Editorial Board

U.S. Is Still Lost in Space

Orbital Sciences' spectacular rocket failure suggests a deeper question about U.S. space policy: What is U.S. space policy again?
It can only be attributable to human error.

Accidents happen. That's especially true of space flight, one of humankind's more complicated and dangerous endeavors, and it's a truth that was spectacularly illustrated this week when a rocket blew up ferrying supplies to the International Space Station.

The rocket was supplied by Orbital Sciences Corp., which has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to shuttle cargo to the station. The investigation into the explosion is sure to raise questions about the role of the private sector in carrying out U.S. space policy. But it's also worth asking an underlying question: What exactly is U.S. space policy?

Since Richard Nixon's administration, dreaming up a new mission for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has sustained a minor industry: colloquium after symposium, study after report, advisory council after task force, all trying to find a new animating purpose for American spaceflight.

President Barack Obama's contribution to the canon, the Augustine Commission report, offered yet another vision. It outlined a plan whereby private companies, such as Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk's SpaceX, could increasingly handle humdrum trips to low-Earth orbit, while NASA could be freed to dream big and develop new spacefaring technologies, with a long-term goal of getting to Mars.

Obama has never shown much enthusiasm for the space program. But to his credit, he heeded the committee's recommendation to sustain human spaceflight. And the path he articulated in 2010 -- get to an asteroid first, aim to orbit Mars in the 2030s, let the private sector do its thing -- seemed rational and calculated.

But while rationality and calculation may get a spacecraft off the ground, they don't persuade members of Congress to pay for it. Even worse, Congress has grafted onto Obama's plan some vestigial elements of his predecessor's space vision, including an extravagantly expensive new NASA-designed rocket. And landing on an asteroid, it turns out, is much harder than most people thought.

In sum -- as a depressing report from the National Research Council recently made clear -- the current approach to getting humans to Mars is fundamentally unworkable. And any more realistic strategy will require far more money.

The chief appeal of the space program has always been a romantic one: the dazzling possibilities of traversing other worlds and exploring new frontiers. In a time of diminished ambition and tightened budgets, however, making that case is getting harder. Convincing the public to support an expansive new mission for NASA will require a compelling vision and an urgent purpose. At the moment, the U.S. has neither.