“You put an X anyplace in the Universe and the engineers at NASA can land a spacecraft on it’’ – spoken by the character Isaac Jaffe, Executive Producer of Sports Night. That quote above pretty much sums up my feelings about NASA. They can do the impossible.
In May 1961, three weeks or so after the United States put its first man in space, President John F. Kennedy challenged our country to put a man on the moon and return him home safely in the nine years left in the 1960s. Our total manned space flight experience our country had at that point was 20 minutes, and he was challenging us to visit another celestial body which was 2400 times further away than we traveled before.
Most people would have said, “No way, we can’t do it.” The engineers at NASA said, “Let’s get going, we can do it.” It turned out to be an excruciatingly hard process, lives were lost and lessons were learned, but 8 years, 1 month, and 29 days later, we landed men on the moon. It’s interesting that I say “We” in the previous sentence. It was almost ten years before I was born when Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility, however like most people, I see the moon landing as an accomplishment of human kind, not of any particular nation. Surely, the United States put its prestige and wealth behind making it happen, but it was an accomplishment that all human kind could be proud of.
No other government government agency, regardless of country, has ever accomplished such a feat. No other government agency has inspired millions of people like NASA has and continues to do. When I visited Johnson Space Center last week, I was impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the NASA and contractor employees that I met. Space was not only their job, it was their passion. I could plainly hear it in the way that they talked about what they did. Those are the kind of people I want running our space program, people who love space as much as I do.
Another reason that NASA inspires people is because of its almost human nature. NASA, as an agency, isn’t perfect. It makes mistakes, some big some small. Some of those mistakes and mindsets have cost lives, BUT the agency and its people have learned from each of them and grown past them. When Apollo 1 caught fire on its launch pad, people thought that it might be the end of the space program. Instead, NASA renewed its determination to get the job done, fixed the errors that it had made, and went forward. The mistake had been made, but NASA overcame it. When Apollo 13 suffered its explosion, the folks at NASA worked indefatigably to fix the problem and the crew came home against all odds. It was indeed NASA’s finest hour. When Spacelab lost part of its heat shield and solar panels during launch, sure people were disappointed and angry, but the attitude quickly changed to let’s fix this. In 1986, when the Challenger exploded during launch and in 2003, when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, the same thing happened each time. Errors were fixed, lessons learned, and our exploration of space went on.
Yes, that’s a simplification, but I stand by my point.
During the Apollo era, NASA’s budget was approximately 5.5% of the total federal budget. Today it’s only 0.5% of the federal budget. Look what we get for that amount. We have a functional manned spaceflight program sending astronauts to low earth orbit. We have a space telescope sending some of the most beautiful and stunningly scientific images down to Earth. We have numerous probes scouting different parts of our Solar System and sending back data every day. We have aeronautic research improving the aircraft that we fly on every day. We have satellites observing our planet and giving us data on what’s going on here on Earth. Imagine what we would get if we funded it to the proper level.
So, I say this: where are we going to draw our X? When is the deadline? Wherever we choose to go, NASA will get us there…