NASA's mission should not be whittled down

NASA's mission should not be whittled down
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As I stood on the National Mall in July in a joyous crowd watching the projection of the Saturn V rocket onto the Washington Monument, I was struck by the wonder and awe that the space program can still inspire.

The celebration drew over 500,000 people, despite temperatures in the 90s well past 9 p.m. ET. Why? Why did the 50th anniversary of Apollo resonate with people, most of whom were not born before the last steps on the moon were taken?

Because space inspires.

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Yes, the Apollo program influenced a spike in advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. Yes, the Apollo program inspired many of today’s tech entrepreneurs. Yes, technology spinoffs from Apollo enriched our economy and standard of living. More importantly, I would argue, it inspired the world. It let humans see what we are capable of when we are shown the sky is no longer the limit.

JFK’s clear mandate that led to the great Apollo successes generated strong support for a goal people could focus on. Within just a decade NASA took us from virtually no space program to the moon. That was followed by large programs like Skylab, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. But today, many informed and well-meaning people seem to think that NASA has lost that mission clarity and is just a collection of relatively smaller scale projects. 

Some of them think the answer is to narrow the scope of NASA’s mandate to a single focus. In recent months, from advocates outside government, I have seen calls to have NASA only focus its efforts on human spaceflight. I have seen calls to have NASA focus its mission only on battling climate change.

I would argue we should continue to let NASA do what it does best: push boundaries in aeronautics, unveil the secrets of the universe, analyze the behavior of our sun, explore our solar system, conduct the research to characterize and understand our home planet — and return humans to the moon, and then on to Mars. NASA did all of these things, short of putting boots on Mars, during Apollo, and has continued to work on them ever since.

They have helped us to understand that there are billions of solar systems beyond our own, that moons of the outer solar system could harbor life beneath their icy surfaces, that monitoring our sun is critical to protecting our infrastructure and way of life, and that our planet is changing in unprecedented ways due to human activity. We have learned to live in space for nearly 19 uninterrupted years now on the International Space Station, developing reliable life support systems that can sustain astronauts on the long journey to Mars. 

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For many of us who hope to see humans walk on Mars, and just maybe discover evidence of past life there in our lifetimes, the progress can seem slow. But seen against the sweep of human history, our five-decades of progress in venturing from our blue planet to worlds beyond has been steady and continuous.

NASA doesn’t need radical change, it needs to continue to pursue its balanced mission “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.” In doing so, we will continue to do what I saw so clearly on the National Mall — we will inspire the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and explorers.

Ellen Stofan is the John and Adrienne Mars director at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Stofan is the former chief scientist for NASA 2013-2016.