NASA used to be an example of US science at its best, but the US political and economic system is breaking it. NASA struggles due to constant interference from US law makers and continued privatization. Long-term monopoly contracts are regularly given to for-profit companies, substantially driving up costs over long periods of time.
Law makers consistently make strategic decisions about the future of NASA’s programs, reallocating funding from projects that don’t benefit them to ones that see more money being spent in their district or state. NASA has become incredibly adverse to failure and basic scientific research, because failure is an excuse for politicians to meddle further, and basic research isn’t sexy enough to get funding. In addition, the ongoing privatization means that companies are able to secure public subsidies to support their own capital investments and undermine the base operations of the public space program.
Science and invention involves far more failure than success, especially for projects like space exploration. While it seems there is a willingness to fail on the part of new entrant SpaceX – as it’s inflated stock provides it with money to burn – there are negative long-term implications for a reliance on this kind of financing. There is a fear within NASA, that failures and the mythology of innovation within the private sector will result in further cutbacks and legislative interference in the public space program. In essence, it is a downward spiral of privatization similar to what has occurred in other industries. A functional space program, as with all science-based programs, must have predicable, stable long-term funding allocated by the scientists doing the work.
For another perspective on these problems, one can look to Russia’s space program. Political pressure and interference has become so unmanageable it is undermining innovation. Following a recent one-day launch delay at a new facility (so short it barely qualifies as a delay when it comes to space exploration), Russia bureaucrats fired one of the workers involved, not because they had actually done anything wrong, but instead to set an example of what would happen if things didn’t go according to plan in the future.
This is not the way one engages in scientific innovation. As any scientist will tell you, often just as much is learned when an experiment fails as when it succeeds.