New Space Policy–Future or Failure?

So I was going to talk about the New New Obama Space Policy that came out this week (while, of course, I was on vacation), and I still am, but not as I usually might.

What I’m not going to do is talk about what’s in the policy at length. I assume anyone reading my blog–all six of you or so–is already familiar with it. If not, click that link at the top of the post. I’ll wait.

Anyway, what I am going to do is talk a little about what I think the plan has done correctly, and what I think needs to be changed. As if I’m the only one, right?

Commercial: Do it, of course. Commercializing LEO for human habitation and utilization is a great idea. It gets people into space who aren’t part of this elite corps of astronauts and cosmonauts and taikonauts and whatever the Europeans call their space travelers (also astronauts, I believe). We need to do for space what the microchip did for personal computers in the 70’s.

International Cooperation: I don’t think anything’s going to come out of this that we expected to get. James Oberg (NBC’s space analyst) talks a lot in this post about the real benefits of this kind of cooperation: technological ones. Namely, the semi-slapdash construction of the space station ended up allowing for greater redundancy and flexibility than a single-contributor system might have done.

According to Mr. Oberg, what we don’t usually get from international cooperation in space are what we most desire from it: peace and price reduction. The ISS hasn’t really been cheaper–if at all–since the inclusion of the Russians back in the 1990’s, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project didn’t reduce international tensions. Rather, they were both examples of two countries whose tensions were already decreasing declaring to the world their intent to work together peacefully.

Also, the benefits of such cooperation (page 7, by the way) don’t list one of the most important ones: space-based solar power. Space nuclear power, sure, but nothing that, you know, has the potential to solve our energy problems…or, to take a slightly more realistic approach, at least help ameliorate some of them.

Overall: Okay, I know those two categories don’t cover the entirety of the plan, but most of the rest (defense, commercial contracts for satellite launch, etc) don’t concern me overmuch (except that bit about only developing a space “public option” when a commercial launcher is unavailable, which strikes me as backwards engineering [namely, you don’t develop technology later when you see a potential need for it today]).

So overall, not a lot changed. I don’t feel like he listened to the community much in the months since the Tax Day Speech. I also don’t think an asteroid is an appropriate or necessary destination for crewed missions right now (maybe when we’ve mined one out enough to live in it, but why until then? The science of it notwithstanding, of course), but you probably already knew that if you’ve ready pretty much any of my other blog posts.

I also don’t feel like the new plan says a whole lot. Basically, it’s “let’s buy stuff instead of making it ourselves” (which is usually a good idea for the government) and “let’s get all lovey-dovey with our international partners” (which, while certainly a good PR move, doesn’t strike me as particularly decisive, or as something that’s necessarily going to advance our civilization into space permanently). It’s a lot of Earth-benefit stuff, which–while important–isn’t really my point. I think most of the space enthusiasts are with me on this when I say, where’s our space hotel? Where’s our American Moon base? Where’s our Pan Am shuttle making regular flights to Station V (which, I will grant, Wikipedia tells me is international)?

I repeat myself once again, and in doing so, repeat myself. It’s hardly worth debating anymore, since it never seems to go anywhere. Mostly I’m just waiting to see what the next President might say, or what Congress will do in the meantime (especially with the coming midterm elections). Some are still harping on Constellation, which I see as silly. It’s dead, let it be buried with dignity. Maybe some parts will come back in the HLV, or maybe not.

Some still harp on jobs. It’s regrettable, and I wish I knew what to do about it, but jobs will be lost no matter what since we’re cutting out the Shuttle.

Little discussion is going into the destination or SBSP–though the grassroots movement for the latter is rather persistent, for which I applaud them–which I think is a shame. All this talk about going further and faster and cheaper…but not back to the Moon, because we’ve already been there. Well, Buzz has, not you and me.

But it’s just a plan, of course. Another plan. Congress has yet to budge–or do much of anything except bicker. I do like the idea of a strong American space program, but I don’t really see why we can’t let other countries help. It’s not like we won’t have a strong space program. We still spend more than anyone else on our civil space program (or is that “than anyone else combined“? I’m never sure), and with any luck the new budget will help boost our commercial programs into more worldwide dominance.

