Bart Gordon gets it

By Phil Plait | January 1, 2007 10:23 pm

Rep. Bart Gordon (D, TN’s 6th District) is the incoming chairman of the House Science Committee. He replaces the outgoing chairman Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican who was a staunch supporter of science. I’ll note I have been accused of being anti-Republican, which is not true– I am anti anti-science. I support people like Boehlert, who understand what real science is and why it’s important.

Gordon, it turns out, may be a fine replacement. I am always a little nervous when committees change hands, because things may go from good to bad (or bad to worse!), but in this case there is hope.

Rep. Gordon wrote a brief editorial for the newspaper The Tennessean. He supports NASA and the mission to return people to the Moon. But he has a caveat, and it is actually a skillfully woven single sentence that brings up two major points that I have as well:

However, we will need more specifics from NASA and the president to fully evaluate the current moon base proposal for its value, feasibility and, of course, affordability. If a return to the moon is really the president’s priority, he needs to come up with the funds required, not simply take money from NASA’s other core missions and programs.

This brings up two critical points:

  1. Money. Where will NASA fund this? As it stands, Bush gave NASA an unfunded mandate to go to the Moon and Mars. NASA bit into this wholesale, saying it could be done. And sure enough, it can, if you’re willing to sacrifice a major chunk of astronomical science. NASA has been doing just that, cancelling many missions and delaying others. This cannot stand. The only option is to increase NASA’s budget and make sure there is oversight that the money isn’t thrown down a black hole (so to speak). NASA’s budget is tiny, and this money can be found.
  2. Public outreach. When Gordon says "more specifics" I think he means that NASA needs to be more upfront on costs (they specifically avoided talking about how much a Moon base would cost in a recent press conference), but I think this could also be interpreted as simply having NASA make some sort of case for going to the Moon.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated over the NASA administration’s weak attempts at getting the public behind them on this. After years of work making plans on a new rocket to get us to the Moon, a new lander, and all that, they had and still have precious few actual webpages about why they’re doing this. I have some stuff I found (and I’ll write about it at some later date), but there has been a pretty good vacuum on any sort of public appeal for this. This needs to be done, and it needs to be done now (in fact, it needed to be done four years ago, but now will suffice). If NASA doesn’t get off its collective butt and rally support for this, the NASA admin will find the new Democratic committees won’t be all that gung ho on funding it.

I really hope that someone high up in the NASA bureaucracy reads this, or reads what Rep. Gordon is saying, and that it sinks in. If it doesn’t, putting humans back on the Moon is sunk before any metal is even cut.


Comments (27)

  1. Thanks, BA.

    Couldn’t agree more. I am glad to see any positive step in the political understanding of what science is.

  2. I’m curious (and please forgive me if you’ve already covered this material dozens of times… I’m new here), what reasons would you put forth for us to return to, and put a base on the moon?

    I have my own reasons, but they lean towards the “’cause it’s cool” side of things.

  3. Terry


    Barely on topic but somehow relevant, it seems to me that NASA has a corporate ‘either you get it or you don’t’ attitude. If you’re into astronomy, fine, but don’t expect them to try to draw you in by promoting space type endeavors. And even in the marketing department of the KSC Visitors’ Centre, the strap line seems to be ‘take it or leave it’. Back in the summer of 2005 I took a family of 5 across the Atlantic for a 2 week stay in Florida (and 3 visits to the KSC). Having bought annual passes for everyone, I would have thought KSC marketing would be talking to us from time to time, keeping in touch. Not a bit of it. They drop me an e-mail when they want me to book tickets for a launch, (where do they think I am?) or buy merchandise. We will return to KSC in August 2007 despite, not because of the efforts of their marketing people.

  4. Zachary Kessin

    It seems to me “because its cool” is not a good reason to spend a few tens of billions of dollars, better they go into actual science.

  5. jrkeller


    The vistor centers at KSC, Johnson Space Center (JSC) and at Marshall Spacelfight Center are all run by some sort of corporation. I went to KSC in 1980 and paid a whole 4$ for the entire day, including the guided tour. I notice it is 59$ now.

    I loved going to the free JSC vistor center, but once it was taken over by a corporation and Disneyfied I rarely go. Especially at 18$ a pop.

