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Saturday, July 9, 2011

IS THIS THE END OF NASA?

Atlantis was the final Space Shuttle launch.  Finally!  I've long felt that this effort was a long bridge primarily to maintain a significant NASA budget (through effective lobbying by aerospace firms--mainly Boeing and Lockheed Martin), and was largely irrelevant.  Yes, there was something useful about inspiring our youth and keeping America at the cutting edge of progress.  Yet, at a cost of $1.5 billion per shot, this was about twice the annual renewable energy budget for the U.S. Department of Energy through the Clinton and both Bush Administrations.  Can you imagine if this $200 billion sum had instead been invested in sustainable resources options from 1972?  Where would the world be today?

Officially, the Space Transportation System (the official name) was initiated by President Richard Nixon almost 40 years ago, with the first orbit attained by Columbia thirty years ago.  This is the spacecraft that in 2003, at the age of 24, broke up on reentry and killed all seven astronauts (left).  The second shuttle, Challenger, was only four years old when in 1986 it exploded on ascent, also killing seven astronauts (right).  The other three shuttles were Discovery (1983), Atlantis (1985) and Endeavor (1991)  There were 130 total missions.

My early exposure to this program was that, in the planning for the shuttle, a few graduate students outside my biolaser lab at Louisiana State University in 1970 were experimenting with foam tiles.  I expressed astonishment that our next generation spacecraft was to return from orbit with glued on foam tiles as the protective skin.  I couldn't believe this was what the best minds could conceive. 

Earlier in 1969 I saw Apollo 11, the Moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the pad when I visited Cape Canaveral.  I was not there for that launch, but later, at a distance of about ten miles, saw a couple of them take off.  Television does not capture the incredible noise and ground vibration even at that distance.

In the early to mid-seventies I spent a couple of summers with NASA Ames close to the Stanford Campus.  Much of my time focused on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (chapter 4 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity), but I also participated in a committee to write a report on the spinoffs from space R&D.  We easily came up with a ten to one advantage of civilian benefits over research spending.  Part of this ploy was that some of NASA work "contributed" to commercial products and services.  This is almost like stores advertising that everything in the store is up to 90% off, when only one item might be so.  The reality of NASA spinoffs could well be closer to a 1:10 benefit, not 10:1, so watch it when you read about NASA.  So, no, no, no, no, no, no...NASA did not invent teflon, velcro, bar codes, power tools, nor the MRI.

The NASA Apollo Project, which cost around $23 billion (maybe $150 billion in today's dollar), however, was absolutely essential, for this success forced the hand of the Soviet Union to overspend on defense and space, ultimately resulting in the end of the Cold War.  The problem now for NASA is there is no Soviet Union.  Some day, when China sends up what defense spin specialists can successfully publicize to be provocative to our security, only then will NASA again regain any kind of prominence.

So is this the end of NASA?  Of course not.  The danger to these priorities is that the same military-industrial complex remains as effective lobbyists.  When you add the fact that every state gets some NASA money, you can be certain that members of Congress will continue to support the budget.    NASA's annual budget of $18 billion this year should drop, and should be halved in a decade, but I would not be surprised if the basic core, and more, will remain forever.  Which is not unreasonable, for this is less than 1% of the Federal budget, and there remains a scientific role for the Administration.  

Certainly wind down the International Space Station (which cost $150 billion, mostly American money, and did not "spin-off" even one successful commercial project) and the Hubble Telescope.  Go easy on those major missions.  The Mars Science Laboratory, for example, to do nothing much more than what was already done before, will cost $2.3 billion.  For now, certainly, forget Man on the Moon again, and, heavens, don't even think about Man on Mars for another century or more.

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