It has been 44 years since NASA launched the first crewed mission to go beyond Earth's orbit and into the space beyond. Now, however, the agency faces hard questions about its future.

Forty-four years and four days ago, the second crewed mission of the United States Apollo space program was launched with James Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders on board. The mission, titled Apollo 8, was the first manned one to leave Earth’s orbit, taking humankind beyond its (gravitationally) familiar confines of the blue marble, and into the yawning depths of outer space.

Okay, we didn’t go far – just a few times around our moon and back – but for the first time, we'd left home.

The mission took three days to enter Moon’s orbit, and went around the chunk of rock 10 times over 20 hours. More significantly, while they entered orbit, on December 24, 1968, Borman, Lovell, and Anders made a Christmas Eve television broadcast that, at the time, was the most watched program ever.

Beyond igniting an overwhelming sense of wonderment and adventure among earthbound mortals, the trip to the heavens was a little more than great reassurance for ex-President John F. Kennedy’s overarching mission to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. While the man was assassinated five years before Apollo 8, his vision for America was still pertinent.

After the success of Apollo 8 came that of Apollo 11, which landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on our natural satellite, instantly transforming them into American heroes and their country into the first superpower of the dawning Space Age. NASA, the overseeing administrative organisation, was at the time only 10 years old, functioning on and for the principles of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, 1958.

Since the moon-landings, NASA has come a long way in pioneering aeronautics and aerospace research, deploying the Skylab space-station in 1973, the Space Shuttle program in 1982, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in 1990, and the Launch Services Program maintained since the same year. More recently, the integrated SLS-Orion program to build a heavy space-launch vehicle and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), HST’s successor, have been the focus of much of its research and development.

Monumental as these achievements are, NASA’s story is not a good one at the moment. After US President Barack Obama announced budget cuts in early 2012 to the tune of 20 per cent, NASA has felt the sting of what it means to not have a president’s full backing for its missions.

For starters, the agency retired its space-shuttles - the most complex vehicles ever built - well ahead of their planned retirement dates, the last in July, 2011. Now, its astronauts have to book seats on Russian rockets or use SpaceX's launch vehicles to visit the ISS for NASA’s missions. With the loss of funds also came the loss of research independence: the agency pulled out of two missions with the European Space Agency (ESA) to retrieve rocks from Mars for study on Earth.

Now, the post-war avatar of the US’s rival during the Cold War, Russia, is the largest independently functioning space-exploration organisation.

Moreover, the ambitious JWST mission has also been responsible for many of NASA’s miseries. Earlier scheduled to be launched in 2014, the mission’s cost commitment rose from $5.7 billion to $8.8 billion in 2010, a staggering jump of $3.1 billion.

After Obama’s announcement truncated $700 million from a budget of $3.7 billion proposed by NASA, less than $1 billion is now left over to supplant existing budgets for its other goals for the decade 2012-2021. Now, JWST, NASA has said, will be launched “no later than 2018”. The more important consequence, however, is that the agency has had to subject its plans to severe scrutiny and devise a prioritised plan-of-action that leaves out many objectives.

NASA’s plan of action before budget cuts were announced

NASA’s new plan of action

What’s more, the problems are becoming perceivable nationally, too. The gist was best stated by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report published in 2012.

Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centrepiece of NASA’s spectrum of mission areas.

The study that led to this report was chaired by Prof. Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor, University of California, Los Angeles.

(In a similar report submitted in 2006 titled ‘An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs’, the National Research Council had asked for executive and legislative action from the government to “make the agency’s portfolio of responsibilities sustainable”.)

It seems that the massive infrastructure implemented at the height of the Apollo space program is stretching NASA’s woes as they have to be maintained, too. Further, the emergence of spaceflight-capable nations has rendered impossible the availability of large amounts of time to plan, design, and execute complex missions before anyone else, implying a greater stress on existing infrastructure as well as the budget itself.

What exacerbates this implied crisis further is that, beyond the loss of partnerships with the ESA, tie-ups between ESA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) threaten to overtake American intentions – not just in space, but also on the harder, more political ground. Because of ESA’s success in sustaining itself through partnerships, dependence on American capabilities has also reduced, putting a stopper on the influx of foreign investment.

Giving up on being the frontrunner is not that favourable an option, either, as it would mean the loss of rights to valuable data and knowledge in the future, data and knowledge that have played a large role in setting up NASA’s capabilities in the past. At the end of the day, all of this seems like one intricate identity crisis, the path toward the resolution of which is also hinted at in the NAS report: “Leadership… does not mean dominance”.

It will be immediately clear that, at this juncture, NASA, for the first time, will have to pay more attention to what it describes as capability-driven and mission-driven programs. The Apollo missions were decidedly mission-driven, born more out of competing with the Communist bloc on all conceivable fronts.

The United States Government’s involvement, which was founded on as many scientific objectives as it was on geopolitical ones, ensured that NASA, at no point, had to think of its capabilities. In fact, left to itself, the agency would definitely not have landed a man on the moon before the 1960s was out.

Today, however, a relook at the money available will and should force NASA to think of itself as a capability-driven administrator. It must work to prevent delays, execute projects incrementally and on time, ensure that protracted projects like the JWST, which are by definition cost-inefficient, are accommodative of budget-cuts in the long run, and consider collaboration to be its primary mode of functioning.

This necessity of an attitude-change is reminiscent of a paragraph from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report (PDF) submitted in 2003:

None of the competing long-term visions for space have found support from the nation’s leadership, or indeed among the general public. The US civilian space effort has moved forward for more than 30 years without a guiding vision, and none seems imminent. In the past, this absence of a strategic vision in itself has reflected a policy decision, since there have been many opportunities for national leaders to agree on ambitious goals for space, and none have done so.

In 2012, while its foremost leader, President Obama, was forced to reduce grants to NASA, it still did give him much cause for pride and even an opportunity to recall America’s days of glory: It successfully deployed the Curiosity rover onto Martian soil. In some measure, it made the phrase “44 years” count beyond its signifying an anthropic midlife crisis.

While consensus still seems absent within and without about what NASA should do next, it must start 2013 on a reshaping note, one that takes better recognition of the need for restructuring and realigning its interests to exclude mission-driven objectives and embrace capability-driven ones, objectives that will bring it closer to regaining any of its former glory.