Penn Jillette, the world-famous magician (and fellow of the Cato Institute), has a saying: “Everybody got a gris-gris.” By that, Jillette means everyone has some irrational belief or superstition, something one believes even when knowing it is an unreasonable. We carry these superstitions through life like talismans, and we defend them when confronted with the cold light of reason. My gris-gris is NASA.
I love space exploration and the agency that has been at the forefront of it. NASA holds a deep romantic appeal to me. But I know I really shouldn’t love NASA.
NASA is a bloated, outdated, inefficient, and often incompetent organization, an atavism of 1960s government “big science” that served to balloon federal spending for what has been comparatively minor benefits. NASA has been on something of a downward spiral since the great triumph of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Sure, we’ve launched more satellites and we have a working space station, but all of our progress in the field of manned space flight has been chronically slow and disappointingly ineffectual.
George W. Bush tried to get America interested in space again by promising a manned Mars mission by 2020. Unfortunately, neither he nor NASA had a clear plan for how to accomplish the feat. President Obama has continued, somewhat inattentively, to support the plan. However, the chances of NASA sending humans to Mars seem dim, as The Economist reported this week:
“In June a non-partisan committee heaving with experts—among them astrophysicists, a space-shuttle commander and Mitch Daniels, a former White House budget chief and Republican governor of Indiana—issued a crushing verdict on NASA’s plans to put humans on Mars. After 18 months of study, their National Research Council (NRC) report found the project unsafe, underfunded and doomed to fail in its current form.”
It is really hard to continue to love NASA when reports like the NRC’s come out. Apparently the agency was just going to continue to chug along with its doomed plan until someone told them to stop. That blind momentum represents all that is wrong with big government projects of all stripes. It is tragic that our space program, and America’s (and the world’s) dreams of voyaging out into our solar system, should be held hostage by the incompetence of bureaucracy and institutional rot.
There has been some good news in the last few years, however: We may not even need NASA to reach for the stars. For decades, NASA had a special place because the technical expertise and funding requirements made a private sector alternative virtually impossible. That has begun to change. A number of visionary firms have begun investing heavily in private space flight. Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of eccentric entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has been testing their commercial spaceflight vessels since 2012 and plans to begin service this year. The Orbital Science Corp. has already begun unmanned deliveries of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX, the brainchild of businessman and futurist Elon Musk, is also developing private spaceflight, having already had a successful rendezvous with the ISS. SpaceX announced this week that it will be building a new launch facility in Brownsville, Texas.
NASA has already partnered with some of these businesses to replace purely government-run space travel. That is a very promising turn of affairs. As it seems like the American government (and the governments of the other wealthy nations) will be unable to lead humanity into space, it is probably a good thing that it favors the private sector picking up the slack.
There is a real majesty in space exploration. We live on a small world in a corner of the Milky Way. There is so much more out there to see and discover. I think Carl Sagan offers one of the most moving descriptions of that sentiment:
“In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
Truly, there can be no nobler endeavor than expanding not only human understanding, but also the potential for humanity’s very survival. We live in a dangerous universe, one that has occasionally treated our Earth cruelly. It seems unthinkable that our species could allow itself to be trapped on this one world, the fate of which could be determined by a single cosmic event, be it a solar flare or massive asteroid impact. Our universe is a beautiful and mysterious place, but it is also a dangerous one. We must as a species look outward to secure our future. For all we know, ours may be the only species to have attained sentience. Certainly it must be a rare occurrence, given the inhospitableness of so much of the universe. That sentience is what makes us so special; to borrow from Sagan once more, humanity is “a way to know itself.”
Space exploration, whether private or state-run, remains a crude enterprise. But the advent of private firms competing to reach the heavens is a positive step toward attaining the stars. The endeavor is a critical one, one that has been ill-served by NASA.
I may be able to shake my love of NASA, but I will never lose my love of spaceflight.