It’s not your father’s NASA anymore

In the 1980s, the geniuses at General Motors wanted to change consumer perceptions of their Oldsmobile brand. Fearing that Olds was being hurt by its image as an old and stuffy car, the marketing department launched an ad campaign boasting that the late-80s models were “not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Ironically, the image GM was trying for and the cars had little in common. They were indeed “your father’s Oldsmobile” — at least in the sense that Olds models were boring and little different from their badge-engineered cousins from Pontiac, Buick and the other GM divisions.

The marketing people had failed to learn from history. In the 1960s, with its 4-4-2 pony cars, Oldsmobile had convinced younger buyers that owing an Olds was definitely cool, because the product, at least when equipped with the W-30 performance option, was capable of backing up the hype. but in the 1970s, 4-4-2 was reduced to little more than an appearance package, and Oldsmobile lost the youth market. No amount of sizzle cooked up by the marketing whizzes would be accepted as steak by savvy car buyers. GM announced in December 2000 plans to phase out the Oldsmobile brand, and the last Olds rolled off the production line in 2004.

For years, the symbol for Olds was a stylized rocket, one not much different than that which is depicted in the logo of America’s space agency. More than six years after the demise of Oldsmobile, the Obama administration has signaled that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is not your father’s NASA anymore. But unlike GM, NASA is not simply being badge-engineered. Administration officials are talking real change for the the NASA brand, starting with its core mission, as The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports:

Since the race to the moon in the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been one of the most storied agencies in the U.S. government. Now, under President Obama, its mission is changing — and space isn’t part of the story.

“When I became the NASA administrator, [Obama] charged me with three things,” NASA head Charles Bolden said in a recent interview with the Middle Eastern news network al-Jazeera. “One, he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.”

From moon landings to promoting self-esteem: It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic shift in focus for an agency famous for reaching the heavens. Bolden’s words left supporters of space exploration astonished. “Everyone had the same impression: Is this what he is spending his time on?” says a Republican Hill aide who tracks the space program. “A lot of people are very upset about it.”

NASA is not getting out of the space business, at least not entirely. But Bolden’s words, together with the president’s decision to scrap much of NASA’s mission and include the agency in the “Cairo Initiative” — that is, the White House outreach program outlined in Obama’s June 4, 2009, Cairo speech to the Muslim world — show that the NASA of the future will be little like the past.

Indeed. To many observers, Obama is dismantling your father’s NASA. The agency which put men on the moon and spun off thousands of products from Velcro to the laptop computer was perhaps the best argument for statists who believe that government can create not just jobs, but entire commercial sectors, is winding down the space shuttle with no feasible replacement on line. The administration is scrapping the Constellation program, the goal of which was to send astronauts back to the Moon and possibly on to Mars. While America tries to re-invent the wheel, taking years to design and produce new space vehicles from scratch, American astronauts will have to hitch rides with the Russians to get to the International Space Station. The shuttle’s days are numbered, and the space station’s future is indefinite beyond 2015.

Rejecting the “can-do” spirit that President John F. Kennedy made the trademark of NASA, Bolden expressed a “can’t-do” attitude to al-Jazeera. “We’re not going to go anywhere beyond low Earth orbit as a single entity,” Bolden said. “The United States can’t do it.” Space exploration and exploitation advocates have one last hope. Fortunately, the private-sector seems to be on the brink of a new era of accomplishment in space, as NASA appears destined to become an also ran. The roster of space-faring nations is growing, while NASA is not going to be your father’s space agency anymore. It’s also not likely to be that of your children or grandchildren as well.

- JP

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