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What NASA Is For -- Now Shut Up and Listen

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Every few years someone with a loud enough megaphone asks why we are spending so much money putting people into space, or, as in this most recent round of criticism, ask, "What is NASA for?" As usual people on both sides rush into the fray, some defending the proud legacy of NASA's astronaut corps and making the case for why humans are needed to do better science, and others arguing for how much more science we would get if we simply ended the showboating and risky waste of funds on human spaceflight and put the money into robots.

They are both right. They are both wrong. And they are engaged in a dead argument.

This makes it hard for me to weigh in on the debate, as it is like two pre-age of enlightenment courtiers arguing about the best way to measure the sound of the heavenly spheres the day before Copernicus tossed out the whole paradigm. But then, such considerations have never stopped me before.

Of course we should stop wasting taxpayer funds on ridiculously expensive government missions to nowhere that return little value and blaze no useful trail for others to follow. Of course we should spend much more on science -- and yes, use robots to do that science when it makes sense (most of the time, it does). Of course Congress often covers the exposed crotch of our human spaceflight program with the figleaf of science when it's an obvious lie to justify the pumping of billions of dollars into the belly of an ever voracious aerospace industrial complex. And yes, of course space is dangerous. (This is the "duh" part of the debate to me...)

On the other hand, our investment in our human spaceflight program has produced an amazing and sometimes nonlinear benefit to our culture and society -- in spite of its lack of direction and being whip sawed around by the same clueless political elite who gave us the government shut down, two badly managed wars and healthcare.gov.

In its early days, the space program cracked the sky of our imaginations and gave us a benchmark for what is possible. Those heroes gave us something that is intangible yet forever -- for we live today in a civilization that has walked on other worlds. No matter the sludge-laden whirling mass of other news that bombards us, that spark of possibility each day lights a child's imagination somewhere on this planet to do better and to dream bigger. They set the tone for the macro conversation of what is to come for our species and this tiny and delicate blue dot -- only visible from the windows of those spacecraft. Images made poignant not because of the pictures themselves, but because they were shot by One of Us who was Out There Looking Back.

And yet, of late the program has been a failure. It is in fact almost impossible to defend, as it is lost, it is bloated and it is, when compared to the alternatives available right now, a dying and driverless vehicle on a dead end road to nowhere.

I believe both sides -- those who are pro-toasters in space and those who are pro-studs to the stars -- are lost, losing, and will in the end be seen as engaged in a dated and rhetorical dance that will have no meaning, if the rest of us choose the right path moving forward.

You see, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift (yes, we in the space field get to use that word in its literal sense -- as we are engaged at the level of Copernicus). And the day after such a shift the arguments of the day before will make no sense.

So both sides need to shut up and listen.

Here is what NASA is for:

1. The exploration of space: Be it by humans or robots, based on the best choice for the mission and the most efficient means to return the data and science sought. Most of the time this will mean we send robots, due to cost and danger. But sometimes we will need the irreplaceable judgment and descriptive abilities of a person on the spot.

2. Supporting the development of space: Both the Lewis and Clark function and what NASA used to do before Apollo, when its job was to push the edges of technology and help American aviation become the best in the world. First, along with science, NASA surveys and reports on what is over the horizon so the rest of us can go there if it looks good. Then, NASA returns the public's investment by helping us build the right and best rockets and other machines so that as we follow the path they have blazed we can do it faster, better and cheaper.

3. Enabling the human settlement of space: Forget the debates about humans vs. robots doing better science. We go as humans into space to expand the domain of humanity and life -- not robots. And as we do, we will get more science because when you are living somewhere you obviously learn more about it. NASA and the government must first get out of the way, and then support us as we open the frontier. This is their job. Not to do space for us, but to help us do it ourselves. Think of it as payback for the trillion or so we have given them since Apollo.

The ultimate and clear sign of the success of our space program will be when the places we are going in space, be they for science or life, are generating more value than they cost. And this value means both science and prosperity, and yes, always this value means hope.

Even as some of limited imagination bemoan the failing light of American industry, the geeks and nerds and others been born in the generations since we began this sometimes awkward and stumbling climb upwards have transformed civilization. They created the Internet, revolutionized medicine and set the stage for a complete change in what it means to be a human in the next decades. And yes, many of them, no longer able to sit back and watch the heroic icon that once inspired them fade into obscurity, are taking the responsibility themselves to do it right. They are building their own private rockets and machines to open the frontier, creating their own plans for new businesses and new ventures and pushing forward so their own children will be able to claim these new places as their new home -- and they will not be stopped, no matter what.

And thus the change begins, the paradigm shifts and the arguments of today become the senseless babblings of a generation at the moment just before everything changes. Yet the right debate is good. We do need to transform what we are dong in space -- and why. We must fix our space agency. We must redirect our space agenda. We must do more science for less money.

And we must open the frontier to humanity, so that we can do all of these things -- and more...