The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has had a long and storied history in the course of American scientific exploration. Since its founding in 1958 during the U.S/Soviet Space Race to the disasters of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles and their 14 dead astronauts, the agency has also had its fair share of ups and downs.
NASA’S Past Successes and Declining Prestige
Since the height of its popularity and funding during the Apollo program in the late 1960’s, NASA’s budget has dropped to less than 30% of what it was at the time. Concurrently, public opinion of NASA and support for a federally funded space program have both also undergone a steady decline over the ensuing decades to reach new lows as of the late 2000’s. Support of a multi-billion dollar space program is particularly unpopular during these recessionary times in which government spending gets criticized on many fronts.
During the several decades of its existence, NASA has deployed many wildly successful missions and advanced knowledge of physics, astronomy, aeronautical engineering and space flight considerably through these expeditions. Programs like the Gemini missions, the famous Apollo flights and the Skylab space station have all benefited human knowledge of the above-mentioned fields in many ways.
However there have also been numerous failures and cases of mismanagement. The space shuttle program, despite its fame, was a financial disaster from the start; in terms of the real cost of getting each shuttle up into orbit vs. the originally proposed idea of a cheap, easy to refit space cargo transporter for potentially commercial use. During the original planning stage, NASA engineers had estimated that per-flight costs would amount to slightly less than $10 million dollars. The actual cost was over 120 times higher at between $1.2 and $1.5 billion per flight.
Furthermore, partly due to sheer accident and partly due to what are labeled by many as cases of administrative incompetence, the shuttle program suffered two famous accidents that resulted in the deaths of 14 astronauts and billions in financial losses. Following the Columbia disaster, the problem that caused the disaster were not even addressed on successive flights, putting more astronauts at risk, a terrible oversight for flights that cost over a billion each. The shuttle program is now officially shut down, one less program under NASA’s shrinking list of duties.
Currently NASA’s budget is at its lowest point in history. Meanwhile private space ventures are slowly budding forward to overtake publically funded space exploration. Additionally, several foreign countries are also going ahead with their own space exploration efforts that may one day overtake even NASA’s future efforts if it continues at the current pace.
Not everything is doom and gloom, at least according to what NASA has planned on paper. Future projects include manned missions to several large asteroids, Mars and a return mission to the moon. An earlier idea of putting together a manned, permanent moon base was tabled by President Obama in favor of Asteroid missions.
NASA is also moving in the direction of commercial partnerships with foreign public space programs and private ventures. One of its recent commercial initiatives consisted of offering more than $270 million to four different companies as on offer to create cheaper methods of transporting cargo to the International Space Station.
Despite the ongoing publically funded Mars and Asteroid explorations, given NASA’s history of ballooning budgets and tabled grand plans, it may indeed be the case that its most practically useful way of ensuring its own future lies with lending it’s decades of hands on expertise in space exploration to commercial developers and other private ventures.
Another option would be to focus on unmanned robot missions, which are much cheaper and have shown a far better track record amongst NASA’s efforts.
About the author: Jeffery Fields has spent much of his life writing about important events and organizations. When he’s not writing he can be found reviewing hard laptop cases.