Houston, you have a problem. It's a problem that isn't fixable with duct tape and a carbon dioxide filter. And the problem isn't just with Houston; it also affects Cape Canaveral, Cleveland, Huntsville, Pasadena, Washington, D.C.–especially Washington, D.C.–and other NASA centers around the country.
At age 43, America's space agency is having a midlife crisis. In its youth, NASA put men on the moon and inspired the nation's schoolchildren to study science, mathematics, and engineering. Today, like many middle-age Americans, NASA is struggling to get back in shape and find meaning in its life. The agency's main focus, the international space station, is mired in cost overruns that have driven the estimated price from $17.4 billion to more than $30 billion-and nobody believes even those numbers. Moreover, two of the past three missions to Mars have ended in disaster. In 1999 the Mars Polar Lander, which was supposed to gently touch down and search for ice, crashed into the planet's surface instead. That same year the Mars Climate Orbiter, intended to be a Martian weather satellite, was an even bigger embarrassment. It burned up in the atmosphere because of what seems a ludicrously careless mistake: The engineers neglected to convert navigation figures from English units to metric.
NASA lacks a mission-in the larger sense of that word. If the agency does not act soon, it stands to become a relic of the 20th century. After interviewing dozens of experts-including NASA officials, astronauts, space policy analysts, and leaders in the private sector-Popular Science has come to the conclusion that to recover its authority, NASA needs to go somewhere: namely, Mars. The "M-word," as some people within the agency refer to it. A destination that is only whispered behind closed doors, when it should instead be proclaimed as the foremost target of the world's greatest space agency.
A recent changing of the guard at NASA makes this a fitting time to reevaluate the agency's goals. Administrator Daniel S. Goldin stepped down late last year after heading the agency for nearly a decade. Goldin is an aerospace engineer who urged his employees to develop innovative technologies; his replacement, Sean O'Keefe, is a number cruncher with no experience in the nation's space program. Some observers expect O'Keefe, who was previously deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, to cut the number of shuttle missions from six per year to four, lay off astronauts and engineers, and perhaps close some NASA centers. Even enthusiasts of the space program are convinced that such drastic measures are necessary to restore NASA's political credibility.