Commentary: How Nasa Can Survive Its Midlife Crisis

October, 1958, was a jittery time in cold war Washington. Nuclear sabers were rattling, and everyone was concerned about an arms race in space. A year earlier, the Soviet Union had launched a 22-inch, whiskered aluminum ball called Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite. Its scratchy radio transmission soon became the bleep heard 'round the world.

President Eisenhower and Congress moved swiftly to respond, and on Oct. 1, 1958--40 years ago this week--the National Aeronautics & Space Administration opened for business. The space race was on.

LOST FOCUS. As NASA celebrates its 40th birthday with a small gathering at its headquarters, it might look back on those frenzied early days with longing. In 1958, NASA didn't have to explain its mission. With the constant thrum of the cold war in the background, the need for a space program seemed beyond question. Although NASA was a civilian agency, one of its principal objectives was "to gain stature for the nation in the general struggle with world communism," according to a 1959 review by the RAND Corp. that has just been declassified.

NASA accomplished that goal by surpassing the Soviets, beating them to the moon and pulling ahead in unmanned exploration of the planets. Now, NASA finds itself in a midlife crisis, searching for a new mission. On two fronts--the human exploration of space and scientific discovery--NASA sagged badly during the past two decades.

On the human front, the space shuttle never generated the pure excitement of the moon flights. NASA also stumbled with the space station. Since 1984, NASA has spent more than $20 billion on the station and has yet to get a single piece of hardware off the ground. An independent review in April predicted that the station will not be completed until 2005, three years late and $7 billion over budget. And NASA has now asked for $660 million to bail out its Russian partners, crippled by their failing economy.

NASA's unmanned scientific research program likewise lost its focus. Missions went over budget, some were canceled, and the Hubble space telescope was sent aloft with a bad case of astigmatism.

NASA can and should get back on track. The agency should acknowledge that it is dedicated to both of its primary objectives--the scientific missions and the human exploration of space, which is a worthy goal independent of its scientific value. Congressional support to meet these goals remains strong: Although NASA's budget has been trimmed during the past few years, Congress has given NASA almost as much money in the 1990s (after adjusting for inflation) as it did in the 1960s, during the Apollo heyday.

CULTURE CHANGE. During the past few years, NASA has finally begun to shake off its torpor and get moving again. Much of the credit should go to NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, an aerospace engineer who took over the agency in 1992 after 25 years at TRW Inc. Goldin "has changed the culture," says Marcia S. Smith, a longtime science policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service. He has made "faster, better, cheaper" NASA's new mantra and shifted operations costs to private sector partners so NASA can keep its focus on research and development.

Last summer's Mars Pathfinder mission was a striking demonstration of the principle: NASA sent a spacecraft to Mars, drove a tiny rover around the surface, and attracted 900 million hits on the Pathfinder Web site--all for $250 million. As the Pathfinder team liked to point out, that was less than it cost to make the movie Titanic. Not content with occasional missions to Mars, however, NASA has now established a Mars exploration program extending well into the next century--the next two spacecraft will be launched around the end of this year.

NASA could, however, encounter an iceberg ahead. The agency has begun its transition, but the job isn't finished. The most serious difficulties are in the human exploration program. The space station has so far generated little public enthusiasm. It has been designed, cut back, and redesigned so often that the public has little idea what it is supposed to do. It was promoted by NASA as a scientific mission, but the station is primarily about human exploration and living in space, not about science.

Some critics would scrap the station in favor of a bolder project--a return to the moon, perhaps, or a human mission to Mars. "NASA should send humans to Mars by 2008," says Robert Zubrin, the founder of Pioneer Astronautics, which does contract research for NASA, and the president of the Mars Society, a group formed in August to lobby for a human Mars mission. "The fundamental purpose of NASA is to open the solar system to humanity--and, by so doing, maintain the definition of the United States as a nation of pioneers," he says.

Whether or not it goes to Mars, NASA should not be forced to choose between science and exploration. Pathfinder showed that NASA still has the engineering brilliance and imagination that makes almost anything seem possible. The Hubble space telescope, now repaired, has provided a spectacular demonstration of NASA science. In November, the first elements of the space station will be launched aboard a Russian missile, and a second package will be carried aloft by the shuttle in December.

SPACE HERO. NASA's big fall event, however, occurs Oct. 29, when 77-year-old Senator Glenn (D-Ohio) is scheduled to make his second flight into space, 36 years after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. NASA insists Glenn's flight will answer important scientific questions about aging in space--but that's a flimsy justification. Glenn's flight isn't about science; it's about sending a space hero back up for another triumphal flight. That alone is reason enough to do it.

AS NASA continues to reinvent itself, it is asking Congress for stability in its budget over the next five years to allow better planning. With careful attention to paring unnecessary expenses, NASA can pursue first-class science--and the human exploration of space.

In the meantime, NASA can thank the old Soviet Union for Sputnik. The spacecraft tumbled back into the atmosphere and burned up only three months after it was launched, but that brief flight led to the creation of an agency that still embodies the American frontier spirit.

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