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What's Next for NASA?

This undated photo provided by SpaceX shows the DragonLab in orbit. In its new budget released on Feb. 1, 2010, the Obama administration proposed spending billions of dollars to encourage private companies to build, launch and operate spacecraft for NASA and others. (AP)

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New marching orders for NASA, as one of the last scheduled space shuttle flights took off from Cape Canaveral this morning.

No more American return to the moon. The new Obama administration budget would scrap that. And no more NASA flights shuttling astronauts to the space station and low-Earth orbit. The new plan would hand that taxi work off to private companies.

And NASA? The plan is for it to look deeper into space, with new technologies.

Some say it’s really a retreat. Others say it’s just right.

This hour, On Point: charting a new American way in space.


Joining us from Merritt Island, Florida, is William Harwood, space analyst for CBS News. He’s been covering the American space program for more than 15 years.  He blogs at CBS’s Space Place.

Joining us from Bethesda, Maryland, is Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert and a professor of public affairs at American University.  His latest book is “Faster, Better, Cheaper: Low-Cost Innovation in the U.S. Space Program.”

From Alexandria, Virginia, we’re joined by John Pike. A space and security analyst, he’s founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org.

And from Los Angeles, we’re joined by Buzz Aldrin. The second man to walk on the Moon, after crewmate Neil Armstrong, he was the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission.  

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  • Michael

    Lets not forget that the NASA budget is still larger than it was last year, along with the focus now is on new space tech instead of repeating feats they already did, along with how far NASA was behind of its schedule.

    The rovers seem to be one of the best investment for NASA to bad they could not place more on different planets.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    There’s good and bad to privatization. Recent history with the likes of Blackwater and Halliburton ought to be discussed, there must be some parallels. Then there are NASA’s “culture” issues that may have led to recent disasters.

    As one who witnessed Buzz Aldrin’s broadcast from the moon live (via Walter Cronkite) I have to say that I’m a supporter of space exploration, with robots and people. How it’s managed and financed ought to be rethought though.

  • ProSpace

    If one only goes by the news reports, it would sound like NASA conducts manned space flight and manned spaceflight only. Not so! For years, aerospace research has been chronically underfunded to maintain the shuttle launch schedule and then to cover for budgeting shortfalls for the Constellation program. Now we will finally get the focus back on gaining knowledge about ourselves and the universe. And rather than spend $ to perpetuate old fashioned, inefficient methods of getting into space, NASA can finally afford to pursue breakthrough methods again. Hooray for NASA!

    Here’s an apples-to-apples comparison: Shuttle launches cost, on average, about $1.3b. The Mars Rover program, with its 2 rovers, cost about $830m. The current mission to pluto is about $650m. So every time the shuttle goes up that’s almost 2 less space probes that could have been launched instead. And the overwhelming majority of research data we’re getting back is from those unmanned probes.

    And, as a built-in bonus, any one of us has the opportunity to particiapte in the analysis of the data at the same time as the rest of the scientific community. In some cases we could even help teleoperate a remote probe. How cool is that?

    And meanwhile NASA is not turning its back on manned spaceflight; it’s just handing the non-R&D aspects over to private launch companies, which is as it should be.

    It’s good to see NASA go back to a role of leadership in space research!

  • Sally

    You can’t have years of tax cuts and expect to have the bucks to keep this or many programs in governmental hands. The Republicans should be tickled pink at the thought of privatization of the progam–it’s their answer to jsut about everything.

  • John

    Why isn’t there a guest representing the view that we never actually landed on the moon? This is typical NPR liberal bias.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Please spare the rhetoric about “we’ll have large funerals if someone with no business building rockets is building them.

    NASA history of poor managment and related astronaut deaths is LEGEND. Think O rings.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Mankind is not destined to colonize and live in space, nor on worlds alien to our own evolutionary development (gravity, atmosphere, etc.) Recent studies show that humans do not and will not develop properly in-utero and later outside our own nurturing environment.

    Space travel is and will forever be little more than a very expensive form of entertainment.

