The Role of NASA 40 Years after the Lunar Landing
July 20, 2009
As the United States celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first human footsteps on the Moon, it cannot escape notice that the country has spent five times longer figuring out if, when, how, and why we should return to the Moon than it took us to figure out how to get there in the first place. Today, despite the benefit of four decades of technological advances since the last Apollo lunar mission, the United States finds itself wrestling with the challenge of trying to return a person to the lunar surface before the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing rolls around. How is it that the agency that successfully sent people to the Moon in 1969 finds itself unable to do so today, despite tremendous technological developments, the available assistance of a number of space-faring nations, and vast amounts of cumulative funding since the last lunar mission? The root of the problem is that the nation’s leading agency for space exploration has no actual mandate to explore space and, by congressional legislation, has had its list of tasks expanded to include a number of things that are related to neither space nor exploration.
The purpose of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (the “Space Act”), which created NASA, was to “provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Unfortunately, this mandate provides no particular sense of direction or reason to carry out such activities, a vagueness of purpose that wasn’t fully apparent then and wouldn’t be for many years. Shortly after its creation, NASA was tasked by President John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, with the very specific mission of “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” This concrete, if difficult, task became NASA’s reason for existence until July 24, 1969. On that date, the crew of Apollo 11 safely returned to Earth after making a successful landing on the lunar surface, answering President Kennedy’s challenge. Once NASA had met this challenge, the agency lost, in fact if not in law, its specific reason to exist.
Q1: How did we get here?
A1: NASA’s precursor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was established in 1915 to help the United States achieve and maintain technological leadership in aviation. NACA’s role in achieving this objective was “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solutions.” At the dawn of the space age, it was entirely unclear whether or not it was even possible to send any living creature into space, let alone humans, and most certainly whether or not humans could successfully work and live in space. Given this basic uncertainty about the possibility of human spaceflight, NASA’s focus on research and technology development matched both its mandate and circumstances.
Even after Alan Shephard became the first American in space with his May 5, 1961, suborbital flight, NASA was still addressing fundamental questions about the possibility of “flight…outside the Earth’s atmosphere” as directed in the Space Act. Yet, 20 days later, President Kennedy gave a speech to a special joint session of Congress and called on the United States to land a man on the surface of the Moon and return him safely to Earth before 1970, transforming NASA from a technology development agency into the de facto national space exploration agency.
The clarity and simplicity of this directive was critical in giving NASA a guiding star to follow. But the exclusive focus of Kennedy’s challenge on a specific destination meant that on July 24, 1969, on the return of Apollo 11 from the Moon, NASA’s guiding star disappeared. Its mandate as the de facto national space exploration agency had expired.
The expiration of the de facto mandate confined NASA to its exiting de jure purpose: “to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Given the nebulous nature of this directive, focus shifted to the nine benefits that the Space Act expected would result from the fulfillment of NASA’s “research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere.” Lacking any clear overarching direction for their activities, NASA directorates developed a measure of schizophrenia yielding ultimately to parasitic competition and senseless cannibalism. Should NASA focus on “preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology” or “cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations”? Which is a higher priority, the “expansion of human knowledge of the Earth” or the “improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles”?
It may, at least sometimes, be possible to make some of these things fit together in a complementary fashion. However, NASA has generally been given insufficient policy or legislative guidance in determining which of the list of benefits to be obtained can be compared, combined, balanced, or differentiated. Given the absence of any single clear objective, and faced with an ever-expanding list of new “top priorities” that the agency has been assigned over the years, it is no great surprise that the United States has not sent a person beyond low Earth orbit since 1972.
Q2: What is happening now?
A2: Since the end of Apollo, many people have earnestly been trying to recapture the purpose and mission that so successfully animated the national space program during the early days of the space age. The push to develop a space transportation system—the space shuttle—was one of the first efforts after Apollo to refocus the agency on a concrete, identifiable objective, with the implicit hope that, unlike the Moon challenge, achieving this objective wouldn’t lead the agency into a dead end and would provide further growth. In some respects, this was almost a return to the original purpose that guided NASA—“to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere”—but with a clearer notion of what developing this specific technology was to achieve. While the shuttle was a vast improvement over its predecessors in terms of cargo, crew size, mission duration, and a host of other capabilities, it never fully achieved anywhere near the degree of cost-effectiveness and reusability its original advocates had either sought or promised. More significantly, however, in becoming the main focus of NASA’s efforts, much like the first Moon landing, once the de facto agency mission had been achieved—the building and operation of the space shuttle—NASA’s focus reverted to the nine assorted benefits outlined in the Space Act. The main difference now was that the continuing operation of the space shuttle became the basic underlying purpose of the agency. At that point, the shuttle program found itself trying to achieve the nine benefits in order to justify its existence, while simultaneously competing for scarce remaining funds with other agency programs that were also seeking to achieve those same nine benefits.
