President Obama's NASA budget unveiled

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Feb. 1 2010 11:06 AM

President Obama's NASA budget unveiled

NASA logoAs promised, today President Obama released his planned NASA budget for the year. Not too surprisingly, it's pretty much as the rumors indicated. There's a lot to say here, and I have a lot on my mind, so please hear me out.

The Good News

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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The good news for sure is an increase of $6 billion over the next five years. It stresses new technology and innovation (to the tune of over $1.5 billion), which is also good. A lot of NASA's successes have been from pushing the limits on what can be done. It also stresses Earth science, which isn't surprising at all; Obama appears to understand the importance of our environmental impact, including global warming. So that's still good news.

The very very good news is that half that money -- half, folks, 3.2 billion dollars -- is going to science. Yeehaw! The release specifically notes telescopes and missions to the Moon and planets. That, my friends, sounds fantastic.

Bye bye Constellation

Now to the other aspects of this budget. As I have written before, this new budget axes Constellation:

NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration...

[Emphasis mine.]

I can't say I disagree with much that's written there. A lot of it is based on the conclusions of the Augustine commission, a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by Obama to look into NASA's future plans and make recommendations.

The Space Station

The budget calls for extending the International Space Station beyond the 2016 timeline, perhaps for four more years. I would say this is a bad idea, BUT the budget also asks for extending the ISS's scientific capabilities. I would be happy to see that; ISS is very limited as a science platform. However, the dang thing is already built and in orbit, so it makes sense to spend a little bit more (I was surprised to see only about $180 million for this) to make it useful scientifically. If that becomes the case, then a lot of the issues I have with ISS go away.

Incidentally, the budget calls for a guaranteed $600 million for the next five Shuttle missions to ISS, even if a launch slips into FY11.

Back to the Moon?

So, where does this leave us as far as going back to the Moon? It leaves us delayed, again. That sucks. However, as I have pointed out before, Constellation was already a mess. Behind schedule, over budget, and starved of funding. It was a mandate from the Bush White House, but never got the money it needed from them or Congress to ensure it could be done (this didn't work when it was attempted from the Bush Sr. White House/Congress either).

I don't want a repeat of the Apollo program: a flag-and-footprints mission where we go there, look around, and then come home for another 40 years. I want to go there and stay there. Apollo was done as a race, and the goal of a race is to win. It wasn't sustainable. We need to be able to figure out how to get there and be there, and that takes more than just big rockets. We need a good plan, and I'm not really sure what we had up until this point is that plan.

Building a heavy-lift rocket that can take us to the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids is not really easy. It's not like we can dust off the old Saturn V plans and start up the factories again. All that tech is gone, superseded, and we might as well start from scratch with an eye toward newer tech. This budget is calling for that, as well as relying heavily on private companies.

Commercial space

And about that. I'll say this again: private companies have not yet put a man in orbit, but Space X, as an example, is close to doing so. Once the Shuttle retires later this year, private companies will be putting humans in space before NASA will have the capability to do so again [UPDATE: please see my comment below; the above statement about companies beating NASA is correct]. I am no fan of paying the Russians or other countries to do this for us, and going the route of civilian space makes sense.

Now, Space X doesn't have the heavy lift capacity that an Ares 5 or other planned NASA rocket might have had... but with routine launches to space covered by private companies, NASA can concentrate on what it should: innovation, pushing the limits, paving the road. Once the road is laid, let others use it.

So I don't see this as doom and gloom. I see this as 1) putting science and innovation first, and 2) freeing NASA up to do what it does best: explore the boundaries.

Here's what I think. Warning: political complaining ahead.

Remember: the way we've been doing things for 40 years has gotten us literally in circles. It's perhaps long past time to shake things up and try something different. In my previous posts on this (see Related Posts at the bottom), people are complaining that Obama is killing our Moon plans and gutting NASA. That's simply not true. I think this may very well save NASA and our future manned exploration capabilities, if this is all done correctly.

As for that, and having said my piece that I think this is a good idea, it may not matter: the other thing to remember is that this must pass Congress first. I honestly don't think that will happen. For one thing, two many Congresscritters have too big a stake in NASA to let go; if you don't believe me, read this article where Alabama Congressmen complain about the new budget. When Republicans whine about privatizing something, you know you're in for a fight, and it's not like Congressional Democrats haven't been all that useful in backing up Obama's plans.

We'll see how this goes. If it's business as usual with Congress, then I suspect it may be a lot like the health care plan all over again: lots of spin and noise, lots of knee-jerk reactions because it's Obama's plan, lots of "compromise" that's really just watering down something to make it worse, and then a budget will be passed that won't be able to get anything done.

I'm pretty damn tired of that, and I'm going to do something about it. I'll write my Congressmen, and I'll tell them that the time for bending over backwards is long gone. It's time to grow a spine, time for boldness, time for innovation. Whether people like it or not, this is the new budget being proposed, and if Congress wheedles over it, then yeah, NASA really will be screwed, and we'll spend the next four decades circling our planet and gazing at the Moon, wondering when we'll ever go back.

Perhaps it's fitting that this news is released on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia -- it's been seven years since that day when the orbiter broke up upon re-entry. A very good case can be made that complacence played a big role in that event. When it comes to space exploration, we must never rest on our laurels, we must never have the arrogance to think we have it all under control, and we must never forget that to explore means to push ahead into unknown territory. That is the lesson of Columbia.

The Moon, Mars, and all of space await us. This new budget may not be perfect, but I strongly suspect it's the best we can do, and far, far better than the course we currently have laid out. If we don't push for this now, we may never go back.

A ship may be safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are for.

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