For NASA, a shift in focus could ease costly burdens

January 09, 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 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, or 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 is 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 hard 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.

Helping aviation

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 Federal Aviation Administration by improving the 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 on planetary exploration. 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 now employed in planetary-exploration efforts were put on the task. But there is a far more important factor. The advances in computers in the next century will be so swift and far-reaching that there will be vast improvements both in the instruments of exploration and in the analyses of the results. 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.

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 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.

Walter J. Boyne is a retired Air Force colonel and former director of the National Air and Space Museum. He wrote this for the Knight-Ridder News Service.

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