A Waste of Space: As NASA Turns 50, Expect to Hear Much about Lunar Landings and Giant Leaps for Mankind. but Today a Sense of Unease Hangs over an Agency That Badly Needs to Free Itself from the Shackles of the Past

By McKie, Robin | New Statesman (1996), April 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Waste of Space: As NASA Turns 50, Expect to Hear Much about Lunar Landings and Giant Leaps for Mankind. but Today a Sense of Unease Hangs over an Agency That Badly Needs to Free Itself from the Shackles of the Past


McKie, Robin, New Statesman (1996)


Fifty years ago this month, President Eisenhower announced he was going to end his nation's space race humiliations. He would be establishing a national aeronautical agency that would control America's civil rocket launches and restore the country's ailing scientific reputation. The Soviet Union was then grabbing world headlines with space spectaculars that included putting the first animal, Laika the dog, into orbit. By contrast, America had little else but explosions and ignition failures on launch pads to show for its efforts in postwar rocketry. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) would stop the rot and restore America's faltering space endeavours, Eisenhower told Congress on 2 April 1958.

Thus Nasa, which went on to earn itself a reputation for unfailing technological expertise, was brought into existence primarily to save America from political ignominy. Grand schemes for traversing the heavens and revolutionising space exploration were afterthoughts. And thereby hangs a tale. In coming months, as the agency celebrates its 50th birthday and displays itself as the source of endless technological triumphs, there will be much harking back to glory days: to US flags planted on the Moon and to giant leaps made for mankind.

But behind the bunting and the bombast, it will be hard to avoid the sense of unease hanging over Nasa. Yes, it has achieved great things, but it is also beset by major political and financial worries. This, after all, is one of the world's most lavishly funded scientific organisations, an agency with an annual budget of $16bn ([pounds sterling]8bn). American taxpayers who provide that money are entitled to see significant results. The question is: do they get enough of them? After 50 years, has the agency done enough to justify the money that has been pumped into it? What has it done for science and, more importantly, what is it likely to do in the future? Answers to these questions make disturbing reading.

For a start, we should note that Nasa has now less than a dozen flights to make on the space shuttle, the only craft it has for putting human beings into space. In 2010, its shuttle fleet is to be grounded permanently; the risks of another Challenger or Columbia disaster occurring are considered to be too high to be endured. Thus, in a couple of years, Nasa will be unable to send men and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), even though its $100bn cost has been met principally by US taxpayers. Instead America will be entirely dependent--until 2014 or 2015 when replacement rockets are ready--on Russia to get men and women into space, a situation that Moscow is likely to use, primarily, to extort geopolitical concessions from the US.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But how on Earth has Nasa ended up rocket-less and technologically impotent? Most agency supporters blame politicians. Nasa has certainly been shunted in every possible direction by different White House administrations, many of them deeply suspicious of and unfriendly towards space exploration. The claim is only partially valid, however--for Nasa, right from the start, has tried to control political agendas as much as it has let itself be shaped by them, according to the historian Gerard DeGroot, author of Dark Side of the Moon. In 1960 John F Kennedy used US space failures to attack the Republican Party and win the presidency by claiming America was dangerously exposed to Russian rocket attacks. He exaggerated Soviet space achievements and underplayed America's. Nasa, which might have been expected to defend its reputation, said nothing: it knew it would flourish under Kennedy. "Thus Kennedy was like Nasa," says DeGroot. "On the surface, both were handsome, articulate, bold and brave. Underneath, both were manipulative, mendacious, scheming and untrustworthy."

Later Kennedy found he had inherited an agency that was devouring more cash than any other federal programme. …

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