Today on Twitter, Jon Verville posed what seemed to be a simple question, “What fundamentally does NASA do? What should NASA do in the future?” As I sat there and thought about these two questions, I began to realize that my response surely would not fit into 140 characters. I mentioned this and Tim Bailey suggested I write a blog and link to it instead. What a great idea! I am sure there will be some that disagree with me on my, possibly rambling, thoughts but as I have followed NASA over the years these same thoughts have come to mind and the same topic has consistently come up in conversations. Moreover, the question I hear all the time is why do we need NASA. To begin to even answer that question let me answer the first question…
What fundamentally does NASA do?
At its core, NASA takes science fiction and makes it science fact. That’s my 140 character Twitter answer! Many on this planet remember when putting anything in space, let alone a human, was crazy talk. Now we have astronauts living aboard a research laboratory in space that is the size of a football field! How about those of us that remember using an AAA map for the summer trip? A computer telling us directions? Crazy talk, unless we were watching The Jetsons of course. But, what if we delve deeper into the question? Then NASA does everything from weather forecasting to climate research to launching the shuttle (not for much longer unfortunately) to studying ketchup. Yes, you heard that right - studying ketchup. There is a very clear explanation for this in that NASA scientists were studying why ketchup does not pour easily out of a bottle (think Heinz 57) using the study of fluid dynamics and something called shear thinning. Moving on from ketchup, we have a NASA project that is studying how to turn human waste into electricity. Then there is the coastal mapping project for the State of Mississippi and even better, a NASA funded project to study roadway friction. At this point, I am wondering what NASA doesn’t do.
What should NASA do in the future?
Knowing that NASA is studying, and funding, projects that range from ketchup to studying human waste I begin to wonder if NASA has not lost its focus. NASA does stand for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration so as we move into the future, and into a period where American manned spaceflight is grounded, maybe NASA should focus on what its name is – Aeronautics and Aerospace. Now don’t get me wrong, those projects where NASA is studying ketchup and roadway friction are still very important but with as limited as a budget as NASA has (approximately 0.50% of the federal budget!) maybe we should let the other science agencies such as NSF, NIST, etc… tackle these questions. Instead of studying ice melt at the poles, which should still definitely be studied, lets get NASA to focus on studying biofuels for aircraft or how to create an even better space propulsion system. NASA should be working on projects that get us studying farther and farther out of low earth orbit (LEO) not projects that study the change of the landscape in metropolitan areas.
With that, as NASA reinvents itself over the next few years, let’s see if NASA can find a way to make itself interesting again starting with learning how to market itself. As someone on Twitter recently said, NASA does not tell the people story. The world knows that someone at NASA mixed up imperial and metric measurements causing a spacecraft to crash on Mars but should they not also know about the people behind its successes? Sure, you ask someone what they know about NASA and they’ll mention the Space Shuttle and maybe the International Space Station but do they know anything else NASA has done? With as little of the taxpayer’s dollars that NASA gets the American public sure does get a lot for their 50 cents, stories that should certainly be shared and told. Heck, most people don’t even realize that the last space shuttle launch ever is happening in less than two weeks. By marketing the advancements, that NASA has done in past as well as current and future projects NASA can connect the public to its missions in a way that would be a call to action. Let’s turn the famous JFK saying into “ask not what NASA has done for me but what I can do for NASA!”
P.S. I realize that much of the “pork barrel spending” in the NASA budget is not the fault of NASA alone but also the fault of the politicians in Congress who can’t keep stop providing for pet projects back home.