The Winds of Change:
Is there a hurricane in the forecast?
The year was 1957. Economic growth in the Unites States was booming at unprecedented rates spurred by rapid population growth, federal spending, readily available credit, and consumer spending. The spread of communism, despite efforts to contain it, weighed heavily on the minds and hearts of Americans. With the successful launch of the first artificial satellites, the Soviet Union stunned America, overturning its confidence in its technological superiority. This brought to the political foreground what Americans perceived as a serious threat to national security. It was from these Cold War fears that in 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was conceived and from a budget funded by the nation's economic prosperity that it was born.
In the 37 years since its inception, the focus of NASA's mission has shifted dramatically. Where military programs were once its lifeblood, scientific research and development have taken its place. Technological advances were once just spin-offs capitalized on by private corporations, but industries now aggressively seek them out. The U.S. economy and the attitudes of Americans have also changed. The importance of NASA's mission is not clear to Americans, and they no longer see it as a necessity to the survival of America. As cutbacks sweep across the board of federal programs, NASA has found itself on the chopping block. While national defense is a proper function of government, scientific research and economic bolstering are no longer the kinds of programs that Americans care to fund through their tax dollars. This has left NASA with an unstable and politically controlled budget. Clearly this is not the way to run a successful venture. To be successful an organization must be able to market itself and its services, have a long-term budget available to support its programs, and be able to utilize its resources to strengthen its pursuits. . NASA is seriously struggling in these areas, but where governmental bureaucracy is failing, the private sector is at its best.
One of the largest challenges NASA has faced in recent years is the improvement of its public image. From technical problems in projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars Observer to the Challenger tragedy, NASA's public image is less than pristine. Attempts have been made to change this but they have not been successful due to lack of resources in marketing themselves and their services. With a budget of slightly more than $14 billion which is unstable at best, NASA has neither the time nor the money to invest in its public image.
While corporations can plan financially years into the future, NASA is at the mercy of Congress. Every year it risks losing any or all of its programs depending on the whims of a few hundred men and women whose decisions are based on the desires of their constituents. Rather than leaving the technical decisions up to scientists and engineers, this small group makes the decisions concerning which projects to fund. The private sector does not rely on politicians who are trying to get reelected to make technical decisions. Instead, corporations look to trained staff to advise them on what projects are feasible and then plan for funds to be available to carry out those projects on a long-term basis.
While it is not difficult to see that the private sector could best carry out commercial space applications, it is not so clear what would be the fate of more altruistic projects that spur scientific research and scientific education. Would research and educational outreach be neglected in favor of more profitable ventures? I would argue that the fate of NASA's educational and research programs is far brighter when placed in the hands of private industry rather than in the hands of politicians. The private sector has always been a strong supporter of education and research. Corporations know that although these types of programs do not provide a short-term profit, they are necessary to their survival and growth. In order for their ventures to thrive, corporations must have access to a well-trained work force and an educated consumer base to use their goods and services. And for technological advances to be made, research and development are seriously supported even if the potential for profit is not obvious. Companies are aware that technological advances often come unexpectedly and offer their researchers a wide leeway in pursuing projects.
While the private sector does have its problems, many (if not all) of NASA's programs would clearly be on more solid ground if they were not constantly being threatened by funding cuts and reprioritization by Congress. In today's political climate it will be difficult for NASA to continue to secure funding, let alone effectively carry out the programs that are funded. It is time for the private sector to take over and continue the work begun by NASA. As long as the exploration and development of space depend on Congressional funding it will continue to be in a state of constant jeopardy.
Mechanical Engineering Senior
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