Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pork is in the Eye of the Beholder

Florida Today published on August 5 a guest column by Lynda Weatherman, president & CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, regarding the recent action by the House Appropriations Committee to slash NASA's Fiscal Year 2012 budget.

Weatherman claims the committee "has singled out Florida and seeks to cut or redirect funds originally allocated to Kennedy Space Center."

With almost sniper-like stealth, congressional members on the committee are proposing to slash or reallocate funds intended for development of KSC’s 21st-century launch complex, heavy-lift ground operations and space shuttle refurbishment. These projects represent the most immediate source of jobs at KSC.

Weatherman writes, "Our congressional delegation needs to be screaming at the top of its lungs to defend their region that’s already economically overwhelmed."

But as I wrote on July 12, neither Kennedy Space Center representative Sandy Adams nor Cape Canaveral representative Bill Posey have done much to support the Obama administration's plan to convert the facilities into a 21st century spaceport capable of attracting and supporting both government and commercial launches from around the world.

Anticipating criticism that her interest is solely in diverting tax dollars to her region, Weatherman writes:

These actions aren’t about pork, they’re about killing infrastructure investment intended to make KSC more competitive in commercial and government markets for launch, processing and manufacturing.

If this sabotage is effective, not only will the Space Coast be crippled in efforts to rebuild our Space sector, but the billions invested by Americans over decades in its premier launch complex will be wasted, all while other competing facilities are built and modernized with our tax dollars.

Weatherman's column was followed today by a Florida Today editorial titled "Fight for NASA."

Deep cuts under way in Congress for deficit and debt reduction will likely get worse, which could gut money for private launch companies and other NASA programs and further set back America’s ability to recover from the shuttle program’s end ...

The reductions in question and others that may arise cannot be allowed to happen with so much at stake for America’s global leadership in space exploration and our community’s role in it.

Although I'm sympathetic to her position, Ms. Weatherman's arguments do sound like she's trying to defend her slice of government pork. That's all right, because it's her job to do so, however in an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits and Tea Partiers holding hostage the economy to reduce government spending it's going to become increasingly difficult to argue in support of local programs solely out of parochial interests.

NASA's budget is about 0.4% of the federal budget, only about $18 billion in FY11. Outside of the few districts hosting NASA space centers and contractors, few members of Congress care about the future of U.S. space flight, with or without human passengers.

It will no longer suffice to argue NASA in its present form must survive only to protect government jobs. Politicians for many years have claimed that NASA jobs are somehow unique and vital to national security and global leadership. But let's face reality. They're not. And it's certainly not important where those jobs are located, unless a compelling argument can be made to prove otherwise.

The only way to save NASA's budget is to drop the "save jobs" rhetoric and find a more compelling argument that demonstrates how the human space flight program is of common benefit to all American taxpayers.

My personal belief is that the International Space Station and commercial space are the answer.

The ISS is a multinational platform for unprecedented biology, medicine, physics and astronomy research. Fifteen nations have agreed to jointly operate the ISS through at least 2020, probably through 2028. It's hard to imagine one primary member such as the United States would simply drop out, disgracing itself before the global community.

(But after this week's Congressional behavior during the manufactured debt ceiling crisis, perhaps we are capable of such disgrace.)

It can also serve as a test bed for simulating the conditions that would be experienced by astronauts on a long-duration flight to an asteroid or Mars. Programs are under way to study 21st Century spacefaring technologies such as robotic refueling craft and orbital fuel depots.

Some of the accomplishments and potential of the ISS can be reviewed in a February 2011 report to the United Nations.

The ISS is the kind of program that should be promoted as the pride of the world's premiere spacefaring nation. But it doesn't generate exciting video clips like a rocket launch, so it's ignored by the mainstream media. And now that construction is complete, the ISS no longer requires the thousands of taxpayer-funded government jobs necessary to fly the Shuttle to build it.

The space station does need cargo supply flights and crew rotations. Those missions require launches that will once again generate the aforementioned exciting video clips, so when the day comes that commercial cargo and crew fly to the ISS, I expect the media will start to pay attention again.

But many members of Congress see commercial flight as a prime candidate for cuts, arguing that the government shouldn't subsidize the private sector. (They conveniently ignore all those subsidies and tax breaks for the oil industry, agriculture, etc.)

Ms. Weatherman needs to drop the rhetoric alleging some sinister conspiracy within the halls of Congress to punish the Space Coast for some unmentioned motivation. She does need to argue the importance of ISS and commercial space to growing the U.S. economy. Acting like the Space Coast is somehow privileged is going to turn off members of Congress who have no interests beyond their own districts. Demonstrate how these programs will benefit their districts, not ours, and perhaps they'll listen.

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