After the announcement of 2011 budget by Obama administration, a lot of people who love science, technology and space travel (like me) has been complaining about the lack of funding to NASA to pursue the back to moon program. These comments were anywhere from mild protests to complete denouncement.
I got to thinking! Is NASA the right place to innovate? It is basically a huge bureaucratic conglomerate involved in everything from Defense research to space flight. It is completely dependent on the government to fund, which, in turn has a very low tolerance to failures. Over the years, it has made NASA into this overly protective, extremely secretive organization with very low risk thresholds. It is not the bunch of mavericks from the 60s who were driven by the nationalist agenda of beating USSR.
On the other hand, I do not think the commercial ventures are going to be the way either. There is still a lot of basic research and technology development needed in space travel. The current industrial climate, which only rewards quick money making schemes with a potentially prolonged recession is not the most conducive of such research to be undertaken in private sector.
May be what we need is a global agency that operates in a very transparent way. Currently national space agencies work in extremely secretive manner. This causes a lot of duplication (reinventing the wheel) and sub-optimal production processes. If there was a global agency, even with a fraction of the money that all the nations spend on space research, we could have achieved much more. Especially if the agency works in a transparent manner with as much participation from everyone.
There is also the question of manned versus robotic missions. Here too, I am not sure which one is better. It is true there are so many things a human being can do on the surface of mars than a robot like Sprit or Opportunity. But, there are a lot of things a robot like the MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) can do that no human beings could ever. Our robotic and remote sensing capabilities are growing exponentially (sadly powered by the wars) and there are a lot of things a robot can do that human beings cannot in remote planets. For e.g. I would be more excited to hear the mission to Europa to explore the underlying ocean (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1786) like Endurance.
But again, is space research the right priority? We are still struggling to get a consensus on climate change and how to resolve it. Going to mars is a very good thing. Going to Alpha Centauri phenomenal. But I am sure we can wait a few more decades to do all that. They are not going to go away.
Will knowing about life in other planets finally make us think more rationally? Most of the religions will have a problem to accommodate extraterrestrial life. Undermining religion is always a good thing. May be, it is worth to look for ET.