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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been responsible for some of the greatest achievements in human history, but its vision is limited to a narrow role. As Marco Caceres, a senior aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, says “We’re always looking for that next engineering or construction project”. His point is right on the mark – NASA is not a space exploration organization, but an engineering organization. They focus on hardware, while scientific endeavor is merely the excuse for building all those big toys.

Don’t get me wrong, we need the big toys. But they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. As the NASA-lead International Space Station nears completion, it appears it will be abandoned. There could be some great science coming out of this orbital platform, but all along the emphasis has been on just getting it done. Now, that’s partly because it’s the first permanent manned orbital platform, and as such has been a learning experience. But some of the lessons learned were unexpected.

For example, the Space Shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2012, after which the only means of reaching the Station will be via Soviet Soyuz spacecraft (a technology even older than the shuttle). The problem? Seating on the Soyuz is limited. Once the Shuttle stops flying there would be no ability to transport the entire Station crew in one go, should that be required. And Soyuz cargo space is about non-existent, so any future expansion of the Space Station would be impractical. Why weren’t the ISS and Shuttle programs more tightly integrated? Why weren’t they seen as two parts of one effort?

The answer lies in NASA’s mindset. They know how to get to space, but they aren’t sure what to do with it once there. The most successful NASA program has been the Mars Spirit and Opportunity rover mission: a lot of very real science done on what amounts to a shoestring budget, because the science was the driving factor of the program. The two rovers didn’t last years beyond expectations because they are such complicated machines; they lasted because they weren’t complicated, but instead were the right level of technology for the job. Science dictated engineering, instead of just hitching a ride.

The current NASA should be merged into a broader, science-driven agency that is less about building and more about doing. Perhaps we can call it the Astro-construction Division of the National Space Exploration Administration (NSEA – although that isn’t quite as cool an acronymn). The engineers have been running the show for 50 years, and that was wise as our nation took its first steps into space. But now it’s time to set a distinct goal and an emphasis on exploration. Science should lead the way.