The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a difficult task. It must convince U.S. taxpayers that space science is worth $16.25 billion a year. To achieve this goal, the agency conducts an extensive public-relations effort that is similar to the marketing campaigns of America's biggest corporations. NASA has learned a valuable lesson about marketing in the 21st century: to promote its programs, it must provide entertaining visuals and stories with compelling human characters. For this reason, NASA issues a steady stream of press releases and images from its human spaceflight program.
Every launch of the space shuttle is a media event. NASA presents its astronauts as ready-made heroes, even when their accomplishments in space are no longer groundbreaking. Perhaps the best example of NASA's public-relations prowess was the participation of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, in the 1998 shuttle mission STS-95. Glenn's return to space at the age of 77 made STS-95 the most avidly followed mission since the Apollo moon landings. NASA claimed that Glenn went up for science—he served as a guinea pig in various medical experiments—but it was clear that the main benefit of Glenn's space shuttle ride was publicity, not scientific discovery.
NASA is still conducting grade-A science in space, but it is being done by unmanned probes rather than astronauts. In recent years the Pathfinder rover has scoured the surface of Mars, and the Galileo spacecraft has surveyed Jupiter and its moons. The Hubble Space Telescope and other orbital observatories are bringing back pictures of the early moments of creation. But robots aren't heroes. No one throws a ticker-tape parade for a telescope. Human spaceflight provides the stories that NASA uses to sell its programs to the public. And that's the main reason NASA spends nearly a quarter of its budget to launch the space shuttle about half a dozen times every year.
The space agency is now saddled with the International Space Station, the budget-hemorrhaging “laboratory” orbiting Earth. NASA says the station provides a platform for space research and helps to determine how people can live and work safely in space. This knowledge could be used to plan a manned mission to Mars or the construction of a base on the moon. But these justifications for the station are largely myths. Here are the facts, plain as potatoes: The International Space Station is not a platform for cutting-edge science. Unmanned probes can explore Mars and other planets more cheaply and effectively than manned missions can. And a moon colony would be a silly destiny.