So what is a poor blogger to do? It’s no good writing news pieces; if you’re reading me you’ve already seen it. The same opinions over and over again simply seem repetitive and unnecessary. If you want to know my opinions, read most of my other posts. They say about the same things and it saves me the time typing.

For those of you skipping to the end: plan’s okay–as always, some good, some bad. I’m generally repeating myself and have thus become a little disaffected by the constant lack of progress in the debate. We’re not going to the Moon and that bugs me (especially after we found more water).

Just have to wait and see, I suppose. Back to gluing my eyes to my RSS feed reader, hoping for more news. Like I’ve been hoping for almost three months.


17 Responses to New Space Policy–Future or Failure?

  1. mike shupp says:

    Obama’s “new” space policy brings together a number of issues, which might best have been considered seperately, but which are being lumped together and sold as a single entity. Considering things from a high level:

    (1) What is the goal (or goals) of _manned_ space flight? We’re now 50+ years into the Space Age, and this is still an unanswered question. (this merits another post)

    (2) Are these goals achievable, or affordable? Are they in the best interest of the United States, or of humanity as a whole? How do we formulate such goals and modify them over time? Can the opinions and wishes of American citizens be considered in dertermining these goals, or are they to be decided by experts and shoved down peoples’ throats?

    (3) What’s a good workable relationhip between the manned program, military and intelligence gathering programs, and purely silence-related programs?

    (4) How should manned space flight be organized and funded? Should it be a responsility of the federal government alone, or shared between a number of nations, or ignored by governments and left largely to commercial interests? Should the American MSF program follow the policies set by say Europeans or Russians or be idioscyncratically American?

    (5) If funded by government, how large should manned space flight programs be? There are many other programs governments might choose to fund, so this is a political issue rather than an economic one. Reflect that many people are viscerally opposed to MSF and willling to show their opposition; is founding a moon base worth having mobs burn down American cities?

    (6) How can the capablity and cost effectiveness of manned space flight best be increased? How should choices between technological alternatives be made? Who should make them?

    • 1) In my mind, it’s the preservation of the species and the utilization of space resources for the benefit of mankind. It’s something we absolutely must do, and sooner rather than later. You’re right, though, that I should write a post entirely on this subject. I’ll get on that.

      2) In the long run I don’t think it matters if it’s affordable (since we have to do it eventually), and it’s certainly achievable, even if we have to change as a species to accommodate our lives in outer space. Forming and altering goals is the work of administrators, and I imagine you do it the same way you do any exploration venture. The opinions and wishes of American citizens are, of course, important to America’s space program, since it’s their tax dollars and their benefits coming down the line, but I know you can’t please everybody all of the time, so you have to please as many people as possible some of the time. This new plan, I feel, might actually do that–or at least, mostly please most of the people most of the time. It’s got a lot to like, mostly in the commercial aspect. It’s not the worst plan we could have been handed in this recession.

      3) As I see it, science can be performed by the private industry–by which I mean universities and corporations’ R&D facilities–just as well as it can be done by NASA (with, at least at first, NASA’s help). In fact, in the US, something like 60% of all research dollars come from the private industry, not government.

      4) I think that, until the commercial industry really notices and decides to utilize the resources in space, only government is going to get anything done that doesn’t have an immediate bottom-line profit–like establishing a permanent base on the Moon. While it would be nice to have other nations involved for redundancy’s sake, I don’t see any real reason why the United States couldn’t go it alone, given what I’ve read in Mr. Oberg’s article and from discussions with people well-versed in such matters. I also don’t see any reason why the American HSF program should be anything like the Europeans’ or Russian HSF programs, considering they’re essentially made possible by our money anyway, at least at the moment.

      5) I very much doubt that a base on the Moon is going to cause mass rioting, and if it does, perhaps a space program isn’t for the United States’ people at this time. But if a $100 billion space station caused little more than grumbling, I don’t think a Moon base will do much more harm. As for its size, if I had my druthers I’d throw all of NASA’s budget that I could into putting as many normal citizens into space as possible, both to live and to work. Realistically, a program such as the one outlined in that ULA paper I keep posting can probably do the job of space expansionism pretty well on a budget comparable to the current one.

