Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Science and Politics of Space

Two articles of interest in today's Florida Today.

John Kelly's column "Science Put on the Back Burner" argues that "Fundamental science research often takes a backseat to ship-building and mission operations at NASA."

NASA, since Apollo, seems stuck in a cycle of investing billions in development of its next rockets and spaceships. Rising costs and schedule delays on the ship-building projects often force the agency to shift funds from research and science to keep the big development programs alive ...

Over and over again, the science and research that needs to be done to truly open the vast frontier to human space exploration has been treated as secondary to short-term priorities.

In the end, the nation continues finding itself in a position where everyone wants to talk about going to Mars, but the fundamental research and technology needed to make it possible are not being done.

Kelly cites a recent publication by the National Research Council, "Controlling Cost Growth of NASA Earth and Space Science Missions" as "adamantly reminding the nation's leaders of the need to reinvest in biological and physical science research necessary to make missions deeper into space possible."

As we've seen in recent months, the war is being waged between those who would perpetuate the waste (i.e. members of Congress who want to preserve the status quo with pork programs for their districts) and those who would fundamentally change NASA's business model (i.e. the Obama administration which wants NASA to help accelerate commercial access to Low Earth Orbit).

Which leads us to the other article, "Space Program an Issue Politically" by Dave Berman.

The future of America's human space flight program is emerging this summer as a front-burner political issue with voters like never before, elected officials and candidates say.

That's true not just in the northern Brevard County communities surrounding the Kennedy Space Center but across the county. And it's not just a hot topic in the races for seats in the U.S. Senate and House, positions in which the people elected could have direct influence over NASA's budget and policies. The shutdown of the shuttle program, NASA's future and the rippling economic impact is coming up in state, county and local races.

The article doesn't delve into the political history of how we got where we are today, nor does it explore the intricacies of the political battles at the federal level this year. It's mostly about how local candidates are being asked more about space than usual.

Berman did touch briefly on my hobby horse, that Shuttle was cancelled in early 2004 and local elected officials have had six years to prepare for this day but failed.

Melbourne Mayor Harry Goode said that, while it had been known for years that the space shuttle program would end, for many Brevard residents, "it's reality now," as layoffs begin.

Several local politicians, including Representatives Suzanne Kosmas and Bill Posey, wasted time by telling locals they would find a way to save Shuttle and Constellation. They failed, as I expected, and wasted six months that could have been used to accelerate a transition of the local economy to new jobs instead of promising to save doomed jobs.

Although the legislation is not final, it appears that at best NASA might be authorized to launch one more Shuttle mission if it can be proven safe. "Authorized" does not mean mandated. Until that study is completed, thousands of employees will be kept around collecting a paycheck while pretty much doing nothing.

Some remnants of Constellation may survive, but it's clear that Ares I and Ares V are dead. Congress may direct NASA to begin developing its own LEO rocket until the commercial sector demonstrates its technology is reliable — which implies that once commercial is approved the NASA backup technology will be terminated, meaning all that money has been wasted.

The Moon mission is most certainly dead, although a few die-hards are still spinning it otherwise. Congress appears likely to direct accelerated development of a heavy-lifter rocket that would be used for missions beyond LEO, although where they would go isn't specified. The House bill, which isn't finalized, attempts to dictate what technology will be used to build the heavy-lifter, so as to direct pork to the space committee members' districts. I suspect that aspect will be dumped once it goes to reconciliation between the House and Senate versions.

The Obama administration's original proposal will not pass 100% intact, but few presidential budget proposals ever do. Some representatives and senators may succeed in directing pork to their districts, and they may throw some speed bumps in the way, but in the end the Obama administration will have succeeded in turning around the Titanic just short of the iceberg.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I like your analysis and hope that whatever compromise emerges from committee cuts as much of the waste as possible. Your closing line for this article is excellent.

    Thanks Stephen!