Congress threatens America's future in space

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July 14 2011 6:30 AM

Congress threatens America's future in space

One of the most aggravating things about having a representative government is dealing with the consequences of the choices they make.

We don't get a direct vote on how money is spent, but we vote for the people who do. And sometimes they don't make the best choices. Shocking I know, but just how bad these choices can be sometimes doesn't hit home until those consequences come home to roost.

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!  


In a week, one of those choices is literally coming home: on July 21st, Atlantis will land for the last time, and the choices made for us over the past few years mean that we have no rocket system to take its place.

I'll iterate once again that the Shuttle was canceled by Bush, and the followup rocket system, Constellation, was canceled by Obama when it was clearly over budget and behind schedule, and given the circumstances it was also very unclear it would perform as promised. I think both these decisions were correct.

Right now, the House of Representatives is making decisions about the future of NASA, and it's looking like a 9% cut is in the works. That's not written in stone; the Senate has to put together their version of the budget and then work with the House on compromises. That'll be fun, given the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican House.

In the meantime, the House subcommittee in charge of NASA's funds recommended totally cutting the budget for Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. The House committee above them approved it on Wednesday. So that decision to axe JWST will go into the House budget bill.


Starving NASA of funds is a really bad idea. NASA money goes toward our future in space, toward the advancement of technology, toward breakthroughs in science, toward supporting smart people who literally are designing our future. NASA also pays off, with our investment of money coming back multiplied many times over in new technology and business opportunities (like private space companies).

Investing in space is investing in our future.

Steve D at Mad Art Lab points out that we spend $70 billion dollars a year on lottery tickets, with the overwhelming statistical likelihood that all you'll win is a piece of paper to recycle. I like to point out that we as Americans spend five times as much on tobacco products every year as we do on NASA. That's a fact, and it's meant to point out the bad decisions we make - we spend 20% as much money on exploring the final frontier as we do on an addictive compound that causes cancer.

Now, I've had some people say that that's an individual choice, not one imposed on us by Congress. OK, that's fair enough. But what does the government spend money on?

I'll let the one of my favorite satirical web comics, "The Pain - When Will It End", make that point for me:

Click to see the whole thing. I'm not saying we shouldn't fight terrorists... but I suspect the money we spent doing it wasn't used with 100% efficiency.

We as individuals make a lot of dumb choices, but Congress makes choices by our proxy. If we don't tell them these are not the choices we want them to make, they will continue to make bad ones.

We can tell them through mail, through phone calls, and, most importantly, at the voting booth. And we have an election year coming up.

On July 21st, when Atlantis sets wheels down on Earth, it will be the anniversary to the very day that Neil Armstrong set foot on another world. I'm hoping that the short sightedness of Congress won't trip up our next giant leap.

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