  • Ann

    A SERIOUS IDEA! All the individuals, teams and networks of people who put NASA projects together, should be PAID WHATEVER NASA SALARIES THEY MAKE, but they should GO INTO “OUTER SPACE” which is THE AMERICAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, K-12 & up to COMMUNITY COLLEGE.

    Teams should go out and for at least 4 years, SET UP TEAMS OF STUDENTS (the ENTIRE student body of each school district would be included) WHO WOULD LEARN HOW TO LEARN, THEN LEARN HOW TO BRAIN STORM IN TECHNOLOGICAL AREAS, THEN LEARN HOW TO PROJECT, PLAN, AND MODEL WHATEVER PROJECTS each school system’s group comes up with.

    This would not be TEACHING in the sense of higher ups telling those below them how something was done. It would be TEACHING WITHIN A CONTEXT OF LEARNING AND OF RECIPROCAL TEACHING (the kids teaching the teachers). The projects that came out of this SYSTEM, would be contingent upon each project in each school system. We would come away with AN EDUCATED POPULACE as well as with A BUNCH OF PROJECTS THAT WERE PROBABLY UNKNOWN AND “OUT OF THIS WORLD” BEFORE!!!

    This is FAR more important than “competing” over whose “boots are on the Moon”! The scientists would DO exactly what they do now, only they would do it in a different context and with different materials (they might have to use re-cycled cardboard boxes in early stages) and with people who don’t YET know what they know, but who DO know things that could be pertinent and who have IMAGINATIONS: which is REALLY what got the first Moon Flight going in the first place! BUT, the scientists would be spreading what they know about technology out to the whole population!

    THIS IS A SERIOUS POSSIBILITY, and only CREATES more jobs in the future!

  • Eric

    It will become an issue of acceptible risk. What is acceptible to a profit driven corporation is not to a government agency. Delays in time and money are common when the death of astronauts is not acceptible. NASA will have to become an oversight instrument with the ability to impose severe financial penalties for violations of proper regulation.

  • Gary

    How could the US spend anything on the advancement of mankind, while we are spending it on the destruction: http://www.costofwar.com/

    Every venture, no matter how noble, will be cut to continue the financing of the wars. (which is money borrowed from China and other entities throughout the world).

    One day there will be a video of a Chinese Boot kicking over the US flag on the moon, and it will be the very image of what we deserve.

  • Steve T

    I believe we need to spend our money on learning more about the planet we live on. Space exploration is not the direction we need to go. Why don’t we have something like the space station, here in the Ocean’s of the world?

    We need to know more about Earth, we haven’t even scratched the surface of knowledge under our feet! We know more about the stars in the sky than the depths of our sea’s. I would like to know more about the rock I sit on than the one I can’t get to (yet). Remember the old saying the grass looks greener on the other side, but it’s not when you get there.

    I hope we do get stuck on the moon until we get out selves together here first.

  • Bernard B

    It is worth reviewing what a fiasco the manned program has been for the last thirty five years. The Shuttle (called the Space Transportation System) was supposed to take over delivery to space at about seven hundred 2010 dollars a pound. The number has turned out to be more like forty thousand, a 6000% overrun. (The program was supposed to run for only the 1980s and launch 500 times in that window).
    The international space station is a huge boondogle, involving tens of billions (a part shared with other nations). Analyses have suggested that, contrary to the flack, this produces no exciting science.
    Finally, NASA is a clumsy, fairly unproductive organization (compared say to DARPA, which apparently does know how to do advanced aerospace projects in an efficient manner).
    I have been a fan of space flight since my father was in the program in the late 1940s, but with near term systems, I think we should stick with the rapidly improving unmanned probes. The do some very exciting exploration at a price that — maybe — we can afford.
    The USA has yet to learn that we are past the time that we can throw money at everything out there.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    With all due respect, Buzz Aldrin is just plain wrong. There is no successful future in the cards for the colonization of Mars by the human species. The very real possibility exists that Earth is destined to appear almost exactly like Mars due to the devastating appearance of Homo sapiens on our own home planet. Being smaller and drier, Mars has even less to offer our species for survival than a wasted Earth.

