NASA turns 55. What's next for the space agency?

Fifty-five years ago Monday, President Eisenhower signed the Space Act, authorizing the creation of NASA. Since then, the space agency has grown from its Sputnik-shaded beginnings to studying the full scope of the heavens. What will the next 55 years bring?

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/Reuters
Information from three telescopes was combined to create this image of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 160,000 light years from Earth. X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) show hot regions created by these winds and shocks, while infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (red) outline where the dust and cooler gas are found. The optical light from the 2.2-m Max-Planck-ESO telescope (yellow) in Chile shows where ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars is causing gas in the nebula to glow.

Fifty-six years ago, civilian pilots and military rocket scientists had little in common. And then, on October 7, 1957, came Sputnik.

Within a year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operations as a hastily cobbled-together mix of civilian aeronautics and military intercontinental ballistic missile research. Now, it's a federal agency examining the entire sweep of the sky.

From its hasty beginnings, NASA has flown 157 missions – 86 still ongoing – visiting almost every large heavenly body between the Sun and Pluto, monitoring Earth from space, peering into the heart of our galaxy's central black hole, and looking out to distant stars and galaxies. NASA has sent 301 astronauts into space, and is currently training another nine who will soon fly.

We have a permanent human presence in orbit and 12 men have left footprints on the Moon. NASA's satellites have orbited Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, the asteroid Vesta, Jupiter, and Saturn; flown by Uranus and Neptune; and another is en route to Pluto. NASA's telescopes are listening to every corner of the universe and looking at billions of stars; they have found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, plus countless pulsars, black holes, supernovae, and more. NASA and its sister organizations around the world are examining the secrets of the universe, from tiny grains of space dust to dark matter to unthinkably enormous galaxies.

"The 20th century was quite an amazing time for advances in science and technology, particularly in spaceflight," says Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian. Just 55 years before NASA's creation, in 1903, the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in Kitty Hawk, N.C. And now, 55 years later, we've visited the moon, "reconnoitered the solar system … and revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it," he says.

"Apollo, getting to the moon, developing industries and building infrastructure, exploring our solar system, the Earth, and the larger universe – that's a pretty good list of accomplishments for 55 years," says Dr. Barry. "It's a pretty good investment for the chunk of money we spent in the '60s plus the maintenance-level investment we've made since then."

The price of exploration

Space spending in 1957 had amounted to around $35 million ($282 million in 2013 dollars), but Sputnik fears loosened federal purse strings. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration officially began its mission October 1, 1958, after President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on July 29. In its first year, NASA's budget was about 10 times the 1957 space budget, and it grew rapidly.

"In the early years, NASA was building capacity at a tremendous clip," says Barry. In addition to constructing the Johnson and Kennedy spaceflight centers, designing the space vehicles, and training astronauts, Barry says, NASA poured money into the information infrastructure. NASA funded research into telecommunications and weather satellites, plus it provided seed money to university science and engineering programs around the country, to train the scientists and engineers NASA would need.

NASA's most expensive project, the Apollo missions, transformed humanity's vision of what we could accomplish, but at tremendous expense: $25 billion over 15 years (equivalent to $150 billion to $200 billion today). "We had just over four percent of the federal budget" in the mid-1960s, says Barry, "but it started going down after that. By the time the '70s rolled around, we were under one percent, and we've been hovering around half of one percent of the federal budget pretty much for the past 30 years."

Congress is currently debating the scope of NASA's future. The Senate has approved $2 billion more per year for NASA than the House, a difference that amounts to more than 10 percent of the agency's total funding ($17.7 billion in the current fiscal year). Both versions of the NASA authorization bill would fund all the missions currently flying, but the Senate bill includes funding for NASA's next big step – lassoing an asteroid, considered a key step toward extending human spaceflight – while the House bill specifically forbids it.

"Opinions about NASA are often strongly held by many people – what we ought to be doing, what our priorities are, and how we ought to be doing it. Those differences are pretty strongly in evidence in Capitol Hill these days," says Barry, diplomatically.

So what will NASA's role be in the next 55 years?

As NASA's chief historian, Barry has heard various historical models proposed for the exploration of the Moon and Mars. Will it be like the Wild West, with NASA building infrastructure, equivalent to the federal support for land grants and railroads in the 19th century? Or will it be more like Antarctica, with a permanent research station but no one living sustainably off the land?

When pressed to speculate about NASA's role 55 years in the future – in 2068 – Barry says, "I'd hope by that time that we'd have more people in low-earth orbit, in space stations, with a tourist economy – people take a vacation to a space station, maybe?"

As for the Moon, "We'd mine the regolith for fuel [to support] research facilities on the moon. I don't know if anyone will live there permanently, but the far side of the moon is a great place to do astronomy, because it blocks out all the signals from the earth, so I imagine there'd be something there. And I imagine there would be humans on Mars by that point – at least initial expeditions and maybe a semi-permanent settlement by then. And hopefully we'll have explored more – the moons around Jupiter and Saturn are interesting places, too, and hopefully we'll have much more research on those by that point, and understand those more. That might be a next step: sending more robots or eventually in some places, sending humans."

"The President has presented a proposal, and of course the Congress has its part to play. We'll see what they say," says Barry. "Those of us here at NASA are happy to go forth and do – to go out there and push those boundaries."

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