      6) Engineering, and engineers. There’s not a lot of choice in this one. Keep in mind, of course, that engineers need a goal, some end result, towards which to work if they are going to be producing anything useful.

  2. mike shupp says:

    Ooops on bullet (3). “purely SCIENCE-related programs”

    Talk about Freudian slips.

  3. mike shupp says:

    Obama’s “new” space policy brings together a number of issues, which might best have been considered seperately, but which are being lumped together and sold as a single entity. Some background considerations, as I see them:

    (A) The public, broadly speaking, has little interest in spaceflight, and there is no reason for the federal government to try to change this. In a handful of states, there are or may be space-related employment issues, but the number of jobs involved is small and will soon be forgotten in neighboring regions.

    (B) In general, a small unobtrusive American space program is advantageous because the space programs of other nations will remain small and unobtrusive.

    (C) NASA and its contractors are going to lose people in the near future. The head count will fall, the experience and capabilties of the space workforce will diminish, centers are going to be shut down, the sorts of programs that NASA might initiate with its own people will decrease. Etc. We need to reach this situation without overtly striving for it — comparable reductions were achieved in the early 1970’s and the 1990’s, with minimal public objection, so we know this is achoievable.

    (Bear in mind, a similar but much larger contraction is likely across the entire aerospace industry as the Defense Department budget is brought down in the next few years. The USAF is getting out of the manned aircraft business. Robots are going to replace a lot of riflemen. So the notion that current-day workers with some special set of aerospace “skills” needs to be conserved for future use is charming but very very quaint.)

    (D) The US has been futzing the issue of commercial space access for nearly 30 years. On the one hand, we’re all for space business — comsats are good! On the other hand, letting space launch out of the government’s hand could be risky — manned rockets are just ICBM’s with people aboard, what if Al Qaeda got their hands on one? On a third hand, large numbers of American citizens are convinced fortunes will be made in outer space as soon as government gets out of the way and permits modern entrepreneurs to venture into space. On a fourth hand, these enlightened entrepreneurs are non-existant — real world capitalists want government money to cover their R&D costs and they want to count government as a client as well. And fifth, many people are going to be irrittated if businessmen get subsidies and tax concessions and sweetheart deals for engaging in projects that they already see as obnoxious. How do we satisfy everyone? Mostly with rhetoric — Nonperformance is not actually a problem!

    (E) There is NO gain to be realized from human space flight except possibly after long and expensive investment in “infrastructure” — equipment to extract oxygen and water from the lunar regolith, for example, or large scale hydroponics farming, Given the cost and the slow payback, no commercial entity will foot the bills for such infratructure, which means only governments wil be able to afford lunar or planetary colonies in the coming century.

    (F) It follows that returning to the moon, especially for extended stays, or landing people on Mars will be expensive and possibly dangerous, will not secure immediate economic payoffs for the US or gain much in the way of kudos. It will irritate some people in this country, incite other nations to wasteful activities in space which we will be forced to match, and distract us all from confronting environmental and energy issues with greater importance.

    • A) I’m not sure you can call 23,000 jobs in the Space Coast region alone “small”, but if it is, it’s large enough to cause a public outcry–as it has. As for people being interested in the space program, I don’t think you can say “we shouldn’t do things because they’re not interested” so much as you should say “they’re not interested because we’re not doing things.” The space station is a tremendous accomplishment, but to the public, we’ve had one for decades: Skylab and Mir and the ISS are all the same. Something we’ve done before. While landing on the Moon has been done before, with the right hype, a real, visitable Moon base–and the associated space depots a la 2001–could be immensely exciting for the American people. Also, you might be surprised at the number of people I’ve met who know about the big space debate who might otherwise be labeled as “uninterested.”

      B) I don’t think the capabilities or size of the American space program has a whole lot to do with that of other countries’. JAXA wants to explore the Moon, China wants a space station, the UK just opened a new space agency, India’s building a space shuttle-like craft…assuming they’re given the opportunity, I think there’s going to be a lot of growth in the next couple of decades.

