7. Promote national security
When astronauts first reached the moon and looked back at their home planet, they saw a small, fragile, blue orb. Their photographs made us realize how precious and vulnerable our planet is. Human life is threatened these days not only by terrorism and the specter of nuclear, chemical, or biological holocaust. We also face global threats such as climate change, species extinction, and the possibility of an asteroid impact that could wipe out most of life on Earth. NASA has a role to play in protecting us from these dangers.
NASA-developed instruments can help spot the work of terrorists. NASA's Earth-monitoring satellites can provide information about environmental problems. NASA telescopes can search for Earth-bound asteroids. And NASA's programs in aeronautics-the forgotten first "A" in NASA-can improve aviation safety. But perhaps NASA's most important mission is to search out a safe refuge for human civilization.
"At some point, we really are going to have to get out of here," says William E. Burrows, author of This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. "Nobody's talking about abandoning ship. Earth is a very seaworthy ship. But no skipper in his right mind goes to sea without a lifeboat and insurance." In an address last May at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, Burrows proposed a long-range strategy for using space to protect mankind, called ARC (Alliance to Rescue Civilization). The idea is to back up the planetary "hard drive"-the record of our civilization-and store it elsewhere, such as on a manned outpost on Mars. "If dinosaurs had had a space program," Burrows says, "they'd still be here."
NASA's troubles have been brewing for many years. In the cover story of our July 1989 issue, we marked the 20th anniversary of the Apollo landing by asking experts inside and outside NASA whether the agency was "lost in space." The issues facing NASA then, particularly the question of whether the space station and shuttle should dominate the space program, are still pressing. And NASA hasn't taken the advice it got 13 years ago-to set clear long-term goals for space exploration.
NASA still has the potential to inspire, advance, and protect humanity. It's time for the space agency to get itself back on the proper trajectory.
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.