5. Celebrate human achievement
Remember the Curt Brown shuttle mission of 1998? Of course you don't. You know it as the John Glenn mission-though Brown was the commander. That's because Americans made a connection with Glenn and the other Mercury and Apollo astronauts. We felt we knew them as individuals and so felt invested in their enterprise. Since then, NASA has managed to turn a corps of potential heroes into a bunch of virtually indistinguishable automatons.
Although NASA now has astronauts living for long periods on the space station, the agency has sanitized their experience, portraying them as little more than glorified construction workers. When Bill Shepherd, the commander of the first crew to live aboard the station, began keeping a daily journal that gave the public a sense of what life was really like on the station, NASA responded by removing it from public view.
More honesty would go a long way. Even failures can rally support. Remember the heroes of Apollo 13? Exciting as it may be to feel the roar of the shuttle's engines at Cape Canaveral, or to catch the twinkle of the space station as it passes overhead, or to see a little rover climbing over a rock millions of miles away, it isn't the hardware that moves us. It's the astronauts with their cheeks stretched by G forces, the astronauts telling us what lightning looks like from space, and the scientists jumping with glee because their lander touches down safely on Mars.
We aren't suggesting that NASA resort to gimmicks. "We are no longer in the 'romantic' era of spaceflight," says John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "By now, space must be more than public entertainment." But NASA shouldn't be ashamed of capitalizing on the PR appeal of its employees.
And the agency should stop pretending that it is motivated solely by science. Hardly anyone believed that an experiment involving only one subject-who was unwilling to turn over all of his medical records-could contribute much to our understanding of aging. Yet NASA insisted that John Glenn's flight was purely for the sake of science. And when the agency was considering sending an all-female shuttle crew into space-a novelty sure to attract press attention-officials insisted the goal was simply to study gender differences.
Americans loved seeing astronauts step onto the moon, plant a flag there, and even swing a golf club. Did these things have scientific value? Not much. But they inspired a generation to study science, math, and engineering. The economic prosperity of the 1990s was a result of the technology revolution fueled by the space program.
"Somebody didn't just wake up one day and invent the cellphone or the Internet," says Weiler, NASA's chief space scientist. "I wouldn't be a scientist working at NASA today if it weren't for NASA inspiring me as a kid."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.