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Is America’s Space Agency Adrift?

Neil Armstrong. John Glenn. Buzz Aldrin. Scott Parazynski.

Wait a minute, Scott who?

The former astronaut recently left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after five space shuttle flights, seven spacewalks and 17 years with the agency. Parazynski, who's also a medical doctor, has more experience and education than more recognizable NASA idols, but his name typically draws a blank stare.

President Barack Obama has said NASA is "adrift." Its icons are decades retired, its current staff is obscure, and its future mission is uncertain. When the nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moon landing earlier this month, it also wondered aloud why NASA hasn't done anything as historic since.

When the nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it also wondered aloud why NASA hasn't done anything as historic since.

NASA's newly confirmed chief, Charles Bolden, acknowledged last week during a get-acquainted talk with Kennedy Space Center workers that he's got a big task ahead of him: "Convince the nation that what we do is worthwhile."

"There's a nostalgic image of the glory days that's as much a burden as a blessing for NASA," said John Logsdon, an aerospace history fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Logsdon said critics must drop the Apollo standard when it comes to NASA.

"There's this false belief that you have to maintain a continued level of excitement to maintain political support for the space program," he said.

Political and public support for NASA has been steady over the decades, he said.

A Gallup Poll released July 27 appears to back that up. The survey found NASA ranked among the top three federal agencies rated excellent or good by Americans.

Still, Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, recently warned that support for NASA "has to be earned each year. It is not a given."

During Bolden's recent Senate confirmation, Rockefeller called NASA "a splendid story of the past that has lost its fascination for Americans."

Agency supporters dismiss that description.

"Apollo captured the imagination of Americans and people all over the world, but the world has changed," said Joseph Alexander, senior program officer for the National Academies' Space Studies Board.

Parazynski and other long-time astronauts lack the name recognition of someone like Aldrin, or even Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, because "there were only seven astronauts at the beginning. It was easy to learn their names," Alexander said.

"We have gone from a small, unique group of people who became heroes, to a cadre - worldwide, I suppose - of at least several hundred people who have flown in space," said Alexander, who helped oversee a panel that compiled a NASA report called "America's Future in Space."

One challenge identified in the report was how the nation's space program can generate a national sense of hope and inspiration that could motivate a new generation of civil servants.

Brian Dewhurst, who co-directed the study with Alexander, said NASA should have few problems enticing recent college graduates to join its workforce.

"You can bring people in and say, 'You're going to be working on the next Mars Rover. You're working on the next Hubble,'" he said. "On the robotic side, 'You're working on a spacecraft that will help with the climate change issue.'"

The hard part, he said, will be keeping those employees at the agency long enough to take advantage of their brilliance.

Dewhurst suggested NASA may want to draw inspiration from Silicon Valley powerhouses.

"If you say that NASA was the pinnacle of high-tech interest in the '60s and you're asking, 'What does it take to get that back?', another question you can ask is, 'Who has that now?' You can make a pretty good argument that it is Apple or Google," he said.

Apple releases new products, or significant updates on existing ones, at least once a year. Google continually offers new applications to its search engine or Gmail program.

Dewhurst said that while space flight and computer engineering "are wildly different things, if NASA wants to successfully grab the attention like it did 40 years ago, and the way Google does now, maybe NASA needs to learn some of those lessons from the people who are doing it now."

Ultimately, the White House will be the main influence in how NASA shapes its image, said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and a staunch agency supporter.

"The only person who can lead America's space program is the president of the United States," Nelson said during Bolden's confirmation hearing.

Alexander agreed. He noted that former President George W. Bush announced his famous "vision for space exploration" in January 2004, declaring his desire to return Americans to the moon by 2020 and, ultimately, to reach Mars.

However, "you never heard the president talk about it after his speech," he said.

"The space program has to be seen in the context of being a tool that can be used to serve the larger national interest, rather than a problem we've got to solve and get out of the way," Alexander said.

Obama recently appointed an independent panel to review NASA's spaceflight vision and provide him with options. The panel has warned that under Obama's proposed budget for the agency, those options will be limited - and that even a return to the moon looks unlikely until well into the next decade.

But the White House insists NASA has the president's full support.

"The president is fully committed to the nation's space program and is excited by its achievements, its possibilities, and its proven potential to spur innovation and economic growth," said Gannet Tseggai, a White House spokeswoman.

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Contact Eun Kyung Kim at ekkim(AT)gannett.com

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