Brennan Coulter
Aug 21, 2012

Curiosity: NASA's overly optimistic future?

A scale model of the Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena California.“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

- Walt Disney

Curiosity; the Mars Science Laboratory, the darling rover of NASA, and the agencies greatest media success to date in the modern era. Curiosity is a truly brilliant, beautiful and befitting name for NASA’s latest rover, and to think it was conceived by 6th grader Clara Ma.

NASA’s Curiosity rover is a major achievement for the agency, advancing both its scientific and public relations abilities. Between 1 million twitter followers, iOS and Android apps, a series of minor memes around “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowski, the “We’re NASA and We Know It” viral video, and the Curiosity team heading to Reddit, NASA’s Curiosity publicity campaign has successfully improved the public perception of NASA, science, math, technology, and engineering in unprecedented ways.

While the success of the NASA’s publicity campaign is certainly something for them to be proud of, with cutbacks to an already record-low budget and continued delays of manned space exploration beyond the International Space Station (ISS), NASA might want to be more careful about portray their future space explorations.

NASA’s budget
At its peak in 1966, NASA’s budget constituted 4.41% of the total federal budget and was roughly 32 billion dollars a year (adjusted for inflation in relative 2007 dollars). Now, NASA’s budget has shrunk to between 16-17 billion dollars a year where it has remained stable since 1995. Though this represents a growth in value from the 70’s and 80’s when the budget was 11-14 billion a year, as a percentage of America’s total federal budget NASA’s funding is has shrunk dramatically. Before 2003 NASA’s budget had never dipped below 0.75% of the total federal budget since its founding years of 1958-1960. Currently NASA’s budget only constitutes of roughly 0.48% of the federal budget, diving down to a sub 1960’s level.

One should commend NASA head Charles Bolden for taking these cuts in stride and brightly portraying this as the “new NASA” but in truth despite the need to cut back during hard financial times these reductions ultimately hurt more than they help. In a 1971 study of NASA published by the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City in Economic Impact of Stimulated Technological Activity it was found that the:

$25 billion in 1958 dollars spent on civilian space R&D during the 1958-1969 period has returned $52 billion through 1971 -- and will continue to produce payoffs through 1987, at which time the total payoff will have been $181 billion. The discounted rate of return for this investment will have been 33 percent.

Though the odds of current investments in NASA sharing equivalent returns are dubious, to cut funding from a program that stimulates the American economy -- and indirectly more than pays for itself -- seems misguided. The cuts however are understandable, as Abraham Lincoln once said “with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed" and the public perception of NASA, and in particular of NASA’s budget is less than ideal. In a 1997 poll the average American estimated that NASA’s budget constituted roughly 20% of the federal government's total budget, a far cry from the actual 0.48%.

Keeping focus: delays in manned space exploration
Largely related to budget issues, NASA has continued to delay manned space exploration missions and has now completely removed hard deadlines for future manned missions beyond the ISS. This may not seem critical, but as famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains in this big think interview; NASA’s heightened visibility inspires kids to go into careers of science and technology and, though Tyson may disagree with this, from personal experience nothing is more inspiring than big projects that focus on astronauts.

Astronaut Leland Melvin speaks to over 250 students and teacher at NASA Summer of Innovation.I remember my many visits to NASA’s mission control when I was younger vividly, and what inspired me was not the robots, the gadgets, the gizmos, or the technology. No, even though I have never wanted to go into space, what inspired me was the astronauts. That feeling still holds today. Two years ago, I got the chance to meet engineers, scientists, and astronauts alike at NASA/JPL’s “Summer of Innovation Kickoff” in Pasadena California, and in spite of my continuing  disinterest in personally exploring space, the coolest time I had was when I talked with space shuttle astronauts Leland Melvin and Mike Foreman.

Sending Americans into space in non-domestic rockets lacks a certain wow factor needed to inspire today’s generation. A need not lost on President George W. Bush, who in 2004 launched NASA’s Constellation project with the goal of returning to the moon by 2020. The move was reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration for America to reach the moon by 1969, if not a touch less ambitious and significantly less successful. In 2009 President Barack Obama scrapped the Constellation project which was behind schedule and over budget.

Despite NASA’s internal efforts to fill the void left by Constellation, liberating the Orion crew-capsule from the debunked Constellation and introducing the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift vehicle, NASA’s most promising post Constellation ventures are their partnerships with the private companies SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. SpaceX , the most well known partner, is responsible for the Falcon 9 rocket which became the first private rocket to dock with the ISS on 23 May 23. NASA is currently working with SpaceX to plan a “Red Dragon” Mars mission that will utilize SpaceX’s Heavy Falcon rocket to send a variant of its dragon crew/cargo capsule outfitted with a drill to Mars in order to learn more about the planet.  The mission is still under evaluation by the Ames Research center and could be launched as early as 2018. If approved funding will be requested sometime in late 2012 or 2013.

For now NASA has only soft plans to send a send astronauts to the moon some time between 2025-2030, and to Mars sometime after 2035. Unfortunately, due to the lack of hard deadlines these missions’ timelines highly prone to delay and it is likely they will be pushed back further if budgets do not change in the foreseeable future. NASA inspires the public when it sends people where people have never been before, and if they keep delaying manned space exploration their ability to hold the public’s attention is tenuous.

Taking off the rose tinted glasses
NASA isn’t wrong about how good things are. Things are great for NASA, but they could be better and in many ways they are bad. Yes NASA’s publicity campaign for the Curiosity rover was and is an enormous success. 1 million twitter followers is no small feat the NASA rover, but when compared to the 28 million plus followers of Lady Gaga, and the 26 million plus followers of Justin Bieber, Curiosity just doesn’t cut it. NASA broke the bank with the Curiosity, spending 2.5 billion on the rover, and with budget cuts and its current mission schedule I don’t think the agency has what it takes to keep the good publicity up.

It’s about time NASA took off its blinders and started looking at and talking about some hard facts. Now is not the time to be talking about how perfect things are for the future of NASA and how Curiosity marks the beginning of what “will be viewed as a golden era of planetary exploration,” -- Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s mars exploration program and program scientist for MSL. NASA has the public's attention right now and this is their chance to leverage that to gain a bigger budget and push forward more exciting missions that will keep people enthusiastic and engaged.  

Wanting NASA to succeed and Curiosity to mark the beginning of the golden age of space exploration makes good sense; it inspires pride in science and America. What remains to be seen is whether Curiosity is the beginning of something bigger. While the future of private sector space exploration looks bright with NASA increasing dependency on it, NASA’s flowery view of modern space exploration seems downright specious.

If you have any opinions on the future of NASA feel free to leave a comment or check The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) website. The NAS was taking opinions from the public and NASA/Space exploration/policy experts through August 17th for an independent study of NASA's strategic direction. Unfortunately, due to a weak media presence we did not report this sooner. There is, however, a slim chance the NAS may be open to take feedback longer than originally intended if the number of responses was under whelming, or that in the future the NAS will be interested in public feedback again.