August 27, 1999
WASHINGTON, AUG. 27, 1999-Thirty years after Apollo 11 carried the first astronauts to the Moon, NASA has drifted far from the course charted by space pioneers of lunar bases, manned flights to Mars and space tourism. As Congress prepares to reauthorize funding for NASA, critics ask: Can the promise of space exploration be restored?
It can, but Congress needs to take steps aimed at creating "a more coherent space policy" for the United States, says a new paper from The Heritage Foundation. According to policy analyst Bryan T. Johnson, these steps include:
Refocusing NASA's priorities. In the 1960s, the agency succeeded in part because it had one goal: Beating the Soviets to the Moon. Today, NASA has all but abandoned space exploration in favor of "politically motivated" missions, such as studying the Earth's climate, building advanced airplanes and subsidizing Russia's role in the International Space Station. These activities drain much-needed funds and can be easily handled by other government agencies, Johnson says.
Requiring NASA to pursue fully reusable rockets. The rockets used to launch payloads into space today resemble the Saturn V rockets used by the Apollo astronauts: Each can be used only once, making launch costs prohibitively high. These costs must be brought under control before NASA can revive its mandate to explore space, Johnson writes. The Space Shuttle is partially reusable but remains too expensive. Congress should direct NASA to build a fully reusable rocket based on designs the agency has already developed.
Removing restrictions on the commercial use of space. With NASA holding a monopoly on space launches until the mid-1980s, Apollo-era predictions that the "last frontier" would soon be open to large-scale space tourism have yet to pan out. Congress should end the current quota restrictions on U.S. commercial activity in space, Johnson says.