The long-overdue retirement of the aging Space Shuttle program two years ago received a great deal of media coverage. This has led some people (including, to my distress, one of my daughter's high school teachers) to erroneously conclude that NASA no longer exists.
In fact, while NASA's budget today is less than half of its 1966 peak, the US space agency is possibly engaged in more missions now than at any other time in its history.
As I write this, five men and one woman are orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station. The Curiosity rover just completed its first year on Mars, and is on its way to the base of a three-mile-high Martian peak, where it will delve into the planet's geological past. The New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, is more than halfway on its 3 billion mile journey to Pluto. Meanwhile, the Cassini probe continues to explore Saturn and its moons. And the data from the Kepler space telescope, currently under repair after exceeding its initial planned lifetime, is being analyzed to discover planets around other suns, well over a hundred of which have been found so far. These are just a few of the exciting missions NASA is carrying out.
Yet it's commonplace to hear engineers lament the small size of the NASA budget, the lack of a successor to the Space Shuttle, the lack of a US heavy launch vehicle, and the fact that no human being has left Earth's orbit since December 1972. The present state of the US space program is contrasted with the "good old days" of the Apollo program. The conclusion is almost always that NASA today is a pale shadow of what it once was.
While I share in the admiration for the achievements of the early days of the US space program, and in the desire to see greater progress in human space exploration, I think that a pessimistic attitude is both misguided and counterproductive. Not only will such an attitude fail to encourage legislators to invest more heavily in space exploration, but -- more importantly -- it will fail to inspire our children to dream about space. In short, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Most engineers are savvy enough to know that if you want to ask your manager for more resources for a project, complaining about your inability to meet your objectives is not a good strategy. Instead, you should show the results you have already achieved, and how much more could you achieve with greater resources.
Similarly, legislators are unlikely to support the space program if they are led to believe that it is only a dying relic of the Cold War past. No politician wants to be associated with a lost cause, and after bailing out the financial and automotive industries, another "bailout" is unlikely to be a winning political proposition. Instead, legislators need to understand that the space program is vital, exciting, and is doing incredible things.
Most importantly, we need to teach young people to have an optimistic view of the future of human space exploration. That means looking forward, rather than looking back nostalgically at the space program's past. We owe our children a positive vision that will inspire their imaginations. After all, they are the ones whose hard work, study, creativity, and determination will lead humanity on its next adventure.