More on the space program budget cuts

February 3, 2010

From the fair is fair department, I should point out that not everyone shares my gloomy, pouting perspective on the new NASA budget. Michael Belfiore sees some good in it (h/t Instapundit):

The new budget calls for a course correction—for putting money back into the kind of basic research NASA does best, keeping the space station going through at least 2020, and hiring private contractors for crew and cargo flights. It’s a boon to private space flight companies such as SpaceX but an anathema to politicians who want to keep riding a very lucrative gravy train building paper spaceships. As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said today during a commercial space telecon organized in response to the budget request, “There are certain members of congress who cannot be swayed by any rational argument. They simply want the answer to be that funding continues in their district independent of any sound basis for it.”

I would argue that the new direction is not just the best option for NASA, but the only one. NASA already has no choice but to rely on the Russians for rides to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires this year. It’s an embarrassment. Obama’s budget will open the door to homegrown solutions for crew and cargo delivery to the space station, while providing much needed research funding for the development of next-gen technologies such as heavy-lift rockets and on-orbit refueling depots.

It’s a step that’s long overdue, though not one without peril. The private sector will have some very big shoes to fill, without the track record to prove that it’s up to the job. And can it succeed without succumbing to the kind of bloat that has eaten our defense budget alive? Working with the government tends to increase the amount of paperwork and oversight, along with the bureaucracy required to handle that extra workload, so it’s a legitimate concern. But, after all, the goal is to reduce the cost of reaching space. It has become clear to the right people, including many engineers and managers at NASA, that the traditional way of doing things hasn’t been working. NASA and the White House have every incentive to keep out of the way of the private contracts as much as possible.

A bigger danger is that NASA could become the only customer for the fledgling spaceflight companies, making them de facto arms of the government, with all the attendant problems, and keeping them at the mercy of changing political winds. That’s one reason Robert Bigelow, CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing commercial space stations, shuns government financing. “We don’t have NASA currently on our radar screen as a client,” he said during today’s telecon.

That last problem is more likely than I think Belfiore believes; if we’re in for an extended period of statism, then government may well become a “partner” to private space firms. Witness what happened to GM and Chrysler. And even if they take no federal money, the US is still the sovereign over our airspace: they’ll need to placate the government just to get “up there.”

Still, if NASA is being gutted and repurposed to pursue the White Whale of global warming, private enterprise may well offer our best chance to really get back to the future.

Once upon a time, we had a space program

February 1, 2010

And it’s going to seem like a fairy tale to future generations, with the Obama administration killing a return to the Moon:

NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon are dead. So are the rockets being designed to take them there — that is, if President Barack Obama gets his way.

When the White House releases his budget proposal Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon.

There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all.

I’ll be frank, this makes me very sad.  Sad

I grew up with the space program, from Mercury through Apollo. On launch days, my parents would let me stay home from school, figuring I’d learn more watching TV that day than I’d miss in class. I ran outdoors with my father to look at the Moon the day Neil Armstrong took that first step, and I was glued to the news during the Herculean effort to rescue Apollo 13. I waited patiently (okay, not so patiently) as the program was allowed to wither in the 70s and continue halfheartedly with the Shuttle program. And I remember how jarring it sounded when, for the first time in my life, I heard the calm, confident voice of Mission Control crack when he announced the shuttle Challenger had been lost.

All that time, I believed in my heart we’d return to real space exploration one day, and I cheered when President Bush announced a return to the Moon.

“Forget it,” says President Obama.

Sure, as Allahpundit argues, a fiscal conservative should have no problem with saving money in a time of recession and amidst insane profligacy. And, taken on its own, I’d agree with him.

But the idea that we can achieve significant savings by dropping the Lunar program is, well, a crock of you-know-what. The NASA budget is roughly $18 billion. The bills so far, over several years of development for the Ares rocket and the Constellation program has been an additional $8 billion. Call it $24 billion, total.

The Obama budget proposal released today projects a deficit of $1.267 trillion. The cost of NASA plus the Constellation program to date is less than 1.9% of the federal deficit. It’s six-tenths of a percent of the proposed budget. To argue that canceling the return to the Moon represents any real savings is farcical at best, and an insult to the intelligence of the American people. It’s like a fat man ordering a double bacon-cheeseburger and fries, and then claiming it’s okay because he also got a diet soda.

As I wrote on another matter:

You [President Obama] were willing to blow nearly $800 billion on a stimulus bill that was a monument to waste. You want to take over one-sixth of the American economy, a move opposed by nearly two-thirds of the nation, at a cost of … what is it these days, a trillion dollars? You have flushed down the toilet tens of billions on auto and mortgage bailout programs that have netted the Republic nothing. And that’s only in your first year!

And what’s NASA supposed to be doing, since it’s no longer taking us to the stars? Navel-gazing. Monitoring climate-change on Earth. The irony is almost overwhelming. We’re going to save money by not going to the Moon, but we’re going to flush down the toilet what we do spend tracking a “problem” that’s been shown to be a gigantic fraud. Head, meet brick wall.

While I applaud the plans mentioned in the original article to bring in more private contractors and I agree there’s an important role for the commercial development of the inner Solar System, I still believe we need a American space program.  I’m somewhat of a national greatness conservative; while I support the idea of limited government, there are still some areas that are legitimate Federal projects, and space exploration is one of them. A nation descended of pioneers, we need explorers to challenge the boundaries and open up to us the possibilities of “out there.” We need the jolt of national pride that comes from doing what everyone else says is impossible, like walking on the Moon. We need heroes.

Sure, it’s a romantic notion. For all the practical arguments one can make about the benefits of high tech developed through the program or of jobs provided from Alabama to California, it’s all about a kid’s dreams that came to life one day in July, 1969.

Don’t tell me kicking those to the curb is worth six-tenths of a percent.

LINKS: LowDown Central, where Lance Thompson say the President has mooned the American spirit. Pamela Geller on trillions for a hoax. Rich Trzupek – To Boldly Go Nowhere.

UPDATE: Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 co-pilot and the second man on the Moon, likes the plan.