I read an article/press release/whatever on what's next for NASA today, and I have a few thoughts on it:
First, I love that it was made perfectly clear that NASA is still in the business of manned spaceflight and exploration. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to hear people say "oh, well, NASA's not going to have a manned spaceflight program after the shuttle retires." Uh? HELLO!? There are still American astronauts, employed by NASA, on the International Space Station. Right now, that defines our manned spaceflight, as the shuttle has basically served as a high profile ferry to this orbital laboratory.
Which brings me to my second thought: the ISS is listed separately from manned exploration. This is appropriate, as low earth orbit is no longer exploration. It's the shallow waters at the beach; it's our front porch; it's falling at just the right speed. I think the ISS has had a very significant impact on how we (the United States) approach spaceflight: it's no longer us vs. the world; we can now cooperate with just about everyone, and through this we can accomplish something none of us could do alone. To me, that's the essence of the future of the human race. But low earth orbit is only half a step towards true space colonization. It's basically a laboratory for the testing and development of the technology that we would need (mostly testing). This is very important, but not the goal.
The third emphasis is something that I think gets overlooked a lot when people think about NASA. NASA was originally NACA, or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It was NACA that did the oodles of airfoil testing that design engineers still use today when designing wings. When NACA became NASA, don't think they forgot about the aeronautics part: NASA still stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As much as I'd like to pretend it's all about the space, NASA is a huge part of the aeronautics industry: has anyone been paying attention to the green aviation push that's involving several large companies (and this)? And the Blended Wing Body that's being developed and tested at Dryden (just go look at some of the other stuff they're doing, too)! These are still cool. Planes are important to our society - they have transformed our world, and revolutionized our transportation system. They will never not be relevant, and we should never stop seeking innovation and advancement.
My thoughts and feelings on the final topic feel almost redundant. NASA's last emphasis is on science. The science that Voyager is doing, and Deep Impact, Cassini, Messenger, ANY of the Mars rovers. And don't forget New Horizon!!! We have a very vague image of what Pluto is really like, and New Horizon will very much live up to its name and give us a new point in the solar system up to which we know what is there. We're looking at the Sun, and discovering new things! We recently learned that there's water on the Moon. This science isn't, and will probably never be done by commercial companies. NASA is really good at this, and should exist for this reason alone, if no other reason exists. So to those who are insistent that NASA will slowly fade once the shuttle is grounded a final time, I say to you: NASA does so much more than operate a ferry system to a laboratory the size of a large house. NASA expands our understanding of the universe and our closest neighbors, and there is no price you can put on that. They will always have a task to do. They will always have a purpose.
So I am glad to read about what's next for NASA.