According to the Washington Post, the House is looking at NASA's budget today. I reported last week that the budget came out of committee, so it will go to the floor of the House today or soon thereafter for debate and a vote.
The problem is, some Representatives are threatening to cut NASA's budget, and cut it pretty savagely. I've been reporting a lot on Republican efforts to suppress and distort science lately, but this time I'm coming down on the Democrats.
They are looking to take as much as 700 million dollars out of the Vision for Space Exploration, which is the project to put people on the Moon and Mars. The Post quotes Barney Frank:
"It's a complete and total waste of money," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "The manned shot to Mars is a pure boondoggle."
I disagree with him; in fact, I would go so far as to state that's a truly dumb thing for him to say. Let me be clear: I am not a huge fan of putting humans on Mars soon. It's a very hard problem, and one we are nowhere near understanding. We need to take this carefully, step-by-step. The first step is being able to get back into space. The second is to explore the Moon robotically. The third is to put people there. The fourth is to keep them there. The fifth is to to study the long-term effects of space on humans (there is a lot of data there, but not enough). The sixth is to figure out how to get people to Mars, then from there how they stay and survive. Those last two steps are very long ones indeed.
Many of these steps can be done concurrently. But NASA is still figuring out how to go to the Moon (oh, let's be honest-- NASA is still trying to figure out how to get into space at all), and it's too soon to seriously work on Mars. The groundwork, so to speak, needs to be done first.
But a "complete and total waste of money"? That's crap. Putting money now into the effort means we can figure it out later, and will spur technology and all sorts of other industry, as it always has. Frank is wrong here, wrong and talking through his hat.
Also, by going to the Moon we'll learn vast amounts on how to go to Mars. Cutting the VSE means hurting, crippling, or destroying going back to the Moon, and let me assure you that is not a boondoggle. It's the next logical step in space exploration, and not only can we do it, we can do it in the timetable NASA set up if it's supported correctly.
Now I fear for that support.
The Post mentions that NASA lost a spokesman in Tom Delay, and they're right. He fought hard for NASA, not the least reason for which was that Johnson Space Center was in his district. But let me be clear here: Delay is as crooked as Lombard Street, and while I want NASA to get what they need, I'd rather they didn't have to rely on Delay to get it. They'll have to make other friends in Congress.
But those friends may be hard to find. Unfortunately, to make matters worse, the bill covers a huge amount of funding ground, including wages for police, meaning funding could be shuffled quite a bit.
We'll see how this pans out. With the Shuttle launch just days away, I wish this bill could be delayed until next week. If wishes were horses... well, Apollo 18, 19, and 20 would be on the Moon, and not collecting dust in museums. The decision Congress makes on this bill may very well have such far-reaching consequences.
Afterthought: the bill may still pass the House, but will need to be reconciled with the Senate's version coming later this summer as well. Even if this House bill goes poorly, there may still be hope. But that hope will be amplified if this goes well for NASA. In the meantime, contact your Reps!