The latest proposed budget and mission plan for NASA–an organization formally known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, though you rarely see it spelled out in full–puts manned space exploration pretty far down the list.
My thoughts about this? Maybe that “formally” should become “formerly”, instead.
I'm thinking that NASA should change its acronym and name to NESA, for the National Earth Science Administration or the National Experimental Science Administration.
Why? NASA's top-priority missions seem to be lots of orbiting satellites scanning the Earth and heavens, some work on the International Space Station, and various unmanned space probes. These are all worthy objectives, but with all respect, they are “just” science and engineering. They aren't space exploration in the true sense of the word “explore”, where you are looking for what you don't know is there, and where you are taking tangible human-life risks (and “risk” is apparently no longer an acceptable parameter in space missions).
A February 3 column in The Wall Street Journal by 1979 Physics Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg, (“Obama Gets Space Funding Right,” made the case that unmanned exploration is the right way to go, from a cost/benefit/risk/ROI perspective. He's absolutely right–but only if your priorities are scientific data collection and high-end physics experiments, such as looking for elusive gravity waves, dark matter, remnants of the birth of the universe, or water in the soil on Mars. And those are his priorities, of course.
If you look at the work NASA presently does, whether by checking their web site or via NASA Tech Briefs , you see that a lot of it actually has little to do with space exploration, unless you stretch the definition of space exploration pretty far. Instead, much of its efforts are directed towards basic science and research. In many ways, NASA's numerous labs and programs have become the replacements for the now-atrophied corporate research and development labs and institutions, such as the venerated Bell Labs. This is not a bad thing, but it means that the headline title and mission of “NASA”, and the underlying specifics are not aligned, to use modern management-speak.
I'm not taking sides on manned versus unmanned here. There is no doubt that manned space exploration is hard: at a minimum, it's roughly between ten times and a hundred times more costly, challenging, and just-plain difficult than unmanned efforts. But it serves a very different purpose than well-defined orbital satellite and deep-space probes.
Whether we want to do both the better-defined science and data-collections projects only, or truly do both and go into the real unknown, is the question we have to face. But at the least, we and NASA should admit to the reality of what's going on now and what the proposed future will mean.♦