Today, 13 April 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of the explosion that rocked Apollo 13. If you have ever seen the Ron Howard film, or read the book by astronaut Jim Lovell, you know the story of how the United States space program turned a potential tragedy into an amazing triumph. What happened over the few days following that explosion truly demonstrated what American ingenuity was all about in the heyday of NASA.
But that heyday is long gone, it seems. It has been replaced by a lackluster performance by a nearly defunct national space agency that seems to be gasping for air as it tries to justify its existence.
In 2011, the last Space Shuttle landed and since then, the United States has not launched an American into space from home soil. NASA's astronauts have been catching rides with the Russians for nearly a decade, at a cost of some $70+ million per astronaut.
The International Space Station, that great orbiting laboratory flying 250-miles above the Earth, is set to be decommissioned by the U.S. in the next few years. Billions of U.S. dollars were spent to engineer, build, launch, and assemble the ISS, and NASA plans to simply let it fall out of orbit, or hand it over to some other nation.
What has happened to NASA and the mission that Kennedy entrusted the agency of realizing?
Has America decided that it is no longer worth exploring space?
Is NASA relevant in the twenty-first century?
These questions, and others, need to be addressed if the United States is going to maintain its lead in space exploration. As China, India, Russia, Japan, and Europe continue to build up their national space programs, the United States seems to be doing all it can to ensure that it becomes irrelevant for the future of mankind's exploration of space.
Now, some will argue that the United States remains relevant as it hands over the exploration beyond the atmosphere to private companies. Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and others are building new spacecraft designed to ferry astronauts and supplies to the ISS, while NASA focused its energies on returning to the Moon and going to Mars. But as these private companies build up their capabilities, they are concerned with the same thing that all private companies are concerned with: what it is worth to them in terms of dollars.
The United States needs a strong national space program - reminiscent of the mid-1960s. NASA is so focused on doing things that are outside of its original charter (air and space) that there is little money left for the struggling agency to truly innovate and create a future for America in space.
Instead of focusing on environmental monitoring (a noble pursuit for other government agencies) and programs that do not relate to the advancement of aeronautics and astronautics, NASA needs to return to its original charter, and help maintain America's lead in space exploration. Only by innovating in the twenty-first century will the United States be capable of ensuring that it continues to lead the world when it comes to not only low-Earth exploration, but also returning to the Moon and going to Mars and beyond.
In the height of NASA's mission, the agency received about 4% of the national budget. Today, NASA operates on less than 1% of the national budget. Yet, it is expected to do things that have nothing to do with advancing America's capability in space, while space-related programs fester and die because they are so grossly underfunded.
So, if it is still thought that America leads in space, it is time to rethink that attitude. It is time to realize that despite what NASA has achieved in the past, looking back over the last decade it has become clear that NASA no longer leads in space exploration. America is quickly losing ground to other nations, and that means that there will come a day when NASA will be unnecessary in the world and will be shut down completely.
But, it is not too late. If the United States wants to ensure that future generations of Americans have a reason to look to the stars at night and dream of what it would be like to explore them along with their fellow Americans, the country needs to give NASA a new challenge, one that can be met with the financial backing of the Government and has teh full support of the American people.
Only then will the country that engineered a way out of the Apollo 13 near-tragedy be ready to continue reaching for the stars and taking mankind beyond the bounds of our Pale Blue Dot.