By his own reckoning, Alan Ladwig has a dream job - drafting a
blueprint for America's future in space.
But it's not without challenges, notes the senior adviser to NASA
administrator Daniel Goldin. "I can get a roomful of space people
together, and they can't agree on which programs to pursue," he
"But that tells me there's a vast universe of opportunities."
As it prepares to launch John Glenn back into space today and the
first US-built element of the International Space Station in
December, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is
struggling to reinvent itself for the next century.
What is emerging is a leaner agency dedicated more to exploration
and R&D than to spaceflight management and operation, which
increasingly will become the province of commercial companies. Some
analysts even see private firms leading efforts to establish moon
outposts, with NASA in only a supporting role.
The shift already has begun. The United Space Alliance, an
aerospace consortium, manages space-shuttle operations at the
Space Center in Florida. NASA is providing seed money to companies
interested in building new fleets of reusable rockets that cut the
cost of sending cargo into space. In September, the agency picked 11
universities and research institutions to form the core of its
Astrobiology Institute, which will focus on research into life in
universe. And last Saturday, NASA launched Deep Space 1, whose
primary goal is to test a dozen new technologies for future
NASA was born 40 years ago this month. But the US agency that put
humans on the moon, hurtled spacecraft beyond the solar system, and
took humans on a telescopic trip to the edge of the universe is
finding its first 40 years a tough act to follow.
"If you look at NASA and the moment and don't look behind the
scenes, you see an agency reflying an American hero but not doing
anything really exciting," says Patricia Dash, executive director of
the National Space Society in Washington.
In fact, House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently lambasted the agency
for making "space as boring as possible."
It's a perception NASA officials find grating. Mr. Goldin notes
that NASA has launched space probes an average of once every 11
recently, while missions are pulling in more data than they did
during the heyday of the $1 billion space probes.
With a major orbiting observatory scheduled for launch on the
shuttle in January, plus a decade-long set of missions to explore
Mars, Ladwig replies, "Tell me again we're boring? I don't get it."
YET he and others acknowledge that the climate NASA operates in is
much different than during the agency's heady early years, dictating
changes in its role and limiting the size of projects it undertakes. …