The National Aeronautics and Space Administration turned fifty yesterday, and if articles are like birthday cards, most journalists sent their best wishes wrapped in concerns that the agency is exhibiting “signs of a midlife crisis.”

MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle had perhaps the pithiest summation of the short- and long-term issues the agency faces:

Right now, NASA’s most pressing problem is figuring out how to bridge the gap between the space shuttle fleet’s scheduled retirement in 2010 and the expected debut of a new spaceship for human spaceflight by 2015. The current plan calls for the space agency to rely on other countries and private companies for space station resupply during the five-year gap, although the next president may want NASA to delay the shuttles’ retirement instead.

If you broaden the focus from five years to 50 years, the issues shift to the bigger picture: Will NASA be a scientific agency, sending out robotic probes to unlock the secrets of the solar system and beyond? Or will it devote more of its resources to exploration, following a step-by-step campaign to station humans on the moon?

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin argues that the agency has to continue to do both.

Despite that official optimism, numerous articles have reminded readers of an internal e-mail that leaked out in August, in which Griffin wrote, “My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be.” He also expressed his opinion that the White House is on a “jihad” to retire the shuttle. That said, NASA received a few birthday presents this week. Yesterday, President Bush signed a $630 billion spending bill that allows the U.S. to buy seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft until 2016 (without it, the U.S. would have been prohibited from doing so after 2011 and thus unable to reach the International Space Station) and provides the agency with $20.2 billion in funding for 2009 (roughly $2.6 billion more than the Bush administration had requested).

The spending bill answers some of the short-term questions about NASA, but the anniversary coverage was really a chance for the press to step back and address the long-term issues that the agency (and, hopefully, the public) is grappling with — in particular, whether NASA should focus on reviving manned space exploration or on expanding its unmanned science operations. In the lead story for a special report about the fiftieth anniversary, the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach noted that, when it comes to purpose:

That question was simpler half a century ago, on the first day of October, 1958, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began operations. At that point we just needed to get into space, up beyond the atmosphere, into that high frontier…

Half a century on, NASA faces a more complicated political, budgetary and technological landscape, and its ambitions are not limited to human flight. Bigger space telescopes are coming, the search for extraterrestrial life and distant solar systems is in full swing, and robotic space probes regularly produce dramatic findings. But the public’s eye tends to focus on the agency’s grand plans to fly astronauts beyond Earth orbit — and no one knows if they will come to fruition.

Other reporters would disagree with Achenbach, however, saying that in the absence of any notable accomplishments in human space flight, the public has developed a greater interest in NASA’s scientific accomplishments.

“In the feedback that I get responding to the Web log or responding to stories, you get a lot of people asking, ‘What good is the space station?’” MSNBC.com’s Boyle said in an interview. “You don’t get very many people asking, ‘What good is Hubble?’”

Indeed, when it comes to the Constellation Project, NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and then, maybe, on to Mars, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald asked, “Why bother?”:

NASA’s manned space program has long since passed the point where spending billions could be justified on the basis of a “to go were no man has gone before” gung-ho fantasy.

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.