      C) I don’t know how to do this, but yes, it should be done. Also, some centers are getting an increase, and I don’t know if any are going to be shut down outright. The USAF isn’t getting out of the manned aircraft business by a long shot (just look at last year’s debate over the F-22. We bought about a hundred of them, and they’re not flown by robots yet). Robots aren’t really anywhere near to replacing the normal infantry for most of their roles–mostly, the robots make it safer to bean infantryman. Even if it were true, the aerospace business doesn’t depend on the pilot of the craft, but the craft itself. If we do replace our entire fighter fleet with robotic aircraft, somebody still needs to design the engines and the wings and, well, everything.

      D) What if Al Qaeda gets their hands on an Iranian rocket, or an old Soviet one, or a Chinese one, or a British one for that matter? We’re not going to get rid of rockets, and they’re already out of government hands because organizations like ULA and SpaceX sell their launch manifest space to private companies. As for covering costs, SpaceX isn’t innovative because its rocket has a TPS and could potentially be recovered entirely, but because it was privately funded and has contract money from the DoD and, now, NASA. Granted, Elon Musk was a millionaire coming out of PayPal, but so was Paul Allen when he funded SpaceShipOne. Again, you can’t satisfy everyone, but I don’t see why the government has to in this case, at least for cargo launches and encouragement of the industry. Just buy space on the manifest like everyone else.

      E) I think there’s a very clear gain to be had from human spaceflight–the preservation of our species. If not due to some asteroid–and if the eventual end of the Sun’s life cycle is too far away for you–then we have overpopulation to consider. Space could allow us to build immense orbiting farms, power stations in GEO, space colonies on the Moon and in Earth orbit and on Mars. Even the things without people on them–namely, the SBSP stations–need maintenance workers.

      F) This is why the government should do it. I don’t think it’s a distraction anyhow, since the idea that we need to solve all of our problems–or even the major ones–on Earth before considering space is rather illogical (it’s a false dichotomy), especially since space can bring the answers to some of those problems.

  4. mike shupp says:

    Obama’s “new” space policy brings together a number of issues, which might best have been considered seperately, but which are being lumped together and sold as a single entity. These would seem to be the Administration’s immediate space concerns:

    (1) It’s expensive and it’s dangerous and it’s too damned old. The Space Shuttle program, despite its propaganda value and its past usefulness, is coming to an end. What will replace it for manned flight in LEO?

    (2) It will be expensive and probably dangerous and not increase US capabilities in space unless a string of miracles take place. How do we dump the Constellation program with a minimum of political controversy?

    (3) What’s the least that can be done to mollify people who have expected that the US will return to the moon, given that it won’t in the near future or possibly ever?

    (4) What’s the absolute minimum to add to the NASA budget that will (a) be big enough to be visible, (b) be small and temporary, and (c) not be seen as starting a new space program, thus providing something to please as many voters as possible?

    (5) What possibilities ought to be left open just in case we need the option of rebuilding a larger space program in the distant future?

    * * *

    Winding up, perhaps I’m overly cynical. Any rate, I think I can explain a part of your uneasiness with the program: there are parts of it that clearly make sense (relying more on commercial suppliers and termininating Ares for example), and parts of it that seem complete hooey (flying around Mars without landing?) and we’re being asked to accept this weird package as a monolithic unit.

    Even more strangely, it’s obvious that a large number of the folks who frequent THE SPACE REVIEW and NASA WATCH and similar web sites are libertarians or economic conservatives feverishly embracing the “commercial” aspects of the new space policy as if nothing else matters (while simultaneously continuing to denounce Obama as a Kenyan-born Muslim who is out to transform the US to a pile of jello). Clearly the notion that this is an integrated, sensible, space program works for SOMEONE.

    And there are a number of Congresscritters and other politicians playing violins and crooning about job losses and the need to preserve Constellation. Are they sane and worthy of attention? Well…. cheritably, they’re attempting to stir up pro-space sentiment among voters who might notice job losses but don’t pay attention otherewise to space issues. Shelby and Hutchinson and Nelson and others might well be sane, even if they say stuff that’s nutso. I don’t guarantee this, but it does strike me as possible. I also don’t think it would gain them much if true, but I’m not in Congress and might be missing things that seem obvious to them

    Anyhow, we have a mixed package of good and bad proposals which we’re being asked to accept together. We have a pile of bizarre people who have done so with manic enthusiasm; we have another pile of people who reject the package with equal lack of logic. Where on earth is the sensible middle where 99 and 44/100 % of us ought to be found?

