NASA's past success poses an interesting dilemma for its future. Space is becoming an increasingly commercial venture, with bills such as the recently passed SPACE Act of 2015 giving more rights the burgeoning industry. In a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. on Thursday, the panelists agreed innovation was necessary to lower costs involved with space exploration along with the interesting question of what's next for NASA.
The successful landing of astronauts on the moon has weighed heavily on NASA, according to speaker Charles Miller, President of NexGen, LLC. Many want the space agency to achieve the same level of success as the Apollo era. Return journeys were deemed too costly by three different presidents, Miller said. The Constellation Program, launched in 2005, was supposed to develop a successor to the space shuttle and bring humans back to the moon by the 2020s and conclude with a mission to Mars. The program was canceled as part of the 2011 federal udget, but the mission to Mars was saved by Obama.
High costs doomed Constellation, but the commercial industry could spearhead innovation that would drive down costs, Miller said."We can return humans to the moon by the end of the second term of the next president using the commercial space industry," Miller said.
Lori Garver, a former NASA Deputy Administrator and currently the General Manager at the Air Line Pilots Association, agrees with Miller. Commercial innovation will lower the barrier of entry to space, Garver said. She did praise the space agency for their work, but said minor restructuring would help NASA work within their budget.
Space exploration has entered the mainstream over the last few years with the success of missions like the Curiosity rover or movies like "The Martian." This increased attention could also help expand NASA's future mission along with its budget. "NASA is building systems based on 1970s technology. We still haven't adjusted our ambitions to the amount of resources the political system and public seem willing to give to the space program," said John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University.
NASA, through its commercial program, has partnered with Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital ATK for crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station. Innovation can also be found in the miniature satellites known as CubeSats that are flown into space.
While the speakers discussed the need to innovate, they recognized the dangers of human spaceflight. NASA has to be conservative due to the cost of human life. Safety is of the utmost importance, which is why human spaceflight has developed at a slower pace. There needs to be a government partner that can take risks the commercial industry can't, according to the panelists.
"If you total up every other nation's space budget, it would be equal to 3/4 of NASA's budget. We are in the lead. We have a good head start and I believe if we restructured just a little bit, we would be running even faster," Garver said.