A Speech That I'd Like To See The Next President Deliver

Editor's note: I wrote this about a month ago.

A Speech on Space Exploration by President XXXXXXX

Delivered XX, XXXXX 2009

Last Fall we celebrated NASA's 50th anniversary. When you celebrate such events you always look back - and look forward. NASA is made of people - and people pause and reflect. NASA is no different.

As we look back at NASA's history we see stunning accomplishments, difficult challenges, heartbreaks, roaring resurgence, and continued exploration. Yet as with any human endeavor, reaching age 50 calls for some introspection and some re-prioritization.

In 2004 NASA was given an opportunity it had not had for a generation - a new commitment to the human exploration of other worlds. This happened barely a year after the agency suffered the tragic loss of Columbia and her crew. The President of the United States of America came to NASA to give the agency its new "vision". With a renewed commitment to explore, NASA set forth to develop the plans and hardware needed to implement this new era of human exploration.

However, within a short time, NASA fell back on bad habits. Discarding the wisdom of the marketplace and a bounty of external ideas, it discarded this advice, and picked an architecture that relied upon re-designing existing hardware under the guise of reusing it. And there was no back up plan in case things did not work out. All too soon, things did not work out and America's replacement for the Space Shuttle's crew carrying capability slipped further into the future. The gap between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and its replacement grew when the wisest course would have been to shrink it - indeed, to eliminate it.

When the President announced NASA's new plans, he said that the Space Shuttle would be retired once the International Space Station would be completed. Within a short period of time, however, NASA reinterpreted that guidance and said that the shuttle will be retired on a certain date and that the resulting space station - however incomplete - would be finished. At the same time, NASA began to speak of the space station, something it had fought to build for two decades, as something it would no longer need- and indeed, it would walk away from - just as it was capable of doing all of the things NASA had been claiming it would. Indeed, some at NASA referred to this marvel of engineering as a "mistake".

Returning the shuttle to flight status took much longer than expected. It was also much more expensive. Katrina devastated some of NASA's infrastructure. NASA had a tough path ahead.

This new vision for space exploration would not be cheap. NASA was promised the funds. Congress signed off on the plans. But when things got tough, the money was not there - the reasons for this were complex (as they always are in Washington) and NASA was left with a plan to do more - with much less than it needed to accomplish its tasks.

The vision, once clear, had now become clouded. NASA also developed a bad case of attention deficit disorder. A scant 4 years after it was announced, NASA's new exploration mission was stuck in a sand bar when it should have been leaving port.

The vision's intent was not unwise. America was founded by explorers - prehistoric and much more recent. America has lead in the exploration of our world, our solar system - our universe. So it is not at all out of character for us to seek to lead a renewed course of exploration - to pick up unfinished business on the moon we abandoned a generation ago and to move on to new challenges and destinations.

However flawed the implementation of the vision has been, that can and must be fixed. It can be fixed by adhering to the maxim suggested by Frank Lloyd Wright: "form follows function". NASA must be retuned and reformatted to be 21st century compliant. In so doing we must never throw out old ways of doing things if they still work and are best to accomplish a task. That said, NASA, often referred in iconic fashion as a bastion of rocket science and overall smarts, needs to be able to use both supercomputers as well as the same tools that kids in 7th grade make use of without thinking.

The oft-used phrase "If we can put a man on the moon ..." should no longer be an excuse for why someone else cannot do something hard. Rather, It should be a challenge - a rallying cry - to do it again - and do it better - and then to do even harder things. Because that is what we Americans thrive upon: a challenge to go where no one has gone before. Yes, I know who first said that.

So how do we do this?

Instead of adopting a policy whereby we walk away from our space infrastructure we should embrace an approach whereby we utilize what we have until - and unless - we have a capability to replace it. If we continue the long process of creating projects only to abandon them for something else we will not only waste taxpayer funds, we will utilize previous political capital as well.

Instead of a monolithic architecture that has few if any entry points for new partners in a global plan for exploration of space, an open source approach should be adopted - one whereby nations, companies, and other entities can leverage their capabilities and expertise in multiple ways. One size does not fit all when it comes to participating in space exploration.

NASA needs to re-engage with all Americans. NASA should once again strive to be relevant to every American in their daily lives in both a practical and inspirational way. NASA should to seek out the active participation of all Americans in its science, education, technology, and exploration activities.

There is a phrase many space exploration afficandos like to use: "The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us will go to the stars." OK, that's a little edgy - but I can identify with that. But not everyone wants to climb into a rocketship and play Buck Rogers. But we all want to watch.

I prefer another phrase, however - one uttered by Anne Herbert back in 1978. She said "The sky starts at your feet. Think how brave you are to walk around."

We are all explorers - each in our own way - everyday.

NASA is a place where dreams power reality. It has drifted a bit. I will put it back on track. But I need your help.

You will know that NASA's efforts in this regard will be complete when a child in a rural community - or one in an economically challenged neighborhood - looks up at the sky at night and sees her future - and knows how to make it happen.

We should all explore space - every day - together. THAT is what NASA shall recommit itself to doing.

We all get to go. We all get to explore. We all become inspired.

Thank you.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on October 23, 2008 12:25 AM.

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