Jonathan Russ (04/14/04)
Our teleconference with Dr. Jim Garvin was extremely informative as to how NASA plans its missions, how it sees itself, and how others see it. The PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of the conference outlined NASA's long-range plan for Mars exploration, detailing the specific goals of each mission and how they will interact to affect future missions.
I found striking the organization of NASA's plans for Mars. Even considering missions that will not be launched until the next decade, NASA has already outlined the goals of each lander and orbiter that it is planning to launch and how the results of each mission will affect the next mission. The use of branched diagrams to articulate exactly how each mission will affect the next reflects NASA's commitment to combining long-term organization and mobility.
Such organization is made necessary by the pathways NASA must follow to obtain its yearly budget. Congress is comprised of career politicians, not scientists; it is more concerned with specific achievements than long-term scientific progress. Therefore, to obtain a budget, NASA must prove to Congress that every mission it launches will move it closer to a front-page-worthy discovery or achievement, such as the landing of men on Mars or the discovery of life; a Congressman will be less interested in studying radiation than he will be in studying alien life. The farther ahead NASA looks, the more easily it can present such glamorous achievements as possibilities.
Also crucial to obtaining a budget, and often overlooked by the general public, are the peripheral discoveries and developments that result from any sort of large mission. Dr. Garvin discussed two cases in particular: the advancements in computing made by NASA's specialized demands and materials research that often goes hand-in-hand with mission engineering. These developments eventually make their way into the private sector; thus, as Professor Head stated, NASA is valuable to corporations as a governmentally funded research and development department of sorts.Unfortunately, it is difficult to publicize this type of information; in a soundbyte-dominated world, research that may not affect everyday life for thirty years is seen more as science fiction than reality. It belongs to another world that one day may become ours, but is certainly not yet. If Congress and the public could be convinced that this research actually does have a direct effect on the next generation, that science outside of R&D and everyday life are not distinct realms, then NASA would probably find it easier to obtain a large budget.