    Let’s save our money. We’re going to need it for our own salvation right where we are.

  • Bernard B

    The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the National Association of Rocketry do have an annual competition for engineering design of small rockets in which hundreds of high school teams compete and fly their designs. Scholarship awards are given to winners.

  • Aaron

    The NSF uses the Air Force to fly into McMurdo, not a private contractor. I agree with the point, but it’s a bad analogy.

  • Bernard B

    Yeh, we are going to move billions of people from a planet that was close to perfect to a cold airless wasteland — bring back E. O. Wilson to tell us how brainless a notion that is. That this idea sustains traction suggests a religiod irrationality.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Wow. Some of the guests on today’s show are reading way too much science fiction. Capitalism in space? Sure. As an entrepreneur I’d love to spend billions to sell widgets to a few hundred “hermits” living in space.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    “Resistance in Congress” as one caller points out. As well there should be, too, I reply.

  • Mike Hagerty

    As a scientist who has been to Antarctica a couple of times, by way of New Zealand, I wanted to correct your guest’s assertion that the travel from New Zealand to McMurdo Base is provided by private contractor. The “contractor” for these flights is the U.S. Army New York Rangers, who fly the scientists down in barebones (read, webbed seats and a bucket for a toilet) C-130 Hercules planes. I don’t believe any commercial airliners (e.g., United) fly to Antarctica for the reason that they have to be able to fly all the way there, turn around and fly back without landing if the weather is not just right.

  • Lowell

    Soooo frustrating to see the cost of war destroying the Space Program. Vietnam stopped us, and here we are again!
    America has done it’s best when there were great frontiers. Look at us today worried about germs on every surface and the failure of a few brake systems in our cars, when a whole lot more of us don’t even wear seatbelts!
    We as a culture need greater goals not lesser problems!

  • jonas

    Two comments: 1) As bad as government is at doing anything, private enterprise is ALWAYS worse. First, they constantly cut corenrs in order to maximize profits. Second, they only focus on their profits not on the program goals. I ask that anyone provide one example where privatization worked better for society. They cut safety, they cut wages (resulting in less skilled employees) and they do shoddy work.

    2) It is interesting how the same people who demand total awe and worship of NASA and the “wonderful” work they do always start talking about how incompetent they are when they see an opportunity to provatize NASA.

  • jonas

    By the way, Catherine, lets not forget that the O rings were produced by a privatized contract and that even the NASA whitewash investigation showed that mazimzing profits played a role in the chain of events that led to the deaths.

    GO CAPITALISM!!!!!!!!

  • Daniel Duesing

    One thing that seems missing from all of the space exploration proponents is the “many good reasons” for sending humans anywhere. We went to the moon to prove that the USA was better/stronger than USSR. Yet there are many human reasons to spend the money on have an impact on the lives of taxpayers and citizens in this country. How about cancelling the four remaining shuttle missions and spending the five billion dollars on increasing renewable energy. That kind of money would clearly lead to reductions in cost and increases in efficiency.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Privatization of NASA is DOA. Entrepreneurship demands business profits, not tomorrow, not today … but yesterday.

    I heard one of the speakers declare that one of these great business opportunities lies in the mining of (isotopic) HYDROGEN from moon rocks.

    Hydrogen has an Atomic Number of … guess what? 1 How coincidental is it that the element with an Atomic Number of 1 is also the most abundant element in the Universe? (Earth is part of the Universe, for those who need reminding.)

    So how about going to Mars for the mining of Hydrogen? Sound like a plan to anyone on the panel?

  • Gary

    I agree with the general sentiment of many posters here. The business opportunities in space are nearly as thin as the vacuum itself. The guests are the shills pandering the fuzzy idea of some obscure potential.

