Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The NASA Budget, Part III

As usual, the following opinions are mine alone, and do not reflect the positions of NASA, my employer, or the National Space Society. They are the reactions of a private citizen (and NASA contractor) who cares deeply about space exploration.

Let me be positive first. The NASA budget proposed for 2011 increases funding for environmental monitoring, technology research for long-term exploration needs, basic science, and commercial launches to the International Space Station. All of these activities are worthwhile, and I have no problem with any of that.

However, by closing down the Constellation Program and ramping down the Space Shuttle, the administration is killing long-range human exploration beyond Earth orbit in this country.

I did not come to work at NASA to write about satellites or robots or some orbital taxi service to a space station that, quite frankly, bores me. I want to see people on the Moon. On asteroids. On Mars. On the moons of Jupiter. Boldly going where we've never gone before. That's the inspirational part of space for me. That's the mission I signed up for. And yes, I'd like to go to one of those places myself one day.

A lot of other people are like that, too. I love the Mars rovers, and I've been impressed by their longevity. But they're not people. The emotional connection isn't there. Most people my age (40) or older can name the first men to walk on the Moon. Can anyone name a designer of the rovers? That's part of the point: everyone can at least imagine what it would be like to ride a rocket or set foot on another world. Only a select few could imagine or care about building a robot.

The program proposed by this new budget lacks that inspiration. NASA will be reduced to inspiring people who want to build robots or composite widgets, or whatever. It will kill jobs in numerous states (including, obviously, mine), and it will deprive Obama, who claims to support science and engineering education, of one of the most powerful motivators out there: "Study real hard, Judy, and one day you, too, can be an astronaut!"

And from a space settlement perspective, it's a step backward from getting people closer to living and working in settlements off of Earth. So we still need Constellation or something like it for space to reallly inspire people. I just don't know if we can make the sale in the current political or budget climate, which is most unfortunate, because NASA is one of the few federal programs I can name off the top of my head that actually give the taxpayer a productive, useful, and inspirational return on their tax dollars.

Much as I dislike political wrangling, I hope the Congress will fight this budget--NOT to stop what IS being spent, but to PRESERVE what has been cut. Imagine a space program that increases funding for environmental monitoring, technology research for long-term exploration needs, basic science, commercial launches to the International Space Station, AND human missions into the great beyond. How inspirational THAT would be!


Indiana said...

Citizen Bart,

I agree that the prospect working on Obama's plan bores me. I was looking forward to seeing a distant place through the eyes and mind of another soul. I really enjoy being a part of something that has a single goal so lofty that only a super-power can accomplish it. From what I can tell from the budget there is no primary goal. The mission has been fractured in many pieces.

The direction of the proposed budget is so counter intuitive, that I am looking for the political agenda behind it to start revealing itself.

Douglas Mallette said...

As I've called for many times in the past, a nice chuck of that bogus 'stimulus package' dropped into the NASA account would be REAL nice. Let's spend that money where it REALLY matters, on long term, generational endeavors. Can you imagine what a $100 billion lump sum would do for our space program?