Earthbound tasks for NASA

January 04, 2000|By Walter J. Boyne

THE National Aeronautics and Space Administration has enjoyed four decades of marvelous successes with only occasional failures. The American public has loyally supported NASA, and mostly still does, for it was NASA that took us to the moon and beyond.

But just as there is a point in an investment where the return on the dollar becomes marginal, so has NASA, at the end of the century, reached a point where the return on planetary exploration is marginal.

The difficulty lies not in the recent series of mishaps in the exploration of Mars, even those rooted in human errors such as mismatched measuring systems. Mistakes like these can occur in any demanding scientific adventure.

The basic problem is more sophisticated and requires both a leap of thought and the will to overrule the relatively few but very vocal proponents of deep space exploration.

NASA was able to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Nevertheless, it is far less imperative to reach Mars today, even by remote means.

Shuttle shackles

NASA is currently burdened with the almost intolerable expense and doubtful futures of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (both of which are admittedly focused on Earth-oriented science). It must spend what remains of its budget wisely.

A first step in doing so would be to cease all efforts in planetary exploration for an indefinite period, except for continued development of sensor technology and improved power sources. A corps of planetary-exploration scientists could be maintained for continuity.

NASA should focus instead on measures that would help the environment, improve agriculture and create an advanced forecasting system for earthquakes, hurricanes and other potential disasters.

Remembering that NASA had its origins in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, established in 1915, it could return to its roots and profitably invest far more in the aeronautics side of its mission, where it now spends only about 10 percent of its budget. There is much to be done, particularly in flight safety. NASA might even rescue the FAA with an improved air traffic control system.

The beauty of such an effort is that the returns would be immediate and long-lasting, and that nothing -- not even time -- would be lost in terms of planetary exploration. This sounds absurd on the face of it, but it is true for two reasons.

There are already vast amounts of unanalyzed data available on planetary exploration from previous NASA and foreign experiments. This data could not be analyzed for many years to come -- even if all scientists currently employed in planetary-exploration efforts were put to work at the task.

But there is a far more important factor, one that is obvious by inspection. Advances in computers in the next century will be so swift and so far-reaching that there will be vast improvements in the instruments of exploration and in analyses of the results.

Improvements

These advances will permit improvements in every aspect of planetary exploration, from the basic good science that is the constant measure of such efforts to building new space vehicles.

(We continue to gamble dollars and lives on propulsion systems that conceptually date back to the original Chinese rockets more than a millennium ago.)

If NASA would confine its efforts in planetary exploration to the development of experimental equipment -- applying all of the advances in computer technology -- it can celebrate its 2058 centennial anniversary with a visit to Mars at far less cost and with a greater certainty of results.

Concentrating NASA's immense human, physical and financial resources to the benefit of Mother Earth and aeronautics would be a winning solution for the world. The only losers would be the current proponents of planetary exploration, who would have to change the focus of their careers.

Walter J. Boyne, a retired Air Force colonel and former director of the National Air and Space Museum, wrote this for Newsday.

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