    As poster Bracy stated “Entrepreneurship demands business profits, not tomorrow, not today … but yesterday. ” … This is absolutely correct. All explorations of the past were based on the quest for wealth, (natural resources) to be exploited at minimal cost and maximum profit. Even then, for industrial exploitation to be considered, it required a ROI from harvesting gold and silver (already discovered, and mined), and slaves.

    Lets not forget that empty space, is EMPTY. Although there will be a market for harvesting satellites soon. The ROI for any business to exploit the high frontier is large on expense, and huge on loss. Its not going to happen.

    I believe this privatization is being offered as a placebo to bridge the gap between the typical expectations of the citizens of the once great empire, to the new reality of unaffordable research and exploration, and the inevitable demise of all space research.

    The bottom line is that we live in a nation where the major profit center is privatized gains on the back of socialized warfare.

  • David D

    It seems rather unfair to compare the Soyuz program to any American program in terms of cost structure. The Soviets developed the Soyuz in the 1960s. They have modified and improved it ever since. The costs of the Soviet space program were in Soviet Rubles, not in free-market dollars. The currency as well as the cost of any thing in that era were not freely comparable to the costs of any similar item in the US, then or now. It was a command economy, not a market economy. Many people and resources were called up for the glory of the Soviet empire and were pressed into service for the Motherland. To say that a Space Shuttle launch is overpriced compared to a Soyuz launch is to compare apples and peanuts.

  • Steve V

    The space “program” will simply run out of money sooner than later. As mentioned earlier, privatization will not happen because there is no profit in this venture. I suggest the vast distances in space is natures way of preventing us from exploring the universe. We’ve certainly screwed this planet up enough, I take some comfort in the fact that we can’t do the same to others. Perhaps we’ve been watching to many episodes of Star Trek.

  • Brett

    “Why isn’t there a guest representing the view that we never actually landed on the moon? This is typical NPR liberal bias.” -John

    Either that or your concern is typical Fox News, lunatic-fringe, conspiracy-theory prattle!

  • wavre

    Why is it so hard to go back to the moon? After all those decades?

    We walked there, we drove a lunar jeep and played golf there. With all the new and improved technologies we should have been able to put a small colony on that satellite by now!?
    Why can’t someone question the veracity of the moon landings?( without being punched in the face by Buzz Aldrin!)

    There is room for an healthy debate without name-calling.
    Governments have lied before many times, people skepticism is justified.A Town in Switzerland has just discover that the a rock allegedly from the moon, given to them as a gift by the US governmemt was in fact just a calcified piece of wood!
    There are legitimate questions that have arise from the released pictures and films related to those moon walks and landings, and NASA has done a poor job of explaining.
    I’m not saying that we didn’t, but it’s not absolutely clear that we did.

  • Steven Clemens

    I’m all for human exploration but, given budgetary concerns now and in the long-term future, I have not heard the rationale for having humans in space at all. Robotics are far better at gathering scientific data and far less expensive to get into space.

  • Erik

    Has NASA added “to study the earth” back into its mission statement?

    This component of NASA’s mission was removed by Bush.
    If the study of the earth’s natural processes and human impact on them is back in the mission, they can probably do that from low earth orbit.

    If it isn’t back in the mission, let’s cut NASA’s budget to the point where all they can afford is unmanned robotic missions, which everyone agrees are enormously more cost effective in terms of scientific research per dollar.

  • cory

    I would love to hear OnPoint do an hour on public vs. private endeavors. I’m guessing it would be fascinating and generate a bazillion comments.

  • Erik


    Good idea. I was struck by the similarities between the issues on the NASA show and the recent Blackwater show.

  • Erik

    For example:
    Supervision and Control
    Mission, and who defines it

  • John

    For the record, I was joking about moon landing conspiracy nuts and the tendency for the media to always find an opposing view regardless of its validity.

  • Brett

    I had to laugh! I was wondering what was up with your comment. I thought there must be two Johns or something because that comment wasn’t consistent with other comments the person named John has written. Being ironic is a much more plausible explanation than multiple personality disorder!!

  • Dennis Kerr

    What is in it for me?

