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Friday, February 01, 2008

what's in it for me?

A few weeks ago Leonard David pointed out a National Science Board report which among other things stated that
Scientific research ranks about on a par with mass transit (38%) and well ahead of space exploration (14%) and assistance to foreign countries (10%) in the proportion of the U.S. population favoring increased spending.
Leonard David called this a "kick in the head for space fans".

Well, it might be a kick in the head for NASA, but the U.S. space agency is not synonymous with "space", and the lack of enthusiasm for increased funding for NASA is not synonymous with a lack of enthusiasm for space projects.

At one time, Americans could be convinced that NASA == space, but that time is long past. When the Collier's articles by Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Fred Whipple, and others were published in 1952-54, people paid attention. When the Russians launched Sputnik, people sat up and took notice. And then came Kennedy's speech:

Well, that got people excited. And that race to the moon gave people more than the impression that NASA == space. It gave them hope - hope that one day they too could go to space. How many kids went into science and engineering because of the work that NASA did in the eight years following the Kennedy speech at Rice university? I can't quantify that, but I bet it was a lot. And, in the years during and immediately following the Apollo missions, people were excited about the apparent progress, the seemingly inexorable movement of man into space.

2001: a Space Odyssey
showed routine flights into space to a gigantic wheel-shaped space station, multiple bases on the moon, and a manned voyage to Jupiter. In 1968 these seemed plausible enough, certainly not laughable. There were proposals to build enormous space colonies ("L5 by 95!"), and it seemed as though nothing could stop us. We were going to be a spacefaring civilization, and in a hurry. In the 1960s and 1970s kids could realistically dream of a career as an astronaut.

Thirty-five years after the last man set foot on the moon, it seems that we are further than ever from becoming a spacefaring civilization - that is, at least with NASA as a driving force. NASA is in fact going backwards, struggling to recover ground that was won nearly four decades ago after having wasted the intervening period going around in circles. A kid today has a greater chance of winning the Powerball lottery than of being a NASA astronaut. Why bother doing something as hard as science or engineering if the chance of a payoff is so remote?

Why is support for NASA so low? Perhaps it is because one can only rest on one's laurels for so long. One needs to actually do something in order to engage the public and convince them that you are doing something worth their tax dollars. And, if all you are doing is putting a handful of government employees into low earth orbit a few times a year, then convincing people that you are indeed doing something worthwhile is a pretty tough sell.

I have to feel sorry for Damaris B. Sarria. She writes a blog entitled How I Am Becoming An Astronaut - and she's doing it by working for NASA. She's not in the astronaut corps yet, and it is sad to say but if NASA's present course is continued then she will never become an astronaut. The agency already has far more astronauts than it will need for the shuttle program, some of whom will never be launched into space. By the time that the Ares series of boosters is finally developed - the schedule slips by more than a year every year - NASA will have had to defend its funding and indeed the entire raison d'etre of US Space Exploration Policy through several presidential administrations and congresses. At the current rate of schedule slippage, budget woes, and obvious problems with the Ares it is a crapshoot whether NASA will even exist in 2020, never mind be sending anyone to the moon.

But, as I said, NASA is not "space". Robert Bigelow has already done something that no government space agency has ever done: he has two space stations in orbit simultaneously, right now. Elon Musk of SpaceX has developed two completely new rocket engines and begun launching rockets, from a standing start five years ago, using the amount of money that NASA consumes in about eleven days. Burt Rutan has put two people into space (only spending about what NASA spends every 14 hours), and is developing a bigger craft capable of carrying paying passengers into space as early as next summer. Google has put up a $30 million prize for a lunar robotic rover, and private companies are lining up around the block to compete for that prize. There are over 80 private space companies at my last count. And even in the realm of government space activity, the cool cutting-edge stuff isn't being done by NASA; it is being done by the Pentagon in partnership with the Space Frontier Foundation.

Support for space hasn't died; it has shifted from an increasingly irrelevant NASA to the private sector. There is a good reason for that. People can see that the private sector work in space has potential to offer them. There's something in it for them - they once again have the possibility of going to space themselves. They have the possibility of making money on space. And, they don't need to go through an ossified government space agency whose glory days were over before most people alive today were even born. It is no wonder that support for increasing NASA's budget is so low.

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