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NASA’s role revisited at 50-year mark

Former employee says the agency should look at novel ways to fund its activities and involve the public.

In honor of NASA's 50th birthday this month, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin recently gave a lecture on the "space economy," a term for the role that extraterrestrial exploration plays in the global economy. Ironically, some observers say NASA isn't meeting the term's potential worth.

"The focus of space exploration today is in the economic arena," Griffin remarked. "We see the transformative effects of the space economy all around us through numerous technologies and life-saving capabilities," like global positioning systems and satellite-based hurricane forecasts.

Space fans say that is true -- but NASA isn't taking the message to heart. "NASA's often its own worst enemy," said Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch.com and a former NASA scientist. He is of the mindset that NASA has value, but no one seems to understand that value.

If NASA disappeared today, the space economy would continue, Cowing said. "There's enough of an impetus in the private sector," plus the satellites are built and launched by private companies.

The Bush administration and Congress have provided little money for exploration, which has led to funding cutbacks for the International Space Station and technology for future missions. As of now, the United States will not be able to fly astronauts for several years because the spaceship intended to replace the current shuttle has not received adequate funding. NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet in 2010.

Cowing said NASA should look at novel ways to fund its activities and involve the public. Space tourism is one of many examples. The agency also could let commercial researchers pay to use the space station.

Russia is winning the funding battle. "The Russians are the one who've been the most creative in attracting private financing to their program," Cowing said. "They are better capitalists when it comes to utilizing their space-station assets than we are."

The global space economy -- estimated at about $180 billion in 2005, according to the Space Foundation -- includes all direct revenues from space activity by NASA, the Air Force, similar foreign agencies, commercial satellite operators, providers of remote-sensing imagery, and other public- and private-sector industries.

The rest of the world is becoming increasingly aware of the lucrative industry that NASA started, while the average U.S. citizen doesn't quite get it. "I would describe [U.S.] public support as kind of a mile wide and an inch deep," foundation President and CEO Elliot Pulham said. "Seventy percent really support [NASA], but when you get into a conversation about what the agency's doing," they start to fade.

"The Indians understand the economic value of space activities," he added. "Many countries are motivated to become our equal or our better."

Just last month, the most ambitious lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo program was launched. "The U.S. did not send that. Japan did," Pulham said. Without a next-generation spacecraft, Pulham said, the United States is going to find itself unable to fly astronauts and reliant on other countries to fly them for America.

But Lee Stone, vice president for legislative affairs with the Ames Research Center chapter of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the justification for manned space exploration should not just be made in economic terms.

Today's young adults need to decide if they "want to huddle on the couch with their kids and watch China put astronauts on the moon, and perhaps even Mars, or do they want to experience the same national pride and inspiration as the Apollo generation did?"

People need to look at more than financial risks and rewards in making the choice, Stone said. "Exciting and unforeseen economic benefits will follow, but first NASA must lead."

Some thinkers say perhaps NASA can achieve more through international cooperation. "The doors of the International Space Station really have to be thrown open," National Space Society Executive Director George Whitesides said.

In May, NASA sent Congress a plan for leveraging the space station as a national laboratory, listing ideas for potential partnerships with private companies and other federal agencies to conduct research onboard.

There is money to be made on solar energy and planetary defense -- as in protecting the Earth from external enemies like climate change and asteroids, Whitesides said.

"You do have a wide range of potential productive partners," he said, pointing to Japan, India and Europe. "It's sort of an unacknowledged Golden Age of international cooperation going on."