    Not on the internet it seems. The thought that sometimes come to me is that really, there are just a couple of dozen space-orientedf webblogs, that probably less than a thousand people frequent them from day to day, that barely more than a hundred chose to leave comments, and that only a dozen or so buffs are obnoxiously and offensively long winded. Really, I wouldn’t know where to start counting!

    • I don’t see a whole lot of the Tea Party-esque rhetoric in the space debate, although there’s certainly good old fashioned partisanism (although not as much as one might think) and constituency support (which I can forgive, given that it’s the point of a legislature to represent their constituents to the government).

      I don’t know about the engineering solutions to the LEO problem, but one must be forthcoming. I think if there’s one thing I’ve seen about this debate, it’s that the space program now has too much attention and momentum to be easily diverted. People like those who work at ULA and SpaceX and Orbital and others aren’t about to let us not go into LEO, especially with that space station up there.

      All I’m saying, though, about the plan, is that I don’t feel like he listened to the American people when revising the plan. I’m actually rather hard-pressed to say–the biggest issue I can find is in the destination, but somehow that’s not all of what bugs me, although I don’t know what the rest is–but the Tax Day speech had me shaking my head, especially at the Orion-lite and the “we’ve been there” bits, which felt rather patronizing and “he just doesn’t get it”, respectively. A moderate approach is best, of course, but I’m not sure how to implement that here.

      As for commenting, I like talking about this stuff with people, and I don’t get to do nearly enough of it off the Internet, so I enjoy reading and responding to comments. Thanks for your interest!

  5. mike shupp says:

    Hi there! I’m probably going to be making a set of comments in response to your remarks on my posts. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE FEEL FREE TO DELETE THEM! I’m happy to continue a discussion on spaceflight, but it is YOUR blog, not mine, and you don’t need a long-winded guy with time on his hands to monopolize the comment section.

    You’ve a new blog with few commentators as yet. It seems analogous to having a new house in a new neighborhood. Some visitors would be welcome, but you don’t want to see the same old boring neighbor coming by each day to track grease and sawdust on your nice clean doormat. So I’m here again, pushing your doorbell — I actually don’t want to overstay my welcome.

  6. mike shupp says:

    “What is the goal of _manned_ space flight? … an unanswered question. (this merits another post)”


    Actualy the parenthetical remark was meant for me. What I was mumbling about is not that space enthusiasts need to enunciate goals for manned space flight, but that the federal government (and other governments around the world) which provide the bulk of funds for space flight is strangely incapable or unwilling to provide goals.

    If one looks at the US for example, we’re generally told space exploration is good because It’s Science! and frequently this decade we’ve been told space exploration is needed to encourage kids to become scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians, Note that the people most eager to encourage this are not themselves in STEM fields; they’re lawyers and politicians and businessmen. It seems self evident to me that the most straightforward way to get people to enter STEM careers would be to raise wages in those fields or to subsidize education in those fields, as was done back in thew 1960s with NDEA scholarships, But neither alternative seems to appeal to the people who sign paychecks for scientists and engineers. Instead we’re treated to the spectacle of using NASA to exhort the attention of teenagers who probably have other interests — 20 billion bucks a year is an awful lot to spend on what’s bascially a billboard! Particularly when the government is doing its damndest right now to teach people that employment in the space field is capricious and politically driven.

    There’s a schizoid element behind US space policy, I’m inclined to think. On one hand, we’re told space is essential to our economy and our miitary and our psychic needs. On the other … Quoting from the ever useful Peter Taylor’s webpost WHY ARE LAUNCH COSTS SO HIGH ?(

    “Obstructionism …. My favorite version of this is that there is
    someone in the State Department who really doesn’t like the
    idea of Bubba having his own ICBM, and is quietly but
    deliberately trying to discourage anyone from building any
    launch vehicles that aren’t firmly controlled by the US government.”

