ALTHOUGH ONLY one has received any attention so far, there are in fact two important NASA anniversaries this summer. The first was the 35th anniversary of the first moon landing, which was greeted with appropriate nostalgia last week. Next month marks the first anniversary of the publication of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's assessment of the space shuttle disaster. That 248-page document identified both the physical causes of the Columbia explosion and "systemic flaws" within the U.S. space program. By this, the board meant not only problems within NASA itself, but the contradictory attitudes of those in Congress and the administration who set the space agency's goals and allocate its funding, often to cross-purposes.
Despite the board's efforts attitudes toward NASA have since become even more convoluted. Last winter the president raised the stakes for NASA, calling for another manned mission to the moon, as well as a manned mission to Mars someday. But last week Congress lowered expectations once again. The House subcommittee that oversees NASA slashed $1 billion from the president's proposed budget for the space agency. More to the point, money for every single new initiative in the administration's plan was either severely reduced or eliminated altogether. While NASA spokesmen point out that this is only a subcommittee decision and that it is still very early in the budgetary process, the vote does indicate serious and possibly fatal lack of support in Congress for the president's manned space travel vision. NASA's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, stated that the cuts would make it difficult for NASA to "address the long-lead, high-risk requirements" needed to launch new manned missions to space.
But that vote came on the heels of some other, no less contradictory internal NASA decisions as well. One is NASA's controversial decision not to send a space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, a piece of equipment sometimes described as "the most important telescope in history." Another was NASA's refusal to spend as little as $28 million, a fraction of the agency's budget, to keep an unusually valuable climate-tracking satellite in orbit for a few more years. Officially NASA claimed that the money saved would be used to fund a next-generation satellite, due to be launched in 2011. But some at the agency wondered whether the change reflected a shift in priorities, away from the observation of Earth and toward the president's Mars and moon missions.
If nothing else, these recent developments indicate that there is still no consensus within NASA or across Washington over where, exactly, the space agency is supposed to focus its attention, or what, precisely, its goals are supposed to be -- whether the observation of Earth, the observation of space or the planning of spectacular new missions. One year later, it seems the most important lessons of the Columbia explosion -- the need for a clear focus and reliable funding -- have still not been learned.