Five decades ago this month, a brand-new agency of the U. S. government called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration went into business. In 1969, only a little more than a decade later, NASA scored the biggest triumph of its short existence by putting men on the moon. While it would not be fair to say it's been downhill ever since, there is general agreement that NASA is now a troubled, conflicted, underfunded, and rudderless organization. As a recent Associated Press retrospective points out, the Space Shuttle is a flying antique that NASA can't afford to keep and can't afford to get rid of. The Shuttle is our only way of getting to the International Space Station, and current plans are that when (or if) the Shuttle retires, we will rely on the Russians until we can come up with a new vehicle on our own. These days, relying on the Russians looks about as smart as relying on the housing market to keep rising.
This is not to deny that NASA has pockets of excellence here and there. But a few pockets don't make a garment, and clearly something needs to be done about NASA. In the spirit of Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal," I offer the following suggestions.
One way to find out what NASA is really worth is to have a garage sale. You could have different sales for hardware—things like the Deep Space Network, Shuttle spare parts, the giant Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in Florida—and the software—outfits like the Goddard Space Flight Center in Virginia, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and so on. If this garage sale is anything like ones I've had, we'll have to offer some real bargains. On the other hand, I can see some entrepreneurs who might see possibilities in selling rides on high-G centrifuges and swims in zero-G swimming pools. Rocket-engine firings on test stands will always attract crowds on the Fourth of July. And think how many loft-style condos you could make out of the VAB, once the Florida real estate market comes back.
And here's an idea to make the sale go better. Instead of sending a bunch of dull old highly trained engineers up to the Space Station in the next Shuttle flight, we go around the world and offer free rides to the most popular entertainers in the world, regardless of nationality. I have no idea who these people might be, but you can ask any young Chinese or Russian or Indian, and I'm sure they'll have plenty of suggestions. We send them up there with a couple year's supply of food, and then sit back and say, "Surprise, young people of the world! You've got to build the rocket to get them back!" This will do two things: it will probably move a lot more NASA surplus stuff off the shelves, and it will motivate a lot of young people to get interested in space flight real fast.
That ties in with my next idea: the deregulation of space. It is high time that we let the free market determine what we do out there, rather than a bunch of bureaucrats and politicians. Of course, the first step is advertising and publicity. The drama of rescuing those entertainers will make great reality TV. And of course, everybody wants to travel to places where famous people have been, so space tourism will get a tremendous boost. Tourism means motels, restaurants, and all the other things that go with development. Having your latte at an altitude of 200,000 miles will give a whole new meaning to the word "Starbucks."
Naysayers will object that space travel is expensive, dangerous, and ought not to be approached with the reckless exuberance of a prospector looking for gold in a newly discovered territory. I counter that this is exactly the attitude we want. Every new generation looks around for some object to focus its idealism on. There are people out there who want to travel in space more than anything else, and we ought to get clunky old organizations like NASA out of their way and let them. The free market will determine the size of the effort, whether it's one private-enterprise rocket a year or a weekly space-bus trip from starports around the world. The good pieces of NASA that can contribute will find their places in this new order of the ages, and the rest, well, some things are better off simply coming to an end.
Nothing will ever take away the fact that once upon a time, an organization of people and machines known as NASA put men on the moon. But that was close to forty years ago. Five hundred years ago, Queen Isabella funded Columbus's voyages to the New World. But nobody has tried to keep the Spanish court going ever since simply to send more Niñas and Pintas and Santa Marias out to do battle with the wind and the waves. If NASA's time has come to fold its doors, let's at least try to get some of our money back in the process. And let's encourage the world at large to do what it really wants to do with space—by putting its money where its mouth is.
Sources: The AP story on NASA's troubled 50th anniversary can be found at http://www.newsvine.com/_news/2008/09/29/1930411-analysis-is-the-right-stuff-now-lost-in-space. Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" for the Irish to solve their overpopulation and poverty problems by eating their children was obviously intended to be ironic, as is the case with my proposals above. Swift's original essay can be read at http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/modest.html.