    Interestingly enough, people who study space policy for a living seem to be puzzled by the same dichotomy. John Logsden, from whom we’ve heard recently, a few years back wrote a paper on “Reflections on Space as a Vital National Interest” . Joan Johnson-Freese and Roger Handberg wrote a fat book on SPACE, THE DORMANT FRONTER. Walter Kay wrote two books: CAN DEMOCRACIES FLY IN SPACE? and DEFINING NASA, the latter ending in a plea that someone with authority define “What Is NASA For?”

    The idea that keeps hitting me (I Am Not A Political Scientist!) is that the US is a big powerful nation, and BPN’s tend to be status quo oriented. As citizens we don’t like changes, don’t see need for changes, don’ regard change as innately desirable. Government is staffed by people who don’t like changes, particularly those that threaten US standing as a BPN — and the long run implications of significant space programs could be profoundly upsetting.

    (A) At a minimum, settling the space frontier would require major federal funds, For purposes of comparison, I’ve seen it estimated that in the Elizabethan era upwards of 1.5% of GNP was spent by the English on colonization in the Americas; that could be 200 billion bucks/year in our situation (I’ll forebear dumping six paragraphs on the difficulties of comparing GNP over such a time period and six paragraphs on the different financial composition of state and society then and now — any good public library will contains books and books addressing these subjects). Spending large sums on space flight would be politically difficult in most conceivable circumstances; with the US government running a large deficit, impossible.

    (B) Defending US assets on the Moon or other planets might be expensive, and might lead to fights for influence among the armed forces; the US went through this back in the late 1940’s and 1950’s and those who remember do not want to repeat the experience.

    (C) Any scheme for colonizing space or exploiting resources in space that the US might wish to consider is absolutely certain to create huge foreign policy problems. Absolutely certain. Huge. Absolutely certain. Huge. Absolutely certain. Huge. Need I say that again?

    (D) A manned rocket is an ICBM with crew. We don’t want Bubba to have his own rocket, not if Bubba is a paid-up militia member in good standing. We don’t want Joe Jihad off in central Asia to have his own rocket, even if he seems more annoyed with India than us. We don’t even want US Army generals whom we love and admire to throw missiles around on their own hook. We’re having a problem making sure ordinary air plane passengers are trustworthy! Do we really need to let this ugly free enterprise thinking contaminate Our Space Program?

    (E) England built up the US. The US became an economic and political rival. Not a hateful rival, perhaps, but the rise of America inevitably led to a diminished England.
    The US built up Japan after WW2 (and allowed Japan to build itself up) and for a time it seemed that Japan would become a world power rich enough to contend with the US; just why the Japanese fell into a 20-year recession and failed to realize that ambition is something economists still argue about.
    At present, the US and Europe are fueling the economic growth of China and India; these are very large nations with high growth rates, and no disinclination from reaching for status and influence. Come the middle of this century and the US may find itself being supplanted as Leader of the The Free World by one or both new superpowers. There might be serious consequences internally.
    Are you quite sure you want to repeat this process by colonizing Mars and the Moon and Venus and the rings of Saturn?

  7. mike shupp says:

    (2) … It’s not the worst plan we could have been handed in this recession.

    It’s a pretty bad plan as I see it. Oh, I wouldn’t turn it down as NASA administrator or spend the money _too_ much differently. But if you look there’s very little money for projects that weren’t already in developement under George Bush and Mike Griffin, and the promised payoffs of the “new and transformative technologies” that we’re going to develop are pretty far downstream — 15 years for reaching a near earth asteroid, 25 years for flying around Mars. This is a kick-the-can-down-the-road program, it’s not a win-the-war-in-Europe-in-45 kind of program.

    I don’t blame the recession, given the few bucks (relatively speaking). I think we got a plan with a few elements to make it politically palatable (like the idea of building Orion capsules that would only be used for rescue purposes), but basically I think we’re getting a plan which actually strikes Barak Obama himself as reasonable. And that means no Moon landings, no lunar bases, no nothing with an implied follow up. We’re to look forward to “flag and footstep” missions, except without the actual planting of flags and footsteps. And this is supposed to be satisfactory, this is supposed to be fulfilling, this is supposed to inspire A New Generation Of Explorers. And this is … an agricultural byproduct.

