Let’s take a short hop back in the time machine to December 11, 2017, President Trump passes Space Policy Directive 1. (As if there was never a space policy in place before his arrival.) The policy essentially was an order for NASA to drop what it’s doing and focus on going to the moon again. Fast forward to early last week when the only part of going back to the moon that made any sense was canceled in favor of exploring the mission sometime later, maybe, by using NASA’s commercial subcontractors. SpaceX, ULA, etc.
Resource Prospector was an unmanned lunar landing mission whose purpose was to travel to the yet unexplored polar region to look for ice on the surface of the moon. Water is, of course, a critical resource for human life, but beyond that, it is perfect as an easyish way to get a rocket into space. If this seems baffling at first glance remember what water is made of, hydrogen and oxygen. Now to have a fire you need an oxidizer and the flammable material for it to react with. As you can probably figure out by now oxygen is the perfect oxidizer and hydrogen has a tendency to go all Hindenburg whenever it is ignited. Now the process to split the two is still far from perfectly efficient but we do know that finding water ‘in situ’ (which is a fancy word for ‘there’) is a critical step for establishing a moon base or habitation anywhere for that matter. So in a manner very typical of Trump, we have abandoned the part of the mission that is supposed to accomplish something for the part of it that is a public relations stunt.
Now I’m being hard on Trump here because I think sometimes he is a little too uncompromising for my tastes. But this a problem that happens literally every four years. The makeup of the federal government is such that the objective of NASA is driven by the president. Who then almost immediately changes it upon entering into office, mainly for PR reasons. Thus ordering the agency to abandon half the projects it has been working on to start on this new path, and then later abandoning half of those projects as budget cuts demand. This is a problem that will always exist as long as the agency functions in that specific place of the federal government’s org chart. NASA will always fail if its mission statement gets a drafted by someone who considers it their lowest priority.
Unfortunately, I believe this is the same reason SpaceX is so popular today. I guarantee you that every one of those Space nerds that go crazy over the Falcon launches (all variants) feel the same way about NASA and could list off pages of trivia data about Mercury, Gemini (said with extra ee’s), and Apollo. But they have all come to mistrust NASA. They have all started to react with an attitude of “yea sure” whenever a new mission is announced. And to support this may I please draw your attention to this hardly insignificant Wikipedia list of canceled NASA missions.
I think that if we as a people want NASA to be relevant in the future we need to give it a mission that is guaranteed to be seen through to completion. Whatever we decide that should be. And we should make that decision. Democratically, the way the government is allegedly supposed to work. We could abandon it, or marginalize it. If that is indeed what we as a people chose. But we do need NASA. For the same reason that it was the expedition to find the new world was financed by Queen Isabella of Spain and the Dutch East India Company. Because projects that have little potential for short-term profit simply don’t get done by for-profit organizations. But just look how much money coming to America has made for the European in the long term (exploitation of natives notwithstanding.) We need governments to bankroll these kinds of projects because who else will? We are lucky enough to see SpaceX making some progress on this front but more is always better. If you’ve read this to completion please comment as I would like to hear readers thoughts on these complex issue.