Few government agencies are more beloved by the American public than NASA, whose very name inspires excitement and scientific wonder about the great beyond. But NASA’s legacy of exploration isn’t something to be taken for granted. Just like FEMA or the Food and Drug Administration, the space agency still has to fight for resources; its funding, staffing and research goals are dependent on the federal budget, which is negotiated by Congress and the President.
In a recent op-ed published by CNN, President Barack Obama called for enhanced support of future space exploration. He hailed several of NASA’s most recent high-profile successes as evidence of the innovative power and exploratory spirit of the space agency and the American people alike, including discoveries of water on Mars and New Horizons' mission to Pluto. “We've flown by every planet in the solar system—something no other nation can say,” he wrote.
The thing is, because it can take years for NASA’s missions to bear fruit, it can get a bit murky as to who should take credit for what. Actually, many of these missions were actually planned, built and launched under the Bush Administration.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted flowing water on the Red Planet last year, but it was launched in 2005. New Horizons successfully reached Pluto back in June 2015, but the probe took off from Earth in 2006. And though the Kepler Space Telescope has spotted thousands of exoplanets since it was launched in early 2009, it was also originally scheduled to leave the ground in 2006.
A big part of this is the nature of science and space travel. After many years of planning and building, it then takes an additional six months or so for probes and spacecraft to reach Mars—the equivalent of popping next door for a cup of sugar when it comes to interplanetary travel—and years for them to get as far as Pluto. As President Obama notes in the op-ed, "Scientific discovery doesn't happen with the flip of a switch; it takes years of testing, patience and a national commitment to education."
While these missions began under the Bush Administration, former President Bush had his fair share of controversial plans for NASA. Early on in his presidency, he cut funding for the International Space Station. He also laid plans to replace the aging space shuttle program with an Apollo-like rocket in the Constellation program after the Columbia orbiter disintegrated upon re-entering the atmosphere. The ultimate goal, according to Bush, was to get astronauts back to the Moon by the 2020s.
"With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond," former President Bush said in a 2004 speech announcing his vision for NASA.
President Obama took a very different approach to NASA's role in space exploration with great focus on both privatization of American space travel and international cooperation. Early in his time in office, after an expert panel investigation showed that the program was behind schedule and over budget, he canceled Constellation. Instead, he has favored fostering the infant commercial spaceflight sector, leading to the recent test launches by private companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, Mike Wall writes for Space.com.
President Obama has also directed the space agency to skip their return to the moon, and instead start the work to land astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s—with the ultimate goal of getting human explorers to Mars in the 2030s.
But the true feasibility of this endeavor seems unlikely, Eric Berger writes for Ars Technica. "Obama has put NASA on an unsustainable pathway to Mars given NASA's current resources and approach, and he is leaving the hard work of actually getting to Mars to his successors," writes Berger.
It’s unclear what NASA’s role and mission under the next president will be. But, as with most scientific research, it will likely take many years to bear fruit. And though the venture will in all likelihood take longer than the 2030s to execute, great achievements in space exploration often begin with the most ambitious visions.