lecture at the beginning of this year, for instance, Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, exhorted NASA to engage more with the outside world by creating “open systems” that others can build on. Google is certainly an interested party. Its planetary-visualisation projects, Google Earth, Google Moon and Google Mars, draw a lot on data collected by NASA. But it would also like to start collecting its own data—to which end it is offering a $30m prize to anyone who can land on the moon and drive a rover over the surface.
And that, perhaps, is a more subtle threat than NASA realises. For Google’s various virtual planets are a symptom of the changing nature of vicarious experience. In 1969, television pictures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the lunar surface amazed the world. Google and its successors may eventually be able to bring the illusion not just of seeing such experiences (for television pictures are just that—an illusion), but of actually having had them. Social trends are impossible to predict. But it may be that the shock and awe of seeing men and women on Mars will be tempered by the viewer’s sense that he has been there and done that himself. And if that is the case, then paying for real manned Mars missions might seem an awful waste of money.

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