    I ask this honestly. Because if there is not anything in it for me, then it is less likely that there is anything good for anyone either.

    If there is a health care system, I know I get health care, and I know my neighbors do to.

    If we spend technology development resources on super high speed rail, I know that will give me a reasonable option of affordable high speed travel. It will also help create jobs while we decentralize the economy away from oil.

    If we support our troops who protect us and our friends from terrorism and dictatorship, I live more freely.

    So if we educate people to research technology that heals us, moves us more efficiently and cleanly, and increases our ability to defend ourselves, then I am with you.

    But if you take FROM those goals, to send people to the moon or to mars, then I cannot respect that. I can’t eat empty pride while I breath gas fumes from my gas guzzler.

  • John

    I think someone else has also posted under the name John from time to time so not all are by me.

    • Someone

      your name is pretty unique dude…

  • zack

    Cancel NASA. It’s a waste of money. Let those that want to go into space pay for it themselves.

    • Rizzo

      Waste of money? Well then I guess that cable and satellite tv is a waste, the plastics that were developed for space flight which you use everyday are a waste, the computer you typed this comment on is a waste, the defense satellites that protect this nation are a waste, the weather satellites that tell you if you need an umbrella are a waste, the list is continuous. I think instead of pumping money into crap like the reproductive cycles of a Mexican jumping bean beetle, they should be investing money on a manned trip to Mars. This planet is way to crowded and Earth has only so many resources it can give us before we exhaust them all. Did you know that one of the moons of Saturn may sustain life? I think that’s worth exploring.

  • peter

    This is a disaster and myopic view of the current administration. Have you ALL forgotten that our current economy was led by Technology emanating from our space research everything from communications, computing and even the teflon coating of pots and pans and who benefited from them…American companies and new meaningful jobs at least in the beginning. now this will give the edge to countries like China and Russia great going America how many more GOOD jobs are we going to loose..it suits fine for those of you agreeing with this that what is next for the American economy is making T-shirts and shoes for a Chinese company.

    • Pruttan

      Ok reality check…teflon was an accidental discoverey by Kinetic (or Dupont) back in the 1940′s…..no a space program invention.  But you did forget “space food sticks” and Tang.

  • SoDone

    I’m not a brainiac, but I can’t imagine that there isn’t some potential in exploring space. With our energy woes and our changing climate, I find it hard to believe that some of the answers can’t be mastered by science. So, rather than fighting over fossil fuels…how bout invest in the future instead of digging up the past? Rizzo’s right, anytime we invest in space technology we discover things that improve our lives here on Earth. Nobody ever wants to invest in anything that doesn’t give immediate gains though. We’re impatient, undisciplined, greedy and we lack vision… we only want things if they promise immediate, lucrative return. Where is the American sense of adventure and curiosity?

  • Louis

    Unless we are wiped out by some wayward planet or Jesus comes back,  we must continue to explore space. A global overpopulation is inevitable, what with all the idiots making babies they can’t support. “Ima have me a baby so I can get me a check” We are going to run out of resources and the Sun is going to burn out.
    Mr. Obama. good job on getting Osama.  But dude…you are screwing things up. How can you not see the benefit of the space program? You can give ginormous amounts of dough to corporations who failed themselves. They were mis-managed…someone should have corrected the problems when the money wasn’t coming in like it always had. Space exploration is all we have to ensure the human race continues. If you can’t see that then I am ashamed to have you for president. When there is not enough food and nowhere to turn, not only will you be remembered as the president who wrecked the US economy, but also the president who condemned us to our inevitable death.
    If we are to continue as a species then space is where we must go.

    • Tink

      louis, nasa actully makes money from all the gagets they produce that is a no no under the husein obama plan.

  • Tink

    I guess Nasa is relegated to makeing paper air planes untill some one else does the work for them. The government wants to put them out of business and put the money in there pockets like everything else! will it’s up to us to give them our money and fund streets parks and even do nasa’s work with all the money we have just sittin’ around in our what do you call tem again? oh yeah bank accounts…

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