NASA: To Boldly Go or To Loudly Whine?

Lighting a rocket is easy; tough part is controlling it, making parts work together, AP

"Anybody can make something go boom. Controlling it is hard," said former NASA associate administrator Scott Pace, director of space policy at George Washington University. ... "In many ways, the worst enemy of NASA is `Star Trek'," Pace said. "Captain Picard says `engage' and the ship moves. And people think `How hard can this be?'"

Keith's note: This is an odd thing for Scott Pace to say given that he's a very smart guy. If anything, Star Trek is often NASA's best friend. For several generations it has been Star Trek and other popular TV shows and movies that have so totally embedded the value and need to explore space within the minds of the citizens whose taxes keep NASA going. When cuts are proposed for NASA, what memes do supporters and energized taxpayers cite? Of course they use lines and themes about exploration and inspiration that you hear Star Trek characters saying.

When everything goes right, NASA loves to bask in the glowing PR and does not deter people from lofty comparisons to Star Trek. But when something goes wrong (or might go wrong) they like to lower expectations and say "Rocket science is hard". And yet, NASA seems to do it right nearly all the time, leading one to logically ask 'so how hard can this be'? This is the problem with NASA. They want to have it both ways.

The agency and its space insider surrogates (like Pace) complain when the public does not seem to understand or appreciate what NASA does. But when the public does take an interest in NASA and expects that their space agency is actually capable and worthy of doing more than it already does, NASA and the space insiders revert to the 'rocket science is hard' whine. In so doing they dismiss the confidence and hopes that have been thrust upon NASA - the same confidence and hopes it will need to draw upon the next time budgets get tight.

Where do these public expectations and confidence in NASA come from? In a great part, I feel that they come from the public's perception of exploring space - one that has a firm root in fiction. The other source is NASA itself and the overwhelmingly stunning and successful things that NASA does manage to do. Indeed, fact and fiction often feed off of each other in a synergistic fashion with NASA's abilities (real or perceived) elevated in the process. NASA's own success have resulted in the establishment of its own high standards in the public's mind. Instead of using excuses, NASA ought to be saying that it will do even better in the years ahead and that it is learning new tricks as it does.

Of course, a dose of reality is often needed to tamper those exaggerated expectations about what NASA can actually do - or should do. But that should be tempered with an equal and perhaps slightly larger dose of optimism so as to allow our collective aspirations to help push NASA forward - instead of holding it back.

NASA cannot have it both ways. Either it embodies the spirit of what can be done or it can whine about how hard it is. Trust me, whiners are not going to explore the universe.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on April 16, 2012 1:41 PM.

NASA's Take On Certifying Commercial Crew Carriers was the previous entry in this blog.

NASA Needs an Astrobiology Fact Checker is the next entry in this blog.

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