Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Florida Today: Nelson Hopes Obama Clarifies Space Vision

President Barack Obama and Senator Bill Nelson join schoolchildren in a phone call to the International Space Station. Obama proposes extending the ISS to at least 2020.

In this article published in today's Florida Today, Florida senator Bill Nelson is quoted as saying that "President Barack Obama should add one more shuttle mission and announce a heavy-lift rocket development test program that could save 1,500 to 2,000 Kennedy Space Center jobs."

Despite a commitment to extend the life of the International Space Station to 2020 and increase NASA funding by $6 billion over five years, Nelson said last month's poor rollout of the administration's new direction for NASA allowed critics to frame it as the end of U.S. human spaceflight.

"He's got to clear that up," Nelson said. "That is one of the misconceptions that the president is going to have to correct."

I agree that the Obama administration failed to play the political game in announcing its proposed FY 2011 NASA budget, but I disagree that it lacks a "vision" or a "plan."

As for the political misfire, I've been a political consultant intermittently for over 20 years, and also worked as a municipal budget analyst, so I have a pretty good idea of how these things are done.

I think part of the problem is that NASA's leaders, Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver, are not political animals by career. Both deeply care about space exploration — Bolden is a former astronaut, Garver once headed the National Space Society and later served as a NASA associate administrator before moving into the space private sector.

The federal budget runs on a clock, so the administration's proposed budget had to be submitted by a certain date. My guess is they were focused on completing their part of the budget proposal and not so much on playing politics.

That said, I doubt there's anything they could have done that would have appeased those with a vested interest in the status quo. Obama, Bolden and Garver could have come to Space Coast and met with each and every KSC worker, and it wouldn't have made a difference.

Their proposal is up against some powerful groups — let's call them the space-industrial complex, after the military-industrial complex, a phrase coined by President Dwight Eisenhower, which today rules the Pentagon.

President Dwight Eisenhower warned that "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Labor unions, government contractors and the politicians who represent them all have their own selfish ends that have little to do with what's in the best interest of the nation.

If that were the disagreement here — what's best for the future of America's space program — then that's an honest disagreement we can debate.

But that's not what we're hearing.

What we're hearing from the labor unions is, "Protect our jobs!"

The government contractors — the big ones are part of both the space-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex — want their big government contracts and I suspect don't look kindly on upstarts like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences who threaten to do the job more cheaply without a bloated, larded overhead.

The politicians receive campaign contributions from both groups, and of course those union members vote.

I've read the budget proposal, I've watched the Congressional testimony by Bolden and read the public comments by Garver. As far as I'm concerned, they do have a "vision" and a "plan." They've articulated both, but I suspect some people refuse to listen because it's not what they want to hear.

Bolden has said that the new vision is technology-based, not target-based.

Instead of saying, "Let's go to Mars by December 31, 2030," he's acknowledging that right now the practical technology doesn't exist. A round-trip would take about two years, exposing the crew to radiation and other hazards. They'd need an outpost on Mars for a prolonged stay, and we don't know yet how to live off of that land.

Deadlines have proved meaningless in the past. Some people want a Kennedy-like proclamation of a goal and a date, but times are different now. There's no Cold War. There's no "space race" either. Russia has no ambition to go to the Moon or Mars any time soon. China talks about it, but all they've done is fund a study. China's manned flight technology right now is roughly where the U.S. was about 45 years ago.

Deadlines were set for Shuttle and the International Space Station, but those were missed too by many years as those programs ran over budget and behind schedule. The same is happening now to Constellation.

The politically cheap and easy thing to do would be for Obama to show up in Space Coast on April 15 and say, "We're going to put a man on Mars by 2030!"

It would be meaningless too.

He'll be long out of office, and over the next twenty years there will be ten sessions of Congress which will drain the money out of the project just as they did with Constellation, ISS and Shuttle.

I view Obama as being politically honest about this. He knows Congress won't adequately fund a massive Mars mission, much less a more modest Moon mission. Outside of the space center districts (e.g. Brevard County, Houston, Huntsville), there are no politicians in Congress complaining about the Obama budget proposal. They don't care. It doesn't affect their districts.

Nelson wants to fund another Shuttle flight and some Constellation projects to protect jobs. I disagree.

Government spending should be only about what services government needs to provide, not about creating jobs just for the sake of jobs.

When it comes to government spending, I'm a budget hawk.

I was a budget analyst for a California municipality back in the 1980s. At the time, the city was a boom town and flush with cash. The planning department was staffed with full-time workers, but I knew that when the next recession hit development would stop and these people would have nothing to do except sit around and collect checks and benefits.

I suggested we contract out as much of planning as we could, so that when development stopped we could let those contracts expire and layoffs would be someone else's problem.

I was told to keep my mouth shut and never ever suggest that again. Those government jobs had to be protected.

Sure enough, a significant recession hit in the early 1990s and the city wound up having to lay off much of the planning department. Those jobs today are contract, not full-time, employees.

Three years ago, I was appointed by a City Council member (a Republican, for those keeping score, although I'm registered non-partisan) to the city's finance commission. My job as a commissioner was to be a budget hawk.

The city has a major public works project underway, the largest regional park project in the nation.

The funding scheme for this project is to raise revenue by imposing taxes and fees on surrounding development, if/when it happens.

I raised the question, "What if the developer doesn't build?"

Believe it or not, the person in charge now was the same person who back in the 1980s told me not to raise the issue of contracting.

I raised my question over and over again, in public session. He danced around the issue. He finally said, "That would be up to the City Council to decide."

Well, as we all know, the largest recession since the 1930s has hit, and there's no revenue stream now for their project. They've burned through most of the money they have. The project is budgeted for $1.6 billion but they have less than $100 million left in the bank.

Like I said, I'm a budget hawk so when people scream that we have to protect government contract jobs at KSC I'm not going to support that.

I've been laid off three times in my professional career, and I'm currently unemployed, so I understand how frightening it is to be without a job or health insurance.

But it should be a surprise to no one that this day was coming. President Bush cancelled Shuttle in 2004. This has been coming for six years. It appears that local and state officials have done little to diversify the economy over the last six years to prepare for this day.

My hope is that Obama levels with these people when he's here and tells them they need to take responsibility for diversifying their economy so this doesn't happen again.

Another article in today's paper suggests local leadership has been generally ineffective in growing the local economy. The article reports that Brevard County ranks near the bottom nationally in receiving federal funds. That's money that could go to help improve local infrastructure and education, features that major employers seek when looking to locate a business.

Major employers attending February's "space summit" in Orlando told attendees they'd been rebuffed in efforts to obtain local and state help in locating their businesses in Space Coast. One told of taking his business to Huntsville, after the Alabama legislature accomplished in three days what Florida failed to do at all.

So long as Brevard wastes time on Tea Parties, pointless union-organized protests and demands for unnecessary government jobs, we're going to be in the same bad shape we're in now. We shouldn't expect Obama to force a "vision" upon us. We need to take responsibility for our own future.

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