What if NASA had the funding for the military?

Nasa - where no one has been before

Nasa is celebrating its fiftieth birthday next week. Since it was founded, the American aerospace authority has been in the field of tension between manned space travel and scientific research into space. It should stay that way.

It started with a shock: on October 4, 1957, the western world was taken aback to learn that the Soviet Union had succeeded in launching the first artificial satellite into space. America in particular was deeply affected. Because Sputnik 1, circling around the earth, was telling proof that the western leading power had fallen behind technologically in the exploration and development of space. The American answer took a few months to come. She had hands and feet for that. On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating a civil government agency that was to be responsible for “planning, directing and executing aerospace activities”. Within a few years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, blossomed into the most powerful space agency in the world - a status it still holds 50 years after it was founded.

A start with obstacles

However, the founding of NASA was not entirely without friction. In essence, it was about the question of what influence the military should have on American aerospace activities. It became clear relatively quickly that Eisenhower favored a civil authority. He was supported by his scientific advisor James Killian, who feared restrictions on research if the US space program were controlled by the Department of Defense. It was also Killian who, in a memorandum to Eisenhower at the end of December 1957, first brought up the possibility of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (Naca) - this authority had been responsible for aeronautical research since 1915 - including planning and To entrust the implementation of space activities. Initially, this proposal found little support in the American Congress. There they preferred other approaches, such as subordinating the space program to the Atomic Energy Commission. The political discussion threatened to get bogged down. It was thanks to the persistence of Eisenhower and the successful launch of two further Sputnik satellites (one of them with the dog Laika on board) that Killian's proposal finally prevailed.

After the formal founding of NASA by Eisenhower's signature, it took another two months until NASA officially started operations on October 1, 1958, with 8,240 employees and an annual budget of 100 million dollars. At that time it consisted of five research institutions that had been brought in by the Naca. In addition, various missile programs (but not all) of the US Department of Defense have been outsourced to NASA.

The space race

While the form of organization of the future space agency was still being debated in Washington, the space race was in full swing. America initially suffered a major setback. On December 6, 1957, a US Navy Vanguard missile equipped with a test satellite exploded as it was launched. A competing missile project of the US Army under the direction of the German missile pioneer Wernher von Braun was more successful. On January 31, 1958, he and his team succeeded in launching the “Explorer 1” satellite into space with a Jupiter-C rocket. The probe proved that the earth is surrounded by a radiation belt of charged particles. That was the first time that a satellite had provided scientific knowledge.

Such unmanned satellite missions were to become a trademark of NASA in the coming decades. First of all, however, the focus was on manned space travel. The Mercury program was launched immediately after NASA was founded. It served the goal of transporting an astronaut into near-earth space and investigating the conditions under which humans can survive there. However, this race was also lost. It was reserved for the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to orbit the earth in a spaceship for the first time on April 12, 1961.

At this point in time, NASA had already launched a new competition with the Apollo program. The target was now the moon. The Apollo program initially only provided for a manned orbit around the earth's satellite. But then it took on a completely new direction. John F. Kennedy, who had been elected to succeed Eisenhower in November 1960 and was looking for a visionary project that could inspire the public, announced on May 25, 1961 that he would bring astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. In view of the success that NASA had achieved in manned space travel, this was an extremely ambitious goal that met with skepticism on many sides. But Kennedy opposed it; one does not go to the moon because it is easy, but because this goal serves to mobilize the best forces and abilities.

Golden years

The golden years began for NASA. Within a few years, their budget increased tenfold. In 1966 it was $ 5.9 billion, which is $ 32 billion today, adjusted for inflation. Nasa should never again have so much money at its disposal. And never again should a single space program tie up so many workers. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 34,000 NASA employees and nearly 400,000 industrial and academic employees. The result of this tremendous show of strength is well known: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. America had kept its word and at least won this space race for itself.

After five more successful landings on the moon, the Apollo program was discontinued in late 1972. A long dry spell began for NASA's manned spaceflight activities. Neither the “Skylab” space laboratory, built in the 1970s, nor the flights with the reusable space shuttles started in the 1980s were able to trigger storms of enthusiasm among the population. The unmanned exploration of our solar system attracted attention in the 1970s. In 1976, the two Viking probes equipped with biological experiments landed on Mars to look for possible traces of life there. A year later, NASA sent the two sister probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 on a trip to the outer planets of our solar system in order to examine them at close range as they fly by. They are among the most successful probes that NASA has ever launched.

Dispute over Bush's vision of space

However, NASA would not be NASA if it were satisfied with unmanned, primarily scientific missions. It was the manned missions that appealed to the spirit of discovery in humans that made NASA great. It can no longer be denied that there is an urgent need for action in this area. The International Space Station (ISS), the current showcase project in manned space travel, devours huge sums of money. But it is difficult to make taxpayers aware of the visionary potential of a research platform revolving around the world with controversial benefits.

It is true that NASA only announced the completion of the ISS last week in order not to be an unreliable partner on the international stage. But a few years ago America began to rethink. It was accelerated by the explosion of the space shuttle “Columbia” in 2003, in which seven American astronauts died. In January 2004, President George W. Bush addressed the American nation in a high-profile speech in which he swore NASA to a new goal: by 2020 they want to return to the moon and build a station there. This should then serve as a stepping stone for more far-reaching missions, such as a manned flight to Mars. As the head of NASA, Michael Griffin, later specified, the aim is to land on Mars by 2037. In contrast to the Apollo program, the announcement of these ambitious goals did not result in a drastic increase in the NASA budget. It was hoped to be able to finance the development of a new spaceship and a new launcher with essentially the money saved by the shutdown of the shuttle fleet in 2010.

Science, it was originally said, should not suffer from Bush's new vision for exploring space. It is now becoming apparent, however, that this was a pious wish. Faced with skyrocketing costs, Griffin was forced to move funds that were originally earmarked for scientific missions. It not only hit robotic missions that were supposed to help prepare the planned landing on the moon, but also astrophysical and earth science missions. Since then, an open dispute has broken out over Bush's visions of space. A bad sign for NASA is that not only the suffering scientists are now taking part in this dispute, but also vehement advocates of manned space travel, who consider the moon to be the wrong target and would rather see a manned mission to an asteroid instead. In view of such developments, one may well ask what will be left of Bush's visions after the upcoming presidential election.

Internationalization of space travel

One also has to ask oneself whether a space agency - even if it is called NASA - will in the future still be able to cope with the tasks at hand on its own. It is unmistakable that the internationalization of space travel, which began with the ISS, is advancing. In 2006, for example, NASA invited representatives from 13 other space agencies to discuss a global strategy for exploring our solar system. The result of this dialogue is a strategy paper published last year in which important framework conditions for international cooperation are defined.

Up to now, NASA and its European counterpart, ESA, have shown a pronounced willingness to cooperate. A few weeks ago, the two space agencies presented the result of a study in which their concepts for exploring the moon had been checked for overlaps, similarities and possible synergies. And on another demanding mission, the return of soil samples from Mars, the cooperation between NASA and ESA is now taking on more concrete forms. Whether a model for further cooperation (for example with the emerging space nations China and India) emerges depends on the development opportunities the NASA partners see for themselves. They are unlikely to come to terms with the role of junior partner in the long run.