NASA, Artemis space program and the imperatives of a merit-based system

By Osmund Agbo
This essay is inspired in part by my recent encounter with a scientist and director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). For starters, National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA for short is an agency of the US government responsible for America’s space program and aeronautics research. JPL is NASA’s research and development arm, located in Pasadena, California and managed by California Institute of Technology, CALTECH. The center produces spacecrafts called Rovers used in extraplanetary explorations.
It turns out that this man who leads a team of rocket scientists converses in English that is barely intelligible. Obviously, he was not a naturally born American.  I suspect that he is of Eastern European descent and likely migrated to the US at some point past his formative years. Yet, despite what one may see as a language barrier, he to rose to the pinnacle of his career. We will get back to that a little later.

On Monday September 26th, in a historic test, a NASA spacecraft was intentionally directed to slam into an asteroid, a harmless space rock known as Dimorphos, which is about 6.8 million miles from Earth. The $325 mission was designed to prove whether prodding an asteroid can alter its trajectory and in the process, protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision with a space rock. It provided scientists with a real-world test of planetary defense technologies.
Later this month, NASA is expected to launch Artemis, it’s Lunar (moon) space exploration program. Artemis was named after the daughter of the sky god and king of gods, Zeus and Leto. In old Greek mythology, the god Apollo, whom the eponymous title Apollo 11, the space program that put the first human and an American astronaut, Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 16th, 1969 was named after, is her twin sister.
NASA’s Artemis is made up of three separate components joined together. There is the Space Launch System (SLS) which is the rocket system that starts the journey. The Orion crew capsule that was designed to separate from the rocket to begin its ascent into the lunar orbit. Lastly, a lander that would ferry astronauts from lunar orbit, down to the moon surface. The goal of the program is to pave the way for future space exploration. Using the moon as a base, NASA will build the infrastructures needed to pursue the next frontiers which would be a trip to MARS.
As a medical doctor, I have always been curious about the therapeutic possibilities that could emanate from space exploration.  In Mid-2000, NASA researchers developed a chemical reagent that can be used to detect the shingle virus in saliva, fast and easy. This now helps to detect the virus before it’s serious which is great.
But by far, one of the most revolutionary space technology-inspired invention in medicine, is called neuroArm, the world’s first robot capable of performing surgery inside magnetic resonance machines. This robot mimics the Robotic arm developed for extravehicular activities in the now retired US space shuttles. The delicate touch was used to successfully remove an egg-shaped tumor from a patient’s brain. Fascinating!
Asked if the total budget of $93B for the Artemis program, an amount more than the combined annual budget of many African countries put together is great way to appropriate resources, one top NASA executive had this to say; “We feel that this stands as a symbol of insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.” My take is that it’s hard to justify the cost of space exploration versus the benefit in a world where millions are dying of hunger and starvation. But it sure inspires humans to dream dreams about the impossible and go for it. The importance of that cannot be quantified in dollar amounts.
I love NASA and am highly fascinated by the American space program. The incredible science behind it and the ingenuity of men, pushing the frontiers of science never ceased to amaze me. But you would be jolted to hear that the man regarded as the father of the American space program was a German, though later became a naturalized American.
Wernher von Braun was a member of Hitler’s Nazi Party and as well as the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany. He helped develop the V-2 rocket used during the world war. After the war, he was secretly moved to the United States, along with about 1,600 other German scientists, engineers, and technicians, as part of an operation code-named “Paper clip”.
In 1960, his group was assimilated into NASA where he later served as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft. The Apollo 11 expedition was what handed the US victory over the Soviet during the space war.
If there is anything America is known for, it’s being a magnet for global talents. To ensure that America is first in Innovation the US Congress created the H-1B Visa program in 1990. 65,000 new visas are issued every year, with an additional 20,000 available to workers with a US master’s degree or higher.
The work-focused visa was introduced to allow companies in the US to hire high-skilled workers and has played a crucial role in driving innovation and business growth in the United States for the past three decades.
Google’s U.S. workforce is almost evenly split between Whites and Asians. In fact in the year 2020, 32.4% of new U.S. employees at the trillion dollar company were Asians compared to 30.1 percent Whites, according to that year’s Diversity Annual Report. The reason being that Asians though dwarfed in population compared to Whites in America, are known to have a strong foundation in math and science. Today, about 60 of the CEOs of America’s Fortune 500 companies are of Indian origin.
Laurie Leshin, a highly accomplished woman, world-class scientist and a Professor of Geochemistry and Planetary Science, has been JPL’s Director since May 16, 2022. She left her job as the 16th President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute to join NASA. Her former position at Worcester, is now occupied by a Nigerian-American, Wole Soboyejo, a material scientist whose professional career had taken him to the hallowed grounds of MIT and Princeton.
America may be bedeviled by so many ills but she celebrates excellence in every hue and color. Here is to one nation that continues to be the melting pot for talents from all over the world. 
In Africa, we continue to celebrate mediocrity and elevate tribe and other primordial considerations over ability and excellence. Little wonder we are left behind to wallow in the Stone Age while our best brains leave our shores in droves to do amazing things in a foreign soil. Tufiakwa!
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]