In one of the ironies of prime-time TV programming, the History Channel opened this week's look at spaceflight with a paean to the gung-ho flight controllers who ran the Apollo missions from launch to splashdown.
Toward the end of the documentary, says former NASA chief historian Roger Launius, former lead flight controller Gene Kranz grows wistful and notes each time he sees the moon, "We went there," then adds, "We could go there again if we wanted to."
As NASA, Congress, and the White House pore through the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's 248-page report on the causes behind February's disaster, the lack of a strategic vision for the space program once again is coming under scrutiny.
In the report's closing comments, the board unanimously agreed that "America's future space efforts must include a human presence in Earth orbit, and eventually beyond." It also declared that for the past 30 years, the nation's leaders have left the US space program "without a guiding vision." And, the report adds, "none seems imminent." It called on NASA, the White House, and Congress to "honor the memory of Columbia's crew by reflecting on the nation's future in space."
The challenge, many analysts agree, is coming up with a vision that can inspire the public and draw the backing of lawmakers while avoiding projects whose price tags bust budgets.
"Exciting visions bump into reality," notes Dr. Launius, now at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. In 1989, George H.W. Bush "stood on the very steps of this museum" and announced a grand vision that would put humans on Mars by 2019. That vision shortly foundered over a projected $450 billion price tag.
Cost becomes even more critical now, he notes, as NASA begins to implement the board's recommendations amid forecasts of record deficits.
Despite broad public support for the space program in general and "mom and apple pie" support among politicians, from the standpoint of the federal budget, spending on the space program "is 100 percent discretionary."
Yet the public appears ready to back efforts to develop a long-term vision for the space program, some analysts note, citing a survey for the Houston Chronicle published in July. More than half the 800 respondents in the Zogby International survey agreed that the orbiters should be grounded until the future of the US space program has been more clearly defined.
At one extreme, people have called for shutting down the human spaceflight program altogether, notes Howard McCurdy, who specializes in space policy at American University in Washington, D.C. This faction argues that exploration can be done with robotic craft such as the two Mars-bound rovers or the Cassini-Huygens unmanned mission to Saturn and its moon Titan.
At the other end of the spectrum, he continues, some space advocates have called for shutting down the shuttle and space station program. They call for the US program to be driven by Apollo-like efforts to reach specific destinations, such as Mars.
Yet Apollo was driven specifically by the cold war and President Kennedy's desire to beat the Soviets at something in space, after the Soviets posted a number of space "firsts."
"We don't have anything as nearly earth-shattering" as the threat of thermonuclear destruction at the hands of an implacable opponent driving the space program today, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe acknowledged Wednesday.
In the end, McCurdy notes, for all its achievements, the Apollo program left its descendants with nothing on which to build. This has left the middle road, "refining our ability to live and work in low-Earth orbit."
The accident investigation board acknowledges that in the absence of a broader vision, the best the nation's leaders can do now is to lay the groundwork for any vision that emerges by focusing on a replacement for the shuttle to ferry people to and from space more safely. It's the one item on which nearly all factions agree.
A broader Washington debate is still likely, although perhaps not until next year's budget, notes Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington.
NASA's longstanding stepping stone approach to building an infrastructure to access Earth's orbit and beyond may be the most practical approach for given competing demands for federal dollars, analysts say.
McCurdy worries that it may not be enough to ignite public discussion. "The board has said: Excite the public with a long-term vision but don't talk to us about a long-term vision until you finish your infrastructure, and infrastructure is not very exciting," he says.
Yet given the board's statement that the lack of a shuttle replacement represents "a failure of national leadership," Mr. Chase holds that "if as a nation we decide to focus on space access, that will be a significant victory in an of itself."