    It’s a curiously _empty_ plan, I’m trying to say. It’s not a rocket engineer’s plan, or anything like the ideas of Gerald O’Neil or Carl Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke. It’s passionless. It’s government at its worst, doing silly things for reasons which cannot be explained. And I think it’s significant that what most people do like in Obama’s plan is the part that ignores government — the commercial space part, which points towards a future in space uncontrolled and unlimited by government.

  8. mike shupp says:

    3) “As I see it, science can be performed by the private industry–by which I mean universities and corporations’ R&D facilities–just as well as it can be done by NASA (with, at least at first, NASA’s help). In fact, in the US, something like 60% of all research dollars come from the private industry, not government.”

    Ummm…. much of NASA’s “science” spending goes to universities and to contractors. Counting together academic science, spacecraft construction, radio telescope tracking, data analysis, and the like, about 7-8 billion bucks per year goes into science at NASA. (This leaves out spending $2 billion per year on the space station, which is officially a science program).

    This is about as much money as the US spends on health research each year. This is about as much as the US spends on high energy physics, anthropology, physical chemistry, metallurgy, pure mathematics, oceanography, and fusion — all wrapped together. Is spending so much on space science really sensible? Is it more sensible or less if manned spaceflight is reduced?

    Also, it’s not quite the case that private industry pays for most American science. Private industry pays for most APPLIED research, but that’s far from the whole thing. Lest I get long winded … the proper funding of scientific research has been argued since the late 1940’s; the portion funded by the federal government has basically been going downhill for 40 years, and very few people regard the current setup as perfect. Go to Google and enter “Mansfield Amendment” I suggest; go to Mike Mandel’s website (; go read a dozen or so of the hundreds of books on science policy and funding that have been published since the middle 1960’s.

    • Well, I was mostly thinking blatant “science” (quotes for vague terminology, not sarcasm) programs like the Earth-observing satellites that NASA runs that I think ought to be turned over to more appropriate agencies like NOAA and USGS (although the funding would probably go with them, so who knows).

      But I like what you said in the previous comment–namely, that it’s a very empty plan, passionless. That, I think, is exactly the word I’ve been looking for to describe why I’m so annoyed at the plan.

      As for classifying ISS as science, well, it IS a research laboratory, but I think of it more as an outpost in space–as it was attempted to be sold to some of us–than as a “simple” research lab. In other words, we should be using the ISS to assemble spaceships and macro-scale structures in Earth orbit as well as doing pure science.

  9. mike shupp says:

    Given my druthers …. earth observational satellites and the funding for scientists who use them OUGHT to be transferred from NASA to other agencies because (a) they’re earth- rather than space-oriented, and (b) they’re collecting data rather than providing the sort of insights that spurred on Einstein and Maxwell and Helmholtz and Rutherford. What keeps them inside NASA is inertia basically — they’re satellites and that spells Space to most people, and NSA and NOAA don’t have the funding and the expertise to take them over. This might get straightened out eventually, but probably only after some massive overhaul of government bureaucracy.

    ISS, in my estimation, is something else that could be abandoned. We don’t NEED it as “an outpost in space.” In the long run, human beings of our sort are not going to live in total weightlessness in in total vacuum, so studying life in such conditions is purely academic — the real issue is how to maintain life in low-g environments like the Moon and on Mars, and we’re as ignorant about that as we were in 1969 or 1869 or 69 BC. We are NOT going to be assembling Mars rockets at ISS — look at pictures of what we have there now and try to imagine crews of engineers and technicians assembling some large exterior structure! For a a variety of good economic reasons, we are not going to be manufacturing electronic circuits or refining drugs for treating cancer or bone regeneration in orbit We are not going to use ISS to supplant comsats and weather satellites, etc.

    A space station was a sensible idea (looked like a sensible idea) back in the 1940s and 1950s when a lot of human intervention was needed to keep computers and electronic equipment functioning (there used to be people with shopping carts racing about the large rooms that housed 1950-vintage computers to replace burned out vacuum tubes). But these days electronic circuits operate for years in space without failing. Humans aren’t needed to tend modern gadgets, and the cost of keeping humans alive in space is too insanely high for serious businessmen to consider.

