Space on a Shoestring: NASA Reinvents Itself the Agency Sending John Glenn into Space Today Is Not the NASA of 30 Years Ago. Series: US in Space - Past and Future
Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 says. "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 Kennedy 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 the universe. And last Saturday, NASA launched Deep Space 1, whose primary goal is to test a dozen new technologies for future spacecraft. 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 weeks 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. …