Missing: Audacity

NASA has been suffering for two decades from the effects of American indecision about its space program. Declining spending power has resulted in an aging infrastructure and, to some extent, a brain drain. Some of the most talented, experienced scientists and engineers are retiring or simply leaving. As with any large middle-aged organization, NASA needs some revitalization. This is not a reflection of NASA’s scientists’ and engineers’ ability or commitment. I know a great many of them, and, given the circumstances, their dedication has been amazing.

The good news: current leadership is working on renewing the agency.

The bad news: they’re working without the audacious national mission we need. It’s as if NASA is a boxer training without any fight scheduled.

I have hope that the next president and Congress will craft just such a mission. When they do, though, they must include a study of how to upgrade NASA to meet the challenge. That includes improving the ways the agency interacts with other parts of the executive branch.

Just as importantly, space must be de-politicized. The space program already has citizens’ widespread bipartisan support. There’s no reason for the political parties to carry out their ideological agendas with space. Solving our nation’s problems, spurring the economy, inspiring STEM, leading the world: All Americans want these things. As the next chapter will argue, space is too big for provincial politics. And the space program itself represents the best expression of the American destiny.