So Much For Space

14 02 2012

I’m none too fond of NASA. In lieu of advancing the frontiers of manned spaceflight, NASA spent a couple of decades wasting time and energy on the pretty-but-largely-useless shuttle program. The space shuttle could have been a worthwhile component of a larger drive toward orbital manufacturing, followed by exploring and exploiting the inner solar system. Could have been. What it turned into was a political show-horse which leeched desperately-needed funding from actual science and exploration projects and essentially crippled the US space industry when the photogenic but limited-utility orbiters were inevitably retired without a useful replacement vehicle. The stupidly wasted opportunities over the last three decades make my blood boil.

NASA has managed to pull off some staggeringly good science in spite of the shuttle debacle. Rovers on Mars; robot spacecraft visiting other planets, moons, and asteroids; orbiting sensors watching the solar weather; and the enormous work of searching for and tracking potential Earth-impactors were all getting accomplished during the lean years when the lion’s share of the funding was poured down the shuttle rat-hole. Despite my misgivings about NASA management in general and the shuttle program in particular, the non-shuttle folks at the agency have been almost textbook examples of making bricks without straw. My mixed feelings about NASA aside, I am firmly convinced that a robust presence in space- specifically meaning more than just low-Earth orbit- is a key underpinning to continued US economic and military superiority.

The US got a huge amount of payback for the money spent on the Space Race in terms of follow-on technologies and spin-offs. We also got the infrastructure to maintain a constellation of satellites which continue to provide vital real-world service for our high-tech civilization. Learning how to put men on the moon taught us how to safely and reliably put stuff into orbit, which in turn gave us the ability to see and hear most of what goes on all over the world. This ability- taken for granted by the average American citizen- is literally priceless, and gives the US an enormous military advantage in preventing or fighting future conflicts. Our ability to see/listen-in on potential enemies and communicate with friendly units anywhere on the planet is a direct result of the US space program. Our current military peerlessness is based on it.

Despite all of this well-documented benefit from the space program, there are loads of people in this country who are chomping at the bit to gut or eliminate the US space program in a stupid rush to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Apollo program cost the equivalent of about $200.oo per US citizen when it was running. This was (and is) a bargain of stellar magnitude by any measure, but there are people in this country- sadly including many of our professional political class- who shriek and gibber about “wasting” money on space when we could be spending that money on vote-buying schemes here on Earth. The truth is that the US could have funded fifty Apollo-style missions for the price of a week of combat operations in the Sandbox. The space program has delivered proven real-world benefits for the money. Can our military adventures in the Middle East make the same claim?

When the current administration chose to retire the shuttle fleet, I was among many who were unhappy with the decision (they were lovely bits of engineering, and I’m a sucker for well-designed equipment), but accepted it under the assumption that the budget formerly allocated to the shuttle fleet might be turned to more useful ends at NASA. That assumption turned out to be so much wishful thinking. The people I once chastised for what I deemed hyperbole about “abandoning space” turn out to have been correct, as shown by the latest budget proposal from the White House.

In a time when the US is falling behind in science and engineering- historically American strong suits- the President has decided to throw the fiscal worrywarts a bone called NASA. In the interest of appearing to be financially prudent, the President is scaling back the poster child for American engineering and technological progress. How many kids will struggle through the tough scholastic requirements for engineering and the sciences when the biggest market for those fields is cutting back funding? Fewer NASA programs means fewer companies will be getting money to design and build spacecraft. Those companies will therefore have a reduced interest in hiring new engineers and technicians. Tighter NASA science budgets mean fewer science missions, which in turn mean less interest on the part of universities and businesses to employ scientists. Fewer engineers, scientists, and technicians being hired reduces the need for students of those disciplines. So much for American excellence in engineering and the sciences. The one thing America is traditionally good at is being put at risk to create the impression of fiscal restraint.

You want fiscal prudence? Try trimming back on wasteful military adventures. Stop paying farmers to not grow food. Stop paying those farmers who do grow food to turn perfectly good corn into largely useless ethanol for fuel. Trimming a few million dollars from a few NASA programs is the height of folly when we waste billions on the items I just mentioned. And those are just the ones I thought of while typing. Anyone willing to do a little research could almost certainly find more. Please do, by the way.

