One Giant Creep for Mankind

>41 years ago today, Neil Armstrong cracked open the hatch of the Eagle lunar module and took one giant leap for mankind. Then mankind rolled up its sleeves, picked up a shovel, and dug in. That was quite enough adventure, thank you very much.

We've got a shuttle fleet somebody is eyeing for a museum. An international space station with the "international" in quotes and the plans in place for it to crash into the ocean (hopefully) 10 years hence. And the Hubble telescope -- the last example of NASA actually broadening human understanding -- will fall from orbit in the coming decade, or fall into permanent disrepair, whichever comes first.

We were going to return to the moon by 2014. Scrapped. We were going to build a moonbase by 2020. Scrubbed. Mars? It's not going anywhere, and neither are we. We might have a new shuttle in a few years. We might not.

There is a solid argument for abandoning space on budgetary grounds. But it is intellectually and fiscally indefensible for NASA to be run like the Department of Education. NASA is a government agency, but it is also an engineering firm. When they are given a defined mission to, for example, return to the moon, NASA's men and women take the job seriously. To "slip the surly bonds of Earth" and set up shop in the void requires intensive and nontrivial planning and training. Six years into that planning, with the stroke of a pen, all of that work amounts to a stack of paperwork and a lot of unfurled blueprints. It is similarly ridiculous to make drastic and dramatic changes to goals and direction. "Forget the Moon -- we'll land on an asteroid!" As though such adventuring involves little more than steering rockets a little to the left and firing off a tractor beam.

NASA is expensive and produces few results because we start and cancel our most audacious and inspiring plans midway through. The executive and legislative branches, in essence, shovel tax dollars by the billion into the fiery blast of a shuttle that never leaves the launch pad. This interruption exhausts and bewilders scientists and engineers who devote themselves to projects almost certain to be scratched, or victim of overwhelming mission creep. And it frustrates a public tired of waste and losing interest in the final frontier.

"We can't do it all," says Rep. Bart Gordon, chair of the House Science and Technology Committee. But in not doing "it all," NASA is not doing anything. This is not how you run a space program. It's not even how you'd run a lemonade stand.

The most interesting progress in space research and development has been in the private sector, where engineers and businessmen understand setting a goal and sticking to it. This isn't to say NASA should be privatized. Just the opposite. The type of large-scale missions to which NASA should be devoted require funding and sponsorship only the state can provide. But perhaps this can be one area where there is common ground, where political parties can agree -- regardless of which hand holds the gavel -- "we won't touch this."

In the meantime, this House and Senate will jostle over NASA's mission and budget. As will the next. This president will scrap plans and make lofty speeches. So will his successor. We'll spend millions targeting moons and planets and comets and stars. And we won't go anywhere.

41 years ago, a man took a small step, and mankind took a giant leap. Today, we've forgotten even how to crawl.