TAMPA, July 27, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Sixty years ago, spurred by competition
with the Soviet Union, the United States created NASA, launching a journey
that would take Americans to the moon within a decade.
Since then, the US space agency has seen glorious achievements and crushing
failures in its drive to push the frontiers of space exploration, including a
fatal launch pad fire in 1967 that killed three and two deadly shuttle
explosions in 1986 and 2003 that took 14 lives.
Now, NASA is struggling to redefine itself in an increasingly crowded field
of international space agencies and commercial interests, with its sights set
on returning to deep space.
These bold goals make for soaring rhetoric, but experts worry the cash just
isn’t there to meet the timelines of reaching the moon in the next decade and
Mars by the 2030s.
And NASA’s inability to send astronauts to space — a capacity lost in 2011
when the space shuttle program ended, as planned, after 30 years — is a
lasting blemish on the agency’s stellar image.
While US private industries toil on new crew spaceships, NASA still must
pay Russia $80 million per seat for US astronauts to ride to space on a Soyuz
– How it started –
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space with
Sputnik 1, while US attempts were failing miserably.
The US government was already working on reaching space, but mainly under
the guise of the military.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower appealed to Congress to create a separate,
civilian space agency to better focus on space exploration.
He signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization
Act into law on July 29, 1958.
NASA opened its doors in October 1958, with about 8,000 employees and a
budget of $100 million.
– Space race –
The Soviets won another key part of the space race in April 1961 when Yuri
Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.
A month later, John F. Kennedy unveiled plans to land a man on the moon by
“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind,
or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be
so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” the US president said.
The Apollo program was born.
In 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
In 1969, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the
American astronauts of the era were national heroes — military pilots with
the combination of brains, guts and grit that became known famously as “The
Right Stuff,” the title of the classic Tom Wolfe book.
Armstrong’s words as he set foot on the lunar surface — “one small step
for man, one giant leap for mankind” — were heard by millions around the
“Apollo was a unilateral demonstration of national power,” recalled John
Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy
“It was Kennedy deciding to use the space program as an instrument of overt
geopolitical competition that turned NASA into an instrument of national
policy, with a very significant budget share,” he told AFP.
A total of five percent of the national budget went to NASA in the Apollo
Now, NASA gets about $18 billion a year, less than a half percent of the
federal budget, “and it is no longer the same instrument of national policy,”
– New era –
More glory days followed in the 1980s with the birth of NASA’s shuttle
program, a bus-sized re-usable spacecraft that ferried astronauts into space,
and eventually to the International Space Station, which began operation in
But what is NASA today?
President Donald Trump has championed a return to the moon, calling for a
lunar gateway that would allow a continuous stream of spacecraft and people
to visit the moon, and serve as a leaping off point for Mars.
Trump has also called for the creation of a “Space Force,” a sixth branch
of the military that would be focused on defending US interests.
NASA has long been viewed as a global leader in space innovation, but today
the international field is vastly more populated than 60 years ago.
“Now you have something like 70 countries that are one way or another
involved in space activity,” said Logsdon.
Rather than competing against international space agencies, “the emphasis
has shifted to cooperation” to cut costs and speed innovation, said Teasel
Muir-Harmony, curator at the National Air and Space Museum.
– ‘How can NASA take advantage of this?’ –
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told a recent panel discussion he is
keen to work with other countries that are striving toward space.
He mentioned the possibility of boosting cooperation with China, and how he
recently traveled to Israel to meet with commercial interests that are at
work on a moon lander.
Bridenstine said the reason for his visit was to find out “how are you
doing this, what are you doing and is there a way NASA can take advantage of
NASA is backing away from low Earth orbit, looking to hand the space
station over to commercial interests after 2024, and spending millions in
seed money to help private companies like SpaceX and Boeing build capsules to
carry humans to space in the coming years.
In this environment, Bridenstine said figuring out what NASA does, versus
what it buys as a service from commercial providers, will be “one of the
fundamental challenges I think I am going to face over my tenure.”
Bridenstine said Trump’s budget requests for NASA have been “very
With its eyes on a crew mission to the moon in just five years’ time, NASA
plans to devote about $10 billion of its nearly $20 billion budget for 2019
to lunar exploration.
Bridenstine’s predecessor at NASA’s helm, retired astronaut Charles Bolden,
sounded a note of caution against repeating the mistakes of the shuttle era,
when the United States ended its human exploration program without another
spacecraft ready to take its place.
“We cannot tolerate another gap like that,” Bolden said.
“It is really critical for NASA to facilitate the success of commercial
entities to take over” in low Earth orbit, some 250 miles (400 kilometers)
above the planet.
“And then for NASA to do what it does so well. Be the leader in lunar