    We don’t need people in LEO. A hundred years from now, when lunar and Martian colonies might exist, we won’t need people in LEO. Millenia from now, when our descendents are buillding civiliations on the planets of Vega and Fomalhault and Zeta Reticulai VI, they won’t need to keep large manned satellites in orbit above inhabited worlds,

    Yes, if you want to argue from science fiction reading that humans will be running about in the asteroid belt or the Oort Cloud or the myriad hurtling moonlets of the Rings of Saturn and that they will be concerned with living in weightless, I concede the point. But how much of current “research” on ISS is aimed at maintaining life and civilization in such destinations? Very very little. And is the ISS the best place to study life in the asteroid belt, or should we conduct such studies in the Belt?

    Oh well. I’m open to argument, but my current gut feeling is that the time for something like the ISS went away about 40 years ago. The Gemini program showed we could work in orbit, Apollo showed we could build spacecraft that got beyond earth orbit, Mir and Skylab showed we could live in orbit, and everything since has been dross. We could have learned twenty times as much in less time for less money building and occupying a moon base.

    Grumble grumble growl mumble snap snarl sniff snarf grrrr!

    Just my casual thought of course…

  10. mike shupp says:

    (5) Reflect that many people are viscerally opposed to MSF and willling to show their opposition; is founding a moon base worth having mobs burn down American cities?


    I’ll retract this. It was a crude and witless remark. I know what I was trying to convey, but in retrospect this wasn’t the best language to use. I’m sorry.

  11. mike shupp says:

    (6) Engineering, and engineers.

    Oh dear. I understand the response. The question was, who should make the choices involving space programs, and it’s tempting to argue that the people most knowledgable about those programs should make the decisions. But the sad truth is that engineers often are not very good decision makers outside of very narrow ranges, and don’t agree all that much amongst themselves.

    Nor are engineers the bulk of humanity. We’d like to create with our space programs a world which offers — which actually provides — better living conditions, more opportunity for personal growth and happiness, a better future for children, excitement for the adventuresome, advancement for the ambitious, improved conditions for the destitute, increased knowledge for the curious, etc. etc. We’d like people en masse “to vote with their tax dollars” for space programs. And most of these people — our fellow citizens, let me stress! — are not engineers and, despite their many fine qualities, don’t want to be engineers. But the space program we build ought to be theirs as much as it is the engineers.

    Granted, travel agents and real estate salespeople and used car salesmen and striving actresses and hospital workers are not the people to decide that the cellophane canopy over a Martian settlement should be 25 mills thick or 5 mills or whatever. But the choice of whether Martian settlements ought to be roofed by cellophane film or iron plating is one that legitimately might be decided by their preference, the question of whether Bradbury City should be governed by an elected city council or a hereditary prince is one that they should answer , whether bigamy or only monogamy should be permitted probably should be their choice.

    I don’t want to see engineers making decisions about non-engineering matters, I’m trying to say. We’ve an occupation for people who govern society — politics — and those who want to practice that trade ought to develop the appropriate skills and compete for advancement in that occupation. Not much is sillier or sadder than seeing some space buff excoriate NASA for keeping “ordinary people” out of space in a weblog comment stream, and turning about two comments later to curse the ignorant fools who haven’t spent thirty years following the politics of spacecraft development.

    Not that I have anyone in mind for this hypothetical observation, of course.

    • Well, of course engineers shouldn’t be making policy decisions. We tried that with Dr. Griffin, and that doesn’t seem to have worked out too well. The questions that answer referred to, if I remember correctly, had to do with cost-reduction and technological choices, which are best done by engineers who know what they’re doing. Design by committee doesn’t get us very far, usually.

  12. mike shupp says:

    Yeah, we tried that with Mike Griffin, and why it didn’t work is one of the wonders of the ages. All those degrees and all that experience and we ended up with sweet-damn-all as a consequence. Technologically primitive rockets with high development costs, and high operational costs, with no visible path to a reasonable followon program. What on earth was he intending?

    Unless he writes an autobiography, I don’t think we’ll ever know.

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