NASA’s Desperate Search for Purpose Has Limited Its Science and Damaged Its Integrity

What are astronomy's most intriguing puzzles?
Feb. 5 2014 11:49 PM

What Is NASA for?

The space agency’s need to find a justification for its existence has damaged its integrity.

(Continued from Page 1)

Factor in the danger, and human spaceflight becomes almost impossible to justify. NASA kills roughly 4 percent of the people it launches into space. It's a very risky thing to pack enough energy into a vessel so that it can spin around the Earth at 5 miles a second. It's just as difficult to bleed that energy off and come to rest on the ground without burning up in the process or winding up as a sizeable crater. Some of the time, the process will go awry. Even if NASA's managers, engineers, and technicians were perfectly on their game all the time, astronauts would still die—maybe just 1 percent of them rather than 4 percent, but die they will, at an alarming rate. In vain.

Shortly after Columbia broke up high above the Texas prairie, disaster crews recovered a hard drive that, almost miraculously, was practically intact. Scientists recovered the drive’s information and discovered that it was the data from one of the experiments. One of the last acts of an astronaut was to gather this data and record it so that a scientist back on Earth could analyze it and publish it. The publication that resulted was cited a grand total of three times. The hard drive might as well have burned up in the atmosphere.

Columbia and its crew perished not for science—and not to fuel national ambitions or even human interest. How many post-Apollo astronauts can you name? Maybe one or two—the ones that might have piqued your interest in some way, such as Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. But generally, NASA missions were dry, uninspiring affairs with nothing to look forward to and nobody in particular to care about.

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NASA was stuck without a niche. Robot missions did great science, but they didn't satisfy our primal need for space manifest destiny. Human missions did awful science, and they didn't satisfy our primal need for space manifest destiny. How could the agency justify its budget?

NASA tried lying, making its scientific efforts look much more significant than they really were. For example, one of the major justifications for the ISS was that astronauts would be able to grow large protein crystals in space, which would revolutionize biology. They even went so far to say that space crystals gave us a flu drug. Nonsense, said a number of scientific bodies that knew better, such as the American Society for Cell Biology and the National Research Council. (Admittedly, they said it politely. The NRC report, for example, said: "The improvements in crystal quality that have been observed are often only incremental, and the difficulty of producing the appropriate controls limit investigators' ability to definitively assess if improvements can be reliably credited to the microgravity environment.") And that flu drug? The crystal was grown in Australia, which, while not in space, at least had its gravity pointing in a novel direction.

To keep Congress happy, NASA relied on pork-barrel politics and even lofted a few bacon makers into space. Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson reportedly did better than Utah Sen. Jake Garn, whose zero-gravity antics earned him the nickname "Barfin' Jake." Of course, NASA was careful to wrap even the most crassly political stunt—such as the shuttle flight of Ohio Sen. John Glenn—in the mantle of science. (Never mind that he wasn't eligible to participate in the "scientific" study he was supposed to take part in.) But the essential problem remained. Human spaceflight was all but worthless for generating science or public excitement, and unmanned craft didn't fill the void. So NASA began to hope for a miracle.

That miracle is extraterrestrial life. If we found creatures from outer space, even microbial ones, it would radically increase our knowledge about the origins of life and create a whole new branch of science. It would also mean dozens of new NASA-style space missions to learn more about the wee beasties. Alien creatures would give NASA a sense of purpose once again. And in 1996, a space rock looked like it would take NASA to the promised land.

The first public hints came from a hooker. She had the details wrong—she told the tabloids that the aliens were from Pluto—but as crazy as it sounds, she was essentially correct. Within the week, NASA would announce that scientists had found life on Mars. Here was a piece of news that even the most addled of politicos—Clinton strategist Dick Morris—knew was sufficiently important to impress a prostitute. NASA had its sights set on bigger targets. By claiming that a recovered Martian meteorite contained tiny fossils of "nannobacteria"—little wiggly bodies too small to be Earthly microbes—NASA was able to get the attention of the president himself. "I am determined that the American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars," President Bill Clinton said on the South Lawn.

Too bad it was bunkum.

Mars Polar Lander
Against a painted Martian backdrop at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a reporter listens to a Dec. 7, 1999, audio feed of an attempt by scientists to contact the missing Mars Polar Lander. The attempt failed.

Photo by Scott Nelson/AFP/Getty Images

Within days, astute scientists started poking holes in the Mars-life story; within a few years, it had been cast aside as wishful thinking by pretty much everybody except the original NASA scientists. As late as 2009, NASA updated the public about "new" evidence for fossil life in the Mars meteorite. (NASA's website coyly states that "there is not an official NASA position" about the Mars rock.) Worse, the Mars meteorite story wasn't the last time that NASA seemed willing to promote bad science while trying to bolster the "astrobiology" niche it's trying to create for itself. In 2010, history repeated itself as farce when NASA astrobiologists discovered a "new" form of life that could use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA—something no known organism was able to do. Naturally, this, too, was fantasy. And although arsenic-based life wasn't as public a failure as the Mars meteorite story, it was an even more colossal screw-up, scientifically, the product of sloppy lab work and poor oversight.

This isn't to say that all of NASA's research is worthless. Far from it. But NASA's need to find a justification for its existence has damaged its integrity. The agency reeks of desperation as it gropes for some rationale for human spaceflight beyond the weirdly circular we-need-to-put-humans-in-space-to-study-what-happens-to-humans-when-we-put-them-in-space logic it's used for the past four decades. As NASA attempts to peg its future to will-o-the-wisp projects to the moon, to Mars, to a local asteroid, each of which has a less-than-even odds chance of coming to fruition, NASA's science slowly deteriorates.

NASA must adapt or die. In days gone by, it made sense to have a government agency spend untold billions to shoot people into space for God and glory. But those days have long since passed, and NASA's continued willingness to let the costs of human spaceflight devour the money that it should be using to do what it does really well—remote science—guarantees that it is headed for extinction. Admittedly, scrapping (or at least drastically curtailing) human spaceflight would be risky. The move likely wouldn't be popular with the public, and Congress is surprisingly stingy when it comes to funding scientific projects that don't produce something weaponizable. But refusing to adapt to a changed environment means that NASA, like the panda, will eke out a harder and harder living as conditions continue to worsen, spending an increasing amount of its time merely trying to survive. It will just be biding its time until extinction.

Charles Seife is a journalism professor at New York University. His most recent books are Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking and Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

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