Friday, June 8, 2012

A Penny for NASA -- or For Congressional Pork


Click the arrow to watch Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson testify before the Senate space subcommittee.

On March 7, 2012, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Although the committee has 25 members, only three stuck around to listen to Tyson — Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and John Boozman (R-AR). Hutchison apparently left soon after Tyson began speaking.

Dr. Tyson noted that NASA's annual budget for many years has been about 0.5% of the annual federal budget. He called upon Congress to double NASA's budget:

For twice that — a penny on a dollar — we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.

Click here to read his prepared remarks.

Tyson's words fell upon mostly empty chairs. Nelson told Tyson he was "preaching to the preachers" and praised his eloquence.

This embarrassing dismissal of Tyson might have been lost to history, except for the archival of his appearance on the committee's web site.

Several people (including me) copied the webcast and uploaded it to YouTube.

Word spread.

Three months later, my copy of Tyson's testimony has over 150,000 views on YouTube.

Tyson's proposal started a grassroots movement called "A Penny for NASA."

At least two web sites were created to support this movement — Penny4NASA.org and Penny4NASA.net.

A Twitter hashtag was created, #Penny4NASA.

Two days after Tyson's Senate appearance, Evan Schurr created a YouTube video called "We Stopped Dreaming" that urged viewers to support the Penny for NASA movement. As of this writing, the video has had 545,000 views.


Click the arrow to watch "We Stopped Dreaming" by Evan Schurr.

On June 6, former astronauts Fred Gregory and Tom Jones published in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call an article titled "NASA Could Do Great Things with More Funds" that endorsed Tyson's proposal:

It’s time to make a bold move and double NASA’s budget. With the world’s largest economy, we can afford to make this wise, 1 percent investment. Our nation’s future depends on it.

Click here to visit Dr. Jones' web site. He is the author of Skywalking and advisor to Planetary Resources.

While I support the notion of increased spending on space exploration — and exploitation — I'm concerned that the idea of doubling NASA's budget is too simplistic.

Those of us who follow the daily shenanigans of Congress know that NASA has become a pork-laden embarrassment. The members of Congress who sit on the House and Senate space subcommittees, as well as some members of the Appropriations committees, view NASA as a means of delivering tax dollars to their states and districts. That tax money perpetuates jobs and fattens aerospace contractors who donate to their re-election campaigns, but actual progress seems secondary to many of these politicians.

An egregious recent example is the Space Launch System, dubbed the "Senate Launch System" by its critics.

Section 304 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act required NASA to use Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors and technology in designing SLS. No competition. No innovation.

The current SLS launch schedule has one unmanned test flight by the end of 2017, and one manned test flight by 2021.

Contrast that with the Apollo moon program, which took an incremental approach with many test flights leading up to the first lunar landing with Apollo 11.

What happens if that 2017 test flight fails? No one in Congress ever asks.

Why won't there be more SLS test flights? The funding doesn't exist.

The 2021 manned flight will be an Apollo 8 redux — loop around the Moon and return home. Fifty-three years after we did it the first time.

Beyond that, the SLS has no missions or destinations. President Obama has proposed an asteroid rendezvous by 2025. Congress has taken no action on that proposal.

The members of Congress who created the "monster rocket" made it clear their primary motivation wasn't 21st Century technology, nor was it space exploration. It was protecting jobs in their districts. Which is why the schedule is meaningless. Congress doesn't care if it ever flies. They just want to protect the jobs in their districts.

SLS has no problem sailing through the annual appropriations process. Contrast that with the commercial crew program, which was cut by Congress nearly $100 million in Fiscal Year 2012 from what was authorized in 2010, and by $444 million from what the Obama administration requested.

In the current debate for Fiscal Year 2013, commercial crew was authorized for $500 million. The White House requested $835 million. As of this writing, the House proposes $500 million and the Senate $525 million.

These shortfalls ensure continued U.S. reliance upon Russia to launch its astronauts to the International Space Station through at least 2016, if not longer.

But Congress doesn't seem to care, because commercial crew doesn't generate a lot of jobs in their districts.

NASA has estimated informally that if it had developed the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, it would have cost four times more. The Dragon capsule? Ten times more.

Congress doesn't care.

I dread to think what these porkers would do with another $17 billion for NASA.

Then there's the space advocacy side of the equation.

Where should the money go?

Would an astronomer like Dr. Tyson want it to go to more telescopes?

Should it go to more deep-space probes and satellites?

Should it go to human spaceflight? If so, which one? The porked-out SLS? Or commercial space?

What about the International Space Station?

And let's not forget that NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Aeronautics is the science of flight. How's about planes that are safer, quieter, faster and more fuel-efficient?

One can only imagine the infighting among these various interest groups within the space advocacy communities.

How to divide the money would be decided by Congress, which currently enjoys historic lows in voter confidence. According to a June 5 Rasumssen Report, only 7% of likely voters think this Congress is doing an excellent or good job. 63% think Congress is doing a poor job.

Doubling the NASA budget would mean these members of Congress would be deluged by interest groups lobbying for their piece of the pie. Aerospace firms with their armies of lobbyists would have the most influence. In 2011, Boeing spent $15.9 million on lobbying and Lockheed Martin spent $15.1 million.

How would non-profit advocacy groups like The Planetary Society or the National Space Society compete against the corporate lobbyists?

"A Penny for NASA" sounds like a good idea. But without specifying how the money would be spent, and ensuring it's wisely invested, it's just another wasted penny in a federal budget facing annual trillion-dollar deficits for the foreseeable future.

The problem is far more fundamental, and not solved simply by doubling NASA's budget.

4 comments:

  1. Since about 40% of the current federal budget is borrowed money, it's foolish to talk about increasing spending on anything.

    If SpaceX can't get a paying satellite customer for their first Falcon Heavy test, I really think they should use that flight to send an unmanned Dragon around the Moon. That would get the public's attention.

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  2. The problem is NASA itself -- or more correctly, the people who comprise NASA. Almost without exception they are bureaucrats and academics who have spent their entire careers suckling at the taxpayer teat. Innovation and efficiency aren't necessary when your pension is secure.

    We must deregulate orbital space and demote NASA to regulatory oversight, a la the FAA. Anything less will yield nothing but more lost tax revenue. There's a very good reason the FAA doesn't build airplanes, after all.

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  3. No NASA has had a lot of cancelled programs in just the last 10yrs that if paid for with the other .5 cent would have increased the employment numbers for our country. MORE employment more TAX revenues, MORE innovations = MORE commercial investment opportunities, MORE commercial investments = MORE JOBS! here in the USA. You seem to leave out the multiplier factor of Space exploration on our economy which spurs the Global economy. Congress needs to get out of Management of NASA and leave it to the professionals. Give them a real goal like BuildtheEnterprise.org,20yrs of dedicated funding with out congress playing games with our money. NASA engineers know how to get more bang for the buck in cutting edge research not in recycled 1950's technology.

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