No matter what issues Americans have with NASA, whether it is the perception that it is too expensive, or that the shuttle program was disappointing, or that private companies should take over space exploration, there’s one thing that is true that the world remembers.
NASA put men on the moon.
That was an accomplishment by any measure and one largely without negative connotations. The military might of the USA is dominating, but it is not something other countries admire—nor are our development of the atom bomb or our nuclear arsenal admired. The freedoms and opportunities that many foreigners see represented in America have diminished in the last decade (9/11 largely shut off our brain drain with increasingly-difficult-to-get visas, and our recent economic woes have reduced illegal immigration to a trickle).
Now as an American I’m surely biased, having grown up with the domestic discussions about NASA, its funding, and its direction. It wasn’t until I took a sabbatical in Brazil and made friends with a young astronomer there that I got a glimpse of what the brand means worldwide.
My friend was offered a good postdoctoral research position with a top researcher at a state university in the midwest of the United States. He accepted, but before he could withdraw his application for a NASA fellowship, he got an offer from them. I advised him to keep his word to accept the first offer (even if it had a pretty quick deadline to say yes or no), as that was the most ethical thing in my mind, and the position was a good one.
He took the NASA job.
He explained what it meant to his mother specifically, and to his family more generally. When your mother cries that you’ll go work for NASA, well, that’s tough to ignore. Moreover, his hometown newspaper ran an article about how he was taking a position at NASA—something they would not have done for the other job, as this was not a small hometown. NASA is seen as special, and it is.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about NASA, their direction, and their effectiveness. But everyone should also be aware of what the NASA brand means around the world. It’s Apollo, and the Hubble Space Telescope, and cutting-edge space exploration. China, India, and others are now ramping up their programs, while NASA is facing severe funding cuts. I am concerned. So is Bill Nye. So are our young children. We throw away or diminish that brand, and we’ve lost something.
NASA put men on the moon over 40 years ago. No other organization can make any claim even approaching that accomplishment. Let’s keep it and celebrate it. Their shortcomings, in my opinion, have been the result of external pressures and limits.
Let’s keep exploring the universe.
Disclaimers: I am an American, and an astronomer who has received substantial NASA funding over the years. While I can’t be sure I’m totally objective, I am trained to try to be.