When President Kennedy stood before Rice Stadium in 1961 and declared that America would “go to the moon,” the U.S. was well behind the Soviet Union in rocket technology, and knew it. The humiliation of Sputnik was still fresh in the mind of the American public, doubled when the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 became the first probe to impact the moon in 1959. Only months earlier, the Vostok program had even beaten the American Project Mercury to put the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space.
In a now-classic example of public-private partnership, the newly formed NASA, led by German scientists like Wernher von Braun, worked with American companies over the next ten years to develop rockets like the Saturn V — still the tallest, largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever deployed. Especially in a world where many people still remembered the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, this was the height of human achievement.
Since that grand decade, however, NASA has been going through troubled times. After landing on the moon, the agency slowly devolved to project delays, canceled plans and pork-barrel politics. It’s tempting to say that NASA just needs a new grand vision, but countless proposals for deep space voyages, moon colonies and Mars expeditions have come and gone already. Just a few years ago, NASA publicity was hailing “Project Constellation,” only to be replaced by “Deep Space Gateway,” and then by “Lunar Orbital Platform,” all of which were duds. But if leading manned expeditions isn’t working, what is NASA’s purpose? Particularly for students planning to go into aerospace or government, this question is not merely an academic one.
First off, let’s make clear that NASA’s purpose should not be to build rockets. Unlike during the Cold War, rocket technology is now both reliable and common. Mature rocket designs, like the European Ariane V and the American Delta family, have superb safety records. Your correspondent hardly needs to tell a Stanford audience how industry newcomers, like SpaceX and Blue Origins, are pushing technology and lowering launch prices with reckless abandon. Taken together, these firms prove again and again that there’s a sound market for launch vehicles — everyone, from the military to Google, is going to space. If NASA never built another rocket, the pace of advancement would hardly falter. According to their 2018 budget, however, the Space Launch System (NASA’s latest large launch vehicle) eats about $4 billion every year. For context, that’s nearly eight times the annual cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s eventual replacement. These rocket programs should be first to go.
Instead, NASA’s job should be to do things only the government can, or would, do: pushing the frontiers of space research through pure science. There is no economic incentive for large telescopes like Hubble, unconventional research on ion engines and nuclear-thermal drives or robot explorers like Curiosity and Voyager. While less flashy, these projects have laid the foundation for the space knowledge we now take for granted. If work like that will be done, NASA will need to be the one to do it.
In short, we should accept that today’s NASA is more national laboratory than anything else. Help it be that, steadily and quietly accruing knowledge, until outside fears and national pride again push us to the stars.
— Christopher Rielage ’21
Contact Christopher Rielage at crielage ‘at’ stanford.edu.
This article is part of the Stanford Space Initiative’s column ‘Looking Up’.