Obama and NASA
Recently I was accosted by a young couple on the street in Anacortes, Washington. They were campaigning to have President Obama impeached. I took the time to ask why, and they responded that his recent decisions regarding NASA, especially his removal of a lunar base from the agenda and the cancellation of the boosters needed for that program, could kill NASA. Having been interested in this issue since the creation (of NASA), I naturally donned my Socratic persona and asked a series of questions:
Did they think that NASA was doing a good job on booster development, since all evidence suggested the Ares program was way over budget and behind schedule? Yes, they did.
Did they think that NASA’s designing and building of boosters in the past had been a great success? Yes again. They cited the Saturn 1 and Saturn 5, which were of course designed by the former Army Redstone Arsenal team that had recently been moved into NASA as Marshall Space Flight Center. The Saturns, moreover, were built by industry, not NASA.
They also approved of the Space Shuttle, a creature that I was astonished to find still had some public appeal after all its shortcomings have become public news. The STS hardware was, however, designed and built by industry in response to very different NASA and Air Force specifications, a sort of hybridized offshoot of a moving van and a sports car.
Did they think there were things NASA did exceptionally well? They fumbled about, but when I suggested basic technology development, astronomy, and Solar System exploration as examples, they agreed enthusiastically. I pointed out that this good science and technology stuff was a few percent of the NASA budget. The lion’s share of the budget has long gone to manned spaceflight (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, STS, ISS, and the abortive Lunar Base).
They were appalled that the Space Shuttle was being phased out. I suggested that the STS had a compromised design process, a depressing fatality record, serious metal fatigue problems, and a huge budget. They still loved it. I asked whether they supported manned exploration of space, and they of course said yes. Socrates Jr. then asked, “When was the last time humans explored anything new in space?” After a bit of consideration, they stipulated that exploration ceased with the end of the Apollo program. If so, I asked, why transfer their love for Apollo to a program that can’t get a person out of Low Earth Orbit? (BTW, several polls have shown that many people believe that the Space Shuttle routinely flies to the Moon.)
Finally, I asked them what they thought of privatization of launch services, putting governmental payloads on launches on boosters designed by private industry and marketed competitively. They laughed uproariously, painting Richard Branson as a wealthy nut case riding an outlandish hobby horse. When I pointed out that the cost of the energy needed to put a pound of payload into orbit was less than 50 cents, and that there was a lot of room for improvement over present STS launch costs of about $10,000 per pound, they simply didn’t believe me.
I suppose that at some level they recognized that having a giant National Goal is a recipe for the continuing existence of NASA, protecting it from brutal dismemberment by the wolves that prowl the corridors of Washington, and assuring political support from Congressmen whose distracts are home to large, wealthy aerospace corporations. But couldn’t we have a NASA that spends less and accomplishes more? Maybe such a NASA would have greater public appeal than one driven by corporate campaign contributions.