Reducing America’s presence in space- which is what the current budget amounts to- is a bold statement to the effect that the US is no longer looking outward. We’re no longer interested in pushing the boundaries of what we can do, because we seem to be more interested in wallowing around in what we can’t. This attitude has historically been a symptom of a civilization in decline. I’m not interested in contributing to the decline of the United States of America. I’m interested in science and engineering and technology, not least because those things make life better for everyone- including Americans. As an American, I want to do well while doing good. The technology we build today will help feed, clothe, and heal the people of tomorrow. Reducing the overall level of misery on the planet also reduces the competition for resources and the need for military genital measuring contests. This helps make the world to come safer and more stable than the world we live in now.

Why us? Why should America expend the time, money, and manpower to maintain a presence in space? Because- flawed and occasionally idiotic as we may collectively be- a future with an America strong in technology and the sciences is more likely to be a better future than one built in the absence of a US presence in space. Rest assured, humans are going to explore and exploit the solar system. I think it would be better for humanity as a whole if the ones who speak English didn’t have to use foreign currencies to buy tickets as passengers on another country’s spacecraft.

Current status: Peeved

Current music: Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh



3 responses

15 02 2012

Well said! I am promoting this article wherever I can!

15 02 2012

“The truth is that the US could have funded fifty Apollo-style missions for the price of a week of combat operations in the Sandbox. The space program has delivered proven real-world benefits for the money. Can our military adventures in the Middle East make the same claim?”

I think you are overstating your case a bit. Without the shuttle Hubble would have been a bust, and Hubble has been a huge boon to astronomy.

The entire Apollo program was about $25B in 1965 dollars, adjusted for inflation that would be about $160B in 2005 dollars (x50missions proposed/20missions actual = $400B), which is about one-half of the entire cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined over a decade, or about 260 weeks of combat operations in two theaters. Iraq and Afghanistan operations have also revolutionized warfare to include, personal protective equipment, body armor, vehicle armor, trauma medicine, transportation, logistics, communication, data mining, information gathering, robotics, and unmanned aircraft, government contracting, supply chain management, quality assurance etc…to name a few. Furthermore the appropriate comparison for Iraq/Afghanistan would be Vietnam not the space program.

Fundamentally I agree that abandoning space is a bad idea. Walter Mondale tried to kill Apollo because he needed the money for the “great society” programs. How did that work out? Obama is just following the social justice model of government, and the space program doesn’t have a constituency big enough to ensure his re-election, the way Medicaid, Social Security, and Welfare do.

Stop bitching about defense spending hurting space. The Defense industry and Space are one and the same and are mutually supportive. Space Command is indispensible to the COCOMs and all services support space operations and engineering. Ever heard of the anti-ballistic missile shield, Democrats derided as “Star Wars.” That is a space program that still employs many operators, scientists and engineers. Ongoing military operations actually provided more, not less justification for United States space development.

So if you are going to fling poo, make sure you get your facts straight and your targeting will be more accurate.

BTW: I like you blog, and am also a Son of Martha. cheers

19 02 2012

jrtuck– Thanks for reading and commenting.

The number I got for just the war in Iraq was $1.2 Trillion, not the roughly $320 Billion you put forward. That said, you’re right that I did overstate my case considerably. Using your sum of $160 billion in 2005 dollars, the entire Apollo program could have been paid for by just under one year in the Sandbox. I was utterly wrong in my statement about 50 additional missions for the cost of a week in Iraq, and you were right to call me on it.

If you re-read the original post, you’ll see that I did not claim that Defense was hurting the space program. I said that the money spent on useless and expensive military adventures would have paid us (and the world at large) far better dividends in the space program- not that I advocate spending $1.2 Trillion over 9 years on NASA. I’m claiming- with some justification- that we poured a lot of money into Iraq which has been demonstrably less effective than the equivalent amount spent for space programs.

I also acknowledged that NASA had accomplished a lot of outstanding science despite spending the lion’s share of funding on the limited-utility orbiters. Hubble could have been launched just as effectively with normal launch vehicles. It would have been much more difficult to repair without the shuttle, I grant you. That said, the shuttle program ate up funding which could have been used for development of better launch vehicles in general and manned launch vehicles in particular. At present, any US astronauts who go to space will have to be passengers on some other country’s spacecraft, and this is absolutely the fault of NASA’s fixation on the shuttles.

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