NASA Celebrates An Uncertain Birthday
By James Grahame
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed on this day in 1958, tasked with managing the USA's fledgling civilian space program as well as advanced aeronautics and aerospace research. Over the course of 52 years, the agency has led the Apollo lunar missions, the development of Skylab, the Space Shuttle program and contributed a sizeable share of the International Space Station.
The cost of space exploration is astronomical -- NASA's budget was $17.6 billion in 2009. After cutbacks throughout the 1990s, the agency began to focus heavily on robotic exploration of the solar system rather than pricey and technically challenging manned missions. While some disagree with this shift, others argue that robotics have advanced to the point where semi-autonomous machines such as the Spirit and Opportunity Mars landers can perform important scientific research at a fraction of the cost of sending humans to other planets.
Nevertheless, NASA is at a crossroads. The aging Space Shuttle fleet is being withdrawn from service, with no immediate replacement following President Obama's cancellation of the Constellation program, which was to be the next generation of American manned space vehicles. For the time being, the United States is reliant on Russia to launch astronauts into low earth orbit. It's a scary point in the history of space exploration, especially with ballooning budget deficits and high unemployment back on earth.
It's an emotional time for many space enthusiasts of my generation. I perched on my mother's lap during Armstrong and Aldrin's stroll on the lunar surface and watched the maiden launch of Columbia in the school gym. I grieved through the Challenger and Columbia accidents and followed the missions and misadventures of various Mars landers with fascination. And now I sit writing these words, fearing that the best is behind us and that we might never get a chance to explore the last frontier, even though NASA and the NSF recently discovered the first potentially habitable exoplanet.