When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?
Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?
Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.
However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
The Ying and the Yang of a Space Exploration Crisis
So, what should the US administration do with the space program during an international economic crisis?
A: Make cutbacks, save money and ride out the storm.
B: Boost science and research funding, invest in innovation to provide a viable future investment.
If you chose A, that appears to be the root of NASA. If you chose B, that reflects the recent decision by the European member states to fully-fund the European Space Agency for 2009. It is the ying and yang of space funding policy. On the one hand, there is politically motivated (short-sighted) budget cuts regardless of the importance of the endeavour. On the the other hand, there is the “investment in the future” mindset.
Granted, we are talking about two very different space agencies. NASA is a government agency, ESA is a multinational organization. NASA is politically motivated, ESA less so. NASA’s budget dwarfs the ESA budget. These may be important factors, but the President-elect transition team should be looking beyond US shores for an answer to the current space exploration crisis.
So why a “crisis”? Am I jumping on the media hyped world in crisis scenario? After all, we have the mortgage crisis, the economic crisis, the Iraq/Afghanistan crisis, environment crisis, stock market crisis, healthcare crisis, employment crisis… the list is endless. However, not once have I ever heard that there was an impending “space exploration crisis”, or even a “science crisis” (I’d argue the science crisis has been rolling for the past decade in the West – misinformation rules. Case and point the Evolution/Creationism debate… debate? There’s a debate?).
A crisis is often viewed as a short-lived event that will eventually be fixed. The housing markets will recover (in one way or another; note “recover” and not “boom”), we’ll eventually get troops out of Iraq, the stock markets will continue to wax and wane; in short, the things that are causing the most panic right now will eventually right themselves. History has shown that us humans, although vulnerable to economic panic, have the recurring ability to bounce back to equilibrium. Sometimes it can get messy, but we usually get through it.
President-elect Barack Obama has hinted many times that he intends to cut NASA’s budget in some way. At first it was to pay for education reform, a worthy cause, but now it seems that NASA’s plan to get man back to the Moon, and then Mars, was hopelessly flawed from the start. Obama’s transition team are noticing the cracks and they will have to react. NASA cannot build an entirely new launch system and fund an aggressive manned planetary exploration campaign without a huge injection of capital. As the Apollo Project taught us in the 1960′s, there needs to be a huge political impetus to free up funds for manned spaceflight. Back then, the impetus was Communism and the Cold War. Today, what is the political impetus? To get man into space because “it’s there”? To show the world the US space agency can still make the planet vibrate with the biggest and most powerful rocket system built by man? To explore space because that’s what we should do? Unfortunately, President Bush’s vision for manned spaceflight isn’t backed up with the promise of increased funding, and that is what is required to make Constellation work.
If the US had a viable enemy to demoralize, it would be a slam-dunk for NASA when asking for a cash injection. The argument would be: We need a strategic base on the Moon, and we need to build an infrastructure in space for the first manned mission to Mars. This would have the political goal of “beating the other guy”. As my grandfather used to say, politics is a game of “my stick is bigger than yours.” And William Berry would be 100% right.
Take the Iraq war for example. To stem the actions of international state-funded terror, President Bush set forth a campaign of “shock and awe” to intimidate this faceless evil. It wasn’t the fact the Allies had the technological advantage of dropping bombs through toilet windows in downtown Baghdad, it was the overwhelming firepower by which we hinged our plan of victory. Did it work? Well, yes, for a short time. As to why the region is still in a mess five years on? I’ll leave that debate for history to decide.
The point is, the White House and Congress requires a goal to be achieved to free up funds. Until that happens, NASA will just be “another government agency”. Currently, no other nation can match the US in technological or strategic advantage. The USA is the world’s only superpower, her strength is global, with military bases spread throughout every continent. When you sit in the #1 spot for long enough, you can afford to be a little complacent, but just be aware competition for that #1 slot can appear from nowhere and could snatch a critical strategic advantage from you at any moment.
Alas, should NASA’s budget be eroded any further, that strategic advantage could be low-Earth orbit and, potentially, the Moon. It’s one thing dominating the globe, but if China or Russia leapfrogs the US for a dominance in the Solar System, it could spell disaster for the world’s only superpower and could spark a situation more reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961. Think about it, rather than having nuclear weapon silos appear off the coast of Florida, other nations could operate with impunity in the space above the US. This might not be a reality now, but who knows what is going to happen in ten years.
Political Incentive for Manned Access to Space
Whether we like it or not, politics is deeply ingrained in the mindset of space exploration. Fortunately there is an emerging commercial motivation behind the exploration of space, but the key to a nations success in space is still in the hands of government agencies. Government-funded agencies are subject to political decisions, so world events and international relations directly influence our endeavours in space.
NASA’s future is on a knife-edge and this could severely damage the US future in space. To depend on another nation for manned access to the space station beyond 2010 is not a solution to the Shuttle decommissioning, it is a quick fix with huge problems. Delaying (or cancelling) the completion of the Constellation Project would be a disaster to the future of the US, and not only in space. There will be severe ramifications for a lack of space exploration development; economic, political and sociological, many of which we will not be able to predict until they happen.
Unfortunately, NASA lacks the political incentive to push into space. Simply telling Congress that it is essential to maintain (and indeed advance) manned spaceflight is not enough. As a manned spaceflight advocate, I’d argue that it is a priority to get man back to the Moon and then onto Mars, for the long-term survival of our species (I’m not a big fan of putting all my eggs in one basket, i.e. Earth). Alas, this isn’t how politics works. Such a proposition will be viewed with complacency and short-term (4-year) thinking. How would such an endeavour help the current administration? Not a lot, but as a long-term goal of survival, we need to find ways to unlock funds allocated to more pressing concerns.
Manned exploration, and colonization, of the Solar System is mankind’s next step of evolution, but without recognition of the benefits to the US and mankind as a whole, NASA’s budget will always be up for review and eroded until a political answer is found.
Let’s just hope it’s not too late for NASA, and let’s hope Obama’s transition team can see past the mismanagement allegations blighting the space agency. I hope the value of manned spaceflight is realised for the long-term health of the economy (as ESA has pointed out) and the long-term survival of mankind.
For more on NASA’s transition turmoil, check out my Universe Today article What About the Space Exploration Crisis? NASA Budget Could be Cut to Save Money.