I stayed up the other night to watch NASA’s Curiosity Rover descent onto the Martian surface. Well, it wasn’t so much watching Curiosity… it was watching NASA personnel reacting to the telemetry that told them what Curiosity was doing. In some ways, it’s like watching a sports announcer calling the game, instead of actually watching the game. But hey, with NASA, that’s the way it works.
Though it’s been awhile since I watched a NASA event, much less stayed up late to see one, this one fascinated me because it was a landing design unlike anything NASA had done before: Using a “skycrane” platform to hover over the surface, lower the rover to the ground on cables, then cut loose and land elsewhere. If you haven’t seen the simulations of how it should (and apparently did) work, you should.
But there’s something else that fascinates me, about this moment, and about NASA: They have become a textbook model of American efficiency.
When NASA began its First Mission, it was during the Cold War, when so much of politics was about posturing to other nations like Russia and China. The Apollo program was a response to the Russian placement of Sputnik into Earth orbit, and the suggestion that they might put a man on the Moon. The United States’ response to that perceived threat was to throw everything it could into a program designed to get there first. Apollo became the jewel of the nation’s crown, and the government poured every conceivable amount of resources and manpower it could into pulling off the impossible. It worked, allowing the U.S. to place its bootprints on the Moon and return safely to the Earth, something other superpowers have yet to do.
But the Cold War ended, and suddenly, NASA had no mission. It quickly found it had to reinvent itself, from an organization designed for grandstanding to the world, while incidentally doing some science projects (as long as we were there), to an organization dedicated to the science projects, and cooperation instead of grandstanding (as long as the partners are there). This has defined NASA since Skylab, and it’s been a good Second Mission for them.
Unfortunately, NASA’s Second Mission was never as popular as the First Mission with the public, or with the politicians who supported it. Scientific research, like science fiction, has never been taken seriously by the majority of the American public or their representatives. And as impressive as it might have been, it paled in comparison to the transporter beams, time machines and androids of television.
With the wane in popularity (and no other countries to one-up), NASA found its budgets sliced to the comparative bone. For years, it struggled along with barely enough money to sustain itself, much less launch any new and major projects. But here is where NASA found its second wind and figured out how to make lemonade from the lemons.
Put simply, NASA discovered the philosophy of Doing More With Less. Their realization harkened back to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, wherein a civilization isolated and with limited resources learns, out of necessity, to engineer miniature machines as powerful as its big older-generation machines. NASA put this new philosophy to the test by creating small robotic devices capable of doing tasks that humans would have been hard-pressed to do. Then they launched them into space to see what we could see. To date, NASA machines have logged thousands of days in the most hazardous and unforgiving environment known, received gigabytes of data about our sister planets, and one of our satellites is at this moment leaving our Solar System, the furthest-afield man-made object in existence besides radio waves.
It is this philosophy that has allowed NASA to send multiple robotic probes to Mars over the years, using different methods of flight, landing, exploration and control each time. And though every mission has not been a success, the overriding value of robotic probes is that losing one doesn’t mean a dead astronaut. And we have learned so much from the successful ones that the value of putting a man on another planet will forever be debated against doing it with robots.
I’ve occasionally found myself wondering, and even debating, whether NASA’s efforts are learning anything that can actually be applied to our lives here on Earth… not to mention the corollary question, how much does it matter as long as we’re learning something? Perhaps this line of questioning is ultimately pointless.
But there’s one thing anyone who considers NASA must agree: They have learned how to do so much more, with so much less, than perhaps any organization on the planet. NASA has become the American poster child for efficiency, cooperation and the pure desire to Get It Done. Even if they discover nothing more, they should be lauded for that.