x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Nasa: No longer reaching for the stars

The changing fortunes of the US space agency are reflected in its language.

The North American Space Agency (Nasa) rarely used to fluff its lines. From "one giant leap for mankind" to "Houston, we have a problem," these phrases uttered (seemingly) spontaneously at moments of high drama, stand as testaments to acts of bravery and courage undertaken by men operating at the limits of human endeavour. How times have changed.

When Nasa's latest unmanned rocket disappeared in a haze of malfunction somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in the early hours of last Friday, all that mission's weary launch controller could muster was: "We have had a contingency on the Glory mission." If this statement lacked the gravitas of those of his predecessors, it does, at least, sum up the institutional angst that now grips the agency.

The "contingency" was the failure of a Taurus XL rocket to separate from its nose cone, a fault that condemned its payload to another expensive mishap. The same error had occurred the last time Nasa used a Taurus device in early 2009. Neither incident inspires confidence in the organisation's ability to steer through the tricky times ahead.

This latest setback came only a few days after the final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, the oldest of Nasa's fleet of three manned orbiters. Later this year, Endeavour and Atlantis will also fly their last missions, although the latter may yet have its wings clipped by budgetary constraints. Atlantis awaits delivery of the Congressional funds it requires to travel to the final frontier. Nasa says this hole in its finances is a mere detail, that Atlantis will go for launch come what may.

The irony here is that the sustained successes of the shuttle programme over the last three decades - the Challenger and Columbia disasters notably excepted - have sown the seeds for both its cancellation and the broader reining in of Nasa's ambitions.

In the years before the Challenger disaster in 1986, the shuttle made space travel seem effortless, in much the same way that the earlier Apollo missions had elevated the Moon landings to Herculean acts of achievement, by making it all look so terribly complicated.

Both programmes, of course, lost traction once the watching public pieced together both how much all these epic acts of heroism was costing them and how it had all become a little too regulation, before being re-energised - at least by the not terribly reliable measures of rising television viewing figures - in the moments of their greatest tragedies.

Now, however, Nasa stands on the brink, its future clouded by disagreement over its priorities and hamstrung by insufficient budgets. The US government has set aside $18.7 billion for Nasa this year and the same amount for 2012, a huge sum by most standards, but one that is unlikely to be enough to secure a regular manned space programme. Cash is king in the world of extreme exploration and in truth, the shuttle's extended lifespan has helped mask the fact that it neither has an obvious successor nor is the money available to develop one independently.

That situation has led Nasa to contemplate entering into joint ventures with the private sector to run commercial space flights rather than to develop Shuttle 2.0. This policy has in turn stimulated a debate in some quarters over the merits of funding a public-sector agency if a cheaper solution exists elsewhere.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark speech by President John F Kennedy that triggered the Sixties space race in the first place. Few could have predicted five decades on, that the agency charged with successfully delivering a man to the moon should now be aiming quite so low. In this scenario, a "contingency on the Glory mission" becomes as emblematic a statement as Neil Armstrong's well-chosen words in the summer of 1969.