This typifies the risk of technology-oriented rather than capability-oriented goals. Once a given technology is developed, maintenance of that technology, rather than further expansion of capabilities, becomes paramount. Therefore, even though the primary reason for developing a space shuttle was to allow for cheap, easy, routine access to space, once it flew, the original reasons for making a space shuttle receded into the background and attention shifted to flying the shuttle in order to deliver the benefits delineated in the Space Act. The perverse result of this was the fact that the need to continue operation of the shuttle ended up preserving the very same problems it had been intended to address. A similar evolution has been seen in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Even after overcoming great technical hurdles, the majority of the original reasons that the ISS was to be built have faded into the background, leaving the construction of the ISS itself as the main objective—not the delivery of the capabilities it is meant to provide.
Q3: Can we get anywhere from here?
A3: If neither technology-oriented nor destination-oriented objectives seem able to provide a sense of direction to guide the nation’s efforts in space, then what can? To approach this question, it is useful to ask why President Kennedy’s challenge to go to the Moon was so effective in providing NASA with leadership. The critical element of this challenge that was, although never explicit, so important to NASA’s health and growth during this period was the transformation—at least in fact, if not in law—into an exploration agency. If we wish to see NASA act effectively as a space exploration agency, then the most direct way to do this is to amend the Space Act to explicitly task the agency with the job of space exploration. However, before we do so, we must define what space exploration actually is.
Space exploration is the expansion of human influence in space.
This definition of exploration is inherently one of capacity building. Human influence in space is a measure of our ability to do useful things beyond the Earth’s surface. In order to do something useful, there has to be some sort of human presence—either humans themselves or their robotic proxies. Once some measure of human influence has been established at some destination in space, there are two ways a space exploration agency can expand that influence. First, the agency can decrease the costs and increase the benefits of human influence at a given location until such influence becomes sufficiently useful that it is economically self-sustaining, at which point continued use of agency resources is unnecessary. Alternately, human influence can be extended to some new place that may in the future become home to some form of self-supporting human influence. The key element is that such a mandate compels each step to build on past accomplishments and lay the groundwork for future missions.
In this framework, it is the Gemini program, rather than the Apollo program, that was the most successful spaceflight program of the 1960s. The Gemini program built on the Mercury program and laid the technological foundation that ultimately led to a successful lunar landing. By contrast, after a mere six landings, the Apollo program didn’t lead to an expanded presence on the Moon. Instead, in 1979, almost 10 years after the first Moon landing, the last remnants of the Apollo program—the Skylab space station—burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving the United States with neither an operational vehicle to send people into space nor any particular destination to which they should be sent.
A mandate for expanding human influence can’t run out—it doesn’t punish success by eliminating the agency’s reason for being once a specific objective has been achieved. A mandate for extending human influence cannot get stuck on a particular technological path—if a given system isn’t expanding influence, then the system should be reworked or dropped in favor of a system that does. Defining the mission in this way also dictates that each individual mission has—at least as a secondary objective—the role of providing broader capabilities for a number of actors, including the private sector, to use in future missions.
There are a number of different ways that the nine benefits listed in the Space Act can be viewed if NASA is given an explicit mandate to extend human influence. But in such discussions it will be important to keep in mind that the main rationale for establishing space exploration as the NASA mandate is to provide a single overarching objective around which agency activities can be organized. Defining NASA’s mission as expanding human influence allows for all nine of the benefits outlined in the Space Act to be achieved, pursuant to an overarching objective; prioritized effectively, by the extent to which they contribute to the overall agency mission; and compared appropriately, by the extent to which they enable future extension of human influence.
But perhaps most importantly, with a mandate to explore that isn’t just understood but is explicitly delineated in policy and law, the current and future NASA administrators will have a powerful leadership tool to restore NASA’s clear sense of purpose and mission.
Vincent Sabathier is senior fellow and director, G. Ryan Faith an adjunct fellow, and Ashley Bander a research associate of Human Space Exploration Initiatives (HSEI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.