The shuttle Discovery's scheduled takeoff Wednesday will return NASA's grounded space program to flight. But the primary goal - to launch, orbit, and bring a crew back safely - more aptly fits the mission profile of a test flight. Truth be told, that prospect is not exactly where the space agency thought its orbiters would be at this stage.
Liftoff, the first since the 2003 Columbia disaster, marks the beginning of the end of an era, given that the remaining shuttles - Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour - are destined for permanent grounding in 2010, some 10 years short of their planned retirement date. The early mothballing stems from cost concerns: Safety expenses have increased dramatically while expected revenues from satellite launches have dried up. Yet even more than the questions about the shuttle, NASA's future must be settled. A balance must be struck between human and robotic exploration. Failure to present a clear vision for each role is likely to hamstring hopes for increased funding when Congress decides NASA's budget this fall.
In the short term, NASA must develop, build, and test a different manned spacecraft if it is to fulfill President Bush's vision for long-term robotic and human space exploration and a return to the moon in 2020 as a steppingstone to a manned Mars landing. This moon-Mars initiative puts severe pressure on NASA's budget. It forces the agency's new administrator, Michael Griffin, to build a next generation spaceship quickly without crippling the existing programs, which range from Earth observation satellites and aeronautics research to maintaining the Hubble telescope. And all the while it must fulfill commitments to European and Japanese partners in the half-completed International Space Station.
In the long term, NASA needs to recapture the imagination of a public grown restless with, or indifferent to, the long lead times required of major projects when humans are sent into space - the moon-Mars project is a perfect example. Fairly or unfairly, these efforts face comparison to the epochal Apollo program, which put men on the moon. Humanity is destined to explore the stars. As critical as engineering is to any of its missions, NASA must redouble efforts to help those on the ground see the long-term benefits of space exploration if they are to accept the short-term risks in money and lives of such endeavors.
NASA's future also lies in charting a cooperative course with other countries. The US largely had the space stage to itself with Apollo. For humanity to afford space adventure and "reach out beyond our pale blue dot," multiple nations need to join together. But a recent study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lists several barriers to NASA's ability to collaborate with other nations:
First, anything having to do with manufacture and export of US satellites is subject to the same review as munitions. That's because many satellites in near-earth orbit are the eyes and ears of the US military. Foreign governments, wanting to develop their own space program and at the same time sell abroad to the burgeoning Chinese aerospace market, are reluctant to buy US satellites or related components that they can't develop and sell as well. The sales ban is unavoidable in the near and intermediate term, as it reduces the risk of an all out space-weapons race. The US should commit itself to no offensive weapons in space, while also pushing all nations to follow suit through treaties.
Secondly, educating new scientists is essential to any space program. America isn't producing enough scientists and, after 9/11, it is harder for foreign students to study in the US and then stay here after they complete their studies.
Finally, President Bush's go-it-alone moon-Mars mission sent a negative message about cooperation to the European, Japanese, and Russian space agencies. That suggests the US is likely to include military aspects in the project.
Transparency in space research and technology can go a long way in assuring NASA's peaceful role as a leader in building international cooperation for an interdependent world. Humanity needs a common blueprint for space exploration. That is a vision NASA can help shape, and share with people around the world.