…Speaking of Mars


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Waaaaay back in aught-two, when I was still new to Marshall Space Flight Center, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe came to the center to talk about the state and future of NASA. I was watching the the talk on center TV, and I turn it on to see O’Keefe on the stage at Marshall’s historic Morris Auditorium, with a banner behind him reading “Mars Space Flight.”
 
And, yeah, space nerd me was excited. This is really happening? The NASA administrator is here to announce something about sending people to Mars? OK, that’s kind of cool.
 
And then the camera zoomed out. And the banner did not read:
 
MARS
Space Flight
 
It read:
 
MARSHALL
Space Flight Center
 
Oh. Well, that’s cool, too, you know. And, to be sure, we were doing exciting things, but for that one moment, I was really hyped that somebody was about to stand on the stage at Morris Auditorium talking about sending people to Mars.
 
Today, I stood on the stage at Morris Auditorium, talking about sending people to Mars.
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I had a really neat opportunity to brief the latest class of Leadership Huntsville about the challenges we face on the Journey to Mars. It was an honor to talk to that group, it was an honor to stand on that historic stage, and it was an honor, due to a scheduling change, to have Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May as MY opening act.
 
But it was one of those moments that drove home what an incredibly exciting time this is. This is happening. We’re going to Mars. And we’re actively working on it now.

Here Be Dragons


Tweet from @ElectronJon:

Good point from @davidhitt on @SpaceX #Dragon: “A private company can now do a thing NASA cannot. The winds of change are blowing.”

When I made the tweet, it was just sort of an off-hand remark about the rendezvous. Having it called a good point made me stop and actually think about it.

And, it’s true. NASA no longer has any capability to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and a private company does. In fact, a private company has arguably done something that NASA has never been able to do, with Dragon’s unmanned rendezvous with ISS.

But this is not a bad thing.

Lots of private companies can do things NASA cannot, from building cars to saving you money on your insurance. And that’s OK.

Under former administrator Sean O’Keefe, NASA had this as its mission statement: “To understand and protect our home planet. To explore the Universe and search for life. To inspire the next generation of explorers …as only NASA can.”

That last bit of the mission statement served two purposes. One, it was a reminder of the goals and capabilities of the agency — to do the things that no one else can do. NASA’s bailiwick is not the mundane; it’s the extraordinary.

But it was also a reminder of NASA’s responsibility to the nation. NASA needs to focus on doing the things that only NASA can do. It would be irresponsible for NASA to waste taxpayer money duplicating the efforts of others instead of investing those funds in its own unique missions. If a task is not one “only NASA can” do, leave it to the others that can do it.

If NASA needs a car, it’s not going to build a car. It’s going to buy a car. Building cars is not an “as only NASA can” task. It’s a task better left to private industry so that NASA can focus on its unique capabilities and responsibilities.

A year ago, within the United States, delivering cargo to the International Space Station was an “as only NASA can” task.

As of last week, it no longer is.

And that’s rather amazing.