NASA's most important mission is exploring the solar system. Near-term human exploration missions are possible, and they should start soon. Yet our current plan seems to be waiting a decade or more developing the perfect launch vehicle while we delay work on a deep-space habitat and lunar lander.
In the 40 years since the last Apollo crew visited the moon, we have developed new technology, and learned how to live and operate in space, but we are no longer willing to take the necessary risks to achieve great accomplishments.
NASA should focus on its core and unique missions by divesting itself of anything that can reasonably be placed in another agency. For example, the Earth science programs, more than 10 percent of NASA's annual budget, can find more appropriate homes elsewhere.
NASA is pursuing nearly a dozen technology "priorities" with only enough funding to support three appropriately. We should prioritize technologies that give us the biggest bang for our buck, including solar-electric propulsion and cryogenic propellant storage and transfer. The systems that follow from these technologies, such as in-space refueling depots, can truly revolutionize how we operate in space, leading to widespread human settlement of the space frontier.
NASA must pursue the difficult endeavor of cutting-edge science, but the agency must properly define its needs. The James Webb Space Telescope provides a clear example -- NASA seemed unprepared for its difficulties, and repeatedly surprised that it would take additional time and funding to accomplish the mission.
I have never seen NASA accomplish a large mission on budget and on schedule. NASA should work on these projects, but it needs better cost estimates, and better program management.
NASA should lead an international cooperative effort to protect our people and our assets by clearing away space debris. NASA also needs to assume the critical role of deflecting near-Earth objects, which pose a fundamental threat to life and property on the Earth. This is the only preventable natural disaster, and it is worth the cost to provide an insurance policy against potential planetary destruction.
In keeping with one of the long-standing functions of NASA, the agency should use commercially provided space services and hardware. In other words, NASA should not design and build something, such as crew and cargo transportation to low Earth orbit, if it reasonably believes it can buy it from an American commercial entity.
Unfortunately, NASA is pursuing NASA-built cryogenic technology, instead of leveraging the expertise and capabilities at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, and other well-respected aerospace companies that are well positioned and have great expertise on this technology.
When President Kennedy announced the moon mission, the entire program was based upon technologies that did not yet exist. Now NASA is incapable and unwilling to include technologies that have not yet been proved in space. NASA has lost its edge.
We will never re-create Apollo, the product of many complex variables, but the truth is we don't really want to re-create Apollo. This time we want to colonize the solar system, building settlements on the moon, in deep space, and on Mars.
We can create this future if we understand what the data tell us, and have the courage to act on them. Unfortunately, fundamental misunderstandings of our capabilities, as well as the usual political and parochial interests, have gotten in the way.
In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner announced that the Western frontier, which defined the American experience and character, had been closed. In the 1960s, through the moon program, America rediscovered the power of the frontier, but only for a decade. Do we have the courage to find it once more?