NASA announced its new heavy-lift booster design last week, called...wait for it...the SLS, for Space Launch System...and explained that it would take astronauts to an asteroid, and then to Mars in 20+ years. Few people cared, and those that did immediately started griping about the cost.
What a missed opportunity, brought to us by a government agency that specializes in removing even the slightest hint of excitement, passion, or meaning from activities that should be brimming over with all of the above. It really takes some skill to turn the Ultimate Adventure into a bureaucratic afterthought.
The problems are strategic -- NASA has no meaningful purpose -- and tactical, in that it couldn’t communicate its way out of a paper bag even if it did have something worth telling us.
Exploration didn't used to be so boring. Monarchs and then consortia of the rich and/or foolhardy commoners put up the money for voyages of discovery starting in the Middle Ages, though by "discovery" they meant discover profits. The New World was thus explored and exploited, as was the westward expansion of the United States. Sure, scientists tagged along on many of the gigs, but the governments involved in exploration were foremost interested in making money (or in getting undesirables off their shores, which also promised a monetary benefit).
Such uniting of individual and national lust for wealth was the engine of exploration for all of history.
NASA was an aberration to this model, created out of a few conflicting government agencies in the late 1950s so the U.S. could catch up with the Soviet space program. For almost the first time ever, exploration was offered as the absolute goal; President Kennedy told us that we had to reach the Moon, well, because. Once we got there, the exploration thing kinda lost its luster, and NASA went about doing what every other government agency does...finding things to do in order to warrant its continued funding.
No vision. No awareness of the role exploration has played in the development of nearly every society throughout history. No utilization of the profit motive as the driver for its efforts (at best it was always an after-thought, like Teflon or Tang).
So now NASA wants to build huge rockets to send probes to asteroids and Mars. Who cares? Maybe some folks in the science communities, and of course space program nutcases like yours truly. But to everyone else it's a distraction, at best, and more like utterly irrelevant. That giant rocket isn't called the New Hope or Andromeda or something catchy, but SLS, which sounds like an acronym buried in a budget (which it is). Or a disease.
NASA needs to utterly reinvent itself as the agency that helps make private individuals take big risks for big payoffs, and do what government have done for all of history: Lead. Without such reinvention, I fear this SLS and its missions will disappear in a few years -- and after billions of dollars have been spent -- in favor of another expenditure, whether in outer space or not. We don’t need NASA as much as NASA needs itself. It’s time to change the model so we can need it, perhaps for the real, first time in its history, to do things like:
- Start selling rights to develop low orbit opportunities
- Decide what's worth mining on the Moon and get private businesses to ante up
- Solve the damn energy problem with Solar power, or whatever
Now for the communications tactics. Yuck. That's all I can say. NASA comes up with the successor launch vehicle to the Space Shuttle and the best it can do it prompt a debate about its cost? Landing on an asteroid is potentially wildly cool (if you saw Bruce Willis in Armageddon, you know what I'm talking about). Why are bureaucrats announcing such an adventure? Ditto for the Mars thing. I mean, c'mon, we're talking about generations of curiosity and imagination devoted to the place, and that's not the lead? Don't describe how important it is. Show it. Live it. Help us feel it.
I'm so frustrated by how virtual reality has captured popular attention when the reality of reality is so much cooler, at least when it comes to space adventures. Cook, Darwin, Lewis & Clark, whomever...so much of history was written by the reality of explorers in search of (or in service to) profits, and our space program is being run by bureaucrats who are working overtime to keep their jobs. I'm sure they’re good, sincere, and talented people, but...
...they need a new mission, and a new set of tools with which to communicate it.
(Image credit: If you have to say you’re cool, you’re not)