The Post’s Achenbach had one reasonable answer: “History tends to be written by countries that explore.” The end of the Cold War reduced that the exigency, however. A thoughtful piece in Seed noted that:

Unlike in the good old days, when nearly four percent of the US federal budget went to a single-minded, Moon-focused space program, today the agency is being asked to accomplish more with fewer resources: Less than one cent of every tax dollar supports the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS), the awe-inspiring discoveries of Hubble Space Telescope and other orbital observatories, the wildly successful robotic armada exploring our the solar system, and the ongoing study of our own planet from space. To accomplish all this while also returning Americans to the Moon, NASA has resorted to extreme measures, cannibalizing many of its lesser-known programs.

It’s hard to tell what the public wants from its space agency because there doesn’t seem to be any polling that has asked taxpayers what NASA’s mission should be. But The Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman, who wrote about the mounting privatization of space exploration for the paper’s anniversary report, told CJR that, in over twenty online chats on the subject with readers, he’s been very impressed by their interest in “raw” science.

“Historically, what NASA says is that you need the humans to interest the public, and it may still be true,” he said. “[But] I’ve written front page stories about super massive black holes, astrobiology, the Mars Rover, and then we have these online chats afterwards, and there’s huge interest — lots and lots of questions. If [NASA] ever does go back to the moon or Mars, or whatever, I’m sure there would be a high interest in that. But I think that to some extent the science side of it is taking over for the long term, just because it’s finding such amazing things.”

Yet NASA’s image problem derives from the agency’s undefined purpose and its uncertain future. When asked what the press could do to help promote a larger discussion about the agency’s mission, Kaufman said that in addition to highlighting scientific accomplishments, journalists should be diligent about covering NASA’s shortcomings. A prime example, he said, is a story he wrote about American astronauts’ expected dependence on Russia to carry them to the International Space Station after the shuttle’s retirement in 2010. “That was my way of saying, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’” he said.

Indeed, according to a good, locally oriented article in the Houston Chronicle, the Johnson Space Center (otherwise known as Mission Control) will lose between 600 and 2,400 of its 16,500 jobs when the shuttles retire. Likewise, MSNBC.com’s Boyle worried, given cutbacks at newspapers a number of journalists on the space beat might find themselves “wondering what they’re going to do” when that happens. But he also highlighted a number of Web sites—including spaceflightnow.com, nasawatch.com, and spacetransportnews.com—that are providing excellent information. Whatever the medium, however, journalists still need to step back and ask questions about NASA’s purpose during its next fifty years.

“It’s an issue of public attention,” Boyle said. “Like the financial crisis and bailout, someone could step back and say, ‘You know, we really haven’t reported enough about the meaning of capitalism in the 21st century.’ The transition facing NASA isn’t as dire as the transition facing the financial markets this week, but I think that it’s somewhat of a similar situation.”

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.