The 'Pale Red Dot' in our future?

April 2010

By France A. Córdova

Bumping along a dirt road in the jungle of Central America, the car carrying a team of American geologists was suddenly halted by an armed rebel group that appeared out of the bushes. The rebels demanded identification. One of the Americans fumbled for ID and pulled out his NASA badge. The rebel leader grunted, "NASA," slightly smiled and pointed up. He waved the geologists on. This story was told to me years ago by a scientist at one of the NASA field centers. His point was that the NASA brand was recognized globally, and, in this case, proved to be a ticket to freedom for an American group wandering in hostile territory.

Only 11 years after it was founded in 1958, NASA put two men on the moon and lined up several to follow them. One, a geologist, returned moon rock samples to Earth, which yielded the first satisfying hypothesis of the moon's origin. Only 20 years after NASA's founding, Voyager spacecraft were on their way to explore our solar system's outer planets. Human-piloted and robotic spacecraft took the first photos of the Earth from space, revealing our planet to be "a pale blue dot," in the words of the late astronomer Carl Sagan. In the mid-1990s, NASA set its sights on looking for evidence of life beyond Earth.

Today NASA has an aging fleet of space cargo vehicles, an aging workforce and a diffuse dream. While its science missions are achieving more than ever, its human spaceflight program is languishing. Recognizing this ennui, the President asked a committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, a former commercial space administrator and sage government adviser, to assess where NASA's human spaceflight program was and where it should be headed.

The result was a thoughtful commentary called "Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation." It describes what ails NASA (insufficient funds for its current plans to return to the moon and then beyond), and advocates for contracting commercial entities to journey to a longer-lived International Space Station. The notion is that a privatized vision, funded by public dollars, could be a cheaper and faster way to make progress in low Earth orbit (LEO). The committee also recommends that with modest additional funding, revolutionary space-faring technologies could be developed that would take robots and people to a destination undefined.

The president's budget for NASA is loosely aligned with the Augustine report's recommendations. The budget reaffirms the value of space science and calls for a greater investment in aeronautics and space technology, sorely needed to attract young people into careers that would position the U.S. for discovery, innovation and utilization of space, and it abandons the several-years-old return to the moon effort. The proposed budget has provoked debate in Congress.

My take is that it's time for NASA to return to its roots as an agency that dreams the boldest dreams, attracts young people who want to be part of something larger, and inspires as many people to watch its exploits as watch the Super Bowl. Do you remember when you watched Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface? That achievement inspired countless young people to start dreaming about our next destination in space. Perhaps the "pale red dot"? Mars, after all, is theoretically in the "habitable zone" where life, under the right conditions, might flourish. Wouldn't a combination of human and robotic missions to the planet be an aspirational goal that would drive the newest space technologies while attracting a newer, younger workforce?

America and NASA need a great challenge. A great challenge is one that inspires people to look up at the night sky in wonder; one that encourages our kids to study math and science so they can be space explorers, discoverers or inventors; one that appeals to our desire to know something presently unknown. A great challenge demands innovation; it requires investment and anticipates a return on the investment, including new technologies and jobs to be sure, but also including the more profound reward that creates a sense of awe.

NASA should not be content to be a contract monitor, nor should it settle for anything less than a well-defined goal - one that inspires and sets technology development along a strategic course.

Our space program will continue to cost money - lots of money. Let's ensure the return is worthy of the investment. Let's not stop short of the grand destination that beckons us. The "pale red dot" could give us a strategic goal capable of driving remarkable innovation and supporting a dedicated workforce.


France A. Córdova is president of Purdue University and an astrophysicist. She was chief scientist at NASA from 1993-1996.