  6. Daffy

    The answer to “why?” is serendipity.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    Space, ah, the final frontier. Well, that part was understood a long time ago by many millions of people but a frontier is for PEOPLE, not just research. At our present rate of progress, we’ll still be TALKING about a moon base in the 22nd century. Yes, we need a real, well grounded, economic reason for returning to the moon and the ONLY reason that makes sense is to return something to earth we all need,,,energy!!!
    With that as a GOAL, ie, presence on Luna to begin the construction of solar collectors and power transmitters, it could be sold as something practical, even if it has really high start up costs.
    My own analyses follows in the path blazed by Dr. Gerard K. O’Nielle of Princton University over 30 years ago in which the moon is merely a source of raw materials for the construction of geosyncronous power Sats., but recent political realities have raised the argument that it might be easier to build the collectors and transmitters on the lunar surface. Hey, whatever gets the ball in motion is alright with me, even though it makes more sense to build them in permanent daylight at geo sync orbit. I understand people are uncomfortable with the idea of living/working off a planatary/moon surface. That’s just a failure of imagination but we have to start somewhere and lunar construction would produce all kinds of fallout in the realm of a permanent space presence for people and people includes astronomers,,,
    I really think NASA could push this practicality, even to suggesting that primary energy producers, such as Standard Oil Co., or the Saudiis, should get involved in the more pragmatic aspect of funding such construction. I know some might be uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging such folk who are often berated for oil spills, etc., but they are the ones with the money and construction expertise(as in Betchtel and Fluor) to undertake such large scale construction. All they really need is the permission to consider this and ready access to launch facilities. That’s where government should get involved, as the base line facilitator of the projects. Then NASA has the research expertise to lead the way.
    ,,,and serendipity will produce other good reasons, once we’re there.

    Gary 7

  8. It seems to me “because its cool” is not a good reason to spend a few tens of billions of dollars, better they go into actual science.

    It’s at least as good a reason as “there are weapons of mass destruction in the desert, hidden from us”.

  9. Cindy

    I think part of the problem is assuming that NASA will do it alone. Why not involve the rest of the world, particularly China, in going to the Moon? Also, what about the private companies involved with the X prize and Richard Branson? I’m sure they’re game.

  10. Jef Spalding

    With the fiscal mess left by the Republican majority with Bush at the helm, its easy to see why Gordon’s NASA comments are sketchy. Perhaps a future president with concern for our long term will see the importance of a government based on science instead of petrochemical big business. And if that ever happens, perhaps we will rise above the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us of nearly 50 years ago, and onto a more promising future including space exploration.

  11. I think part of the motivation behind Gordon’s waffling is that so far NASA’s rationale for a return to the moon is “because president Bush said so.”

    Putting science aside for the moment, funding for space exploration is determined by politicians. Unless some effort is made to gather bipartisan support for the program, it’s going to live or die with the Bush administration. Then there’s the problem that even though Bush made a big show of unveiling the lunar program, he hasn’t followed up on it. He’s expending very little capital (of either the political or financial kind) to support it — pretty much just dropping the initiative on the street, and walking away from it.

    Since no leadership on the issue seems to be forthcoming from the White House, maybe the change of command in congress is an opportunity here? This might be a good time to push for a science-based return to the moon, with some sort of bipartisan congressional leadership of the process.

    Either that, or we can start a rumor that Saddam hid his WMDs in Shackleton crater…


  12. james

    There is no economic case for going to the moon, nor is there is any economic case for deep space astronomy, planetary astronomy, high energy physics research or any attempt to forestall the effects of climate change.

    In the same way, there was no economic case for heavier than air flight, I mean did the Wright brothers waste their lives or what? They never made any money out of their preposterous contraption, everyone could see that it would never amount to anything!

    And the Suez canal! The arrogance to think that you could link europe and asia! No matter how profitable the trade, you could never re-coup the massive investment needed to build such a thing!

    And nothing good could ever come of trying to sail directly round the world from spain to India.

    Yup, no economic case at all.

  13. Astrogirl

    It all comes down to marketing and public relations. We astronomy/space enthusiasts “get it” when it comes to space science and exploration. However, as Phil and others have stated here, not everyone in the general public gets it. I know this, and am reminded of it daily, as I took on the task of marketing the observatory where I work part-time. Through a little time and effort, the message about the local observatory has made it into the community now more than ever before. Now we have a lot more people coming up and learning about astronomy.

    All it takes sometimes, is a little work. Get the word out. And yes, NASA, I mean you. You need to do a little more marketing and tell everyone why it’s important to go to the Moon and Mars. Not everyone today “gets it”. So please, tell them. It is a worthwhile endeavour, but that’s meaningless unless we get the public, and thus the nation, behind it.

  14. james

    Two points:

    1) Planetary astronomy, an oxymoron surely?

    2) I was going to quote the the spin off benifits of Apollo in Life-of-Brian- ‘What ‘ave the Romans ever done for us?’ style, but I couldn’t find a quick listing before I posted.
    The impulse was prompted by the short story ‘Moon Six’ by Stephen Baxter, a depressing tale about a moonwalker stranded on a parallel world where there is no space program. He becomes wealthy by patenting the devices that make up his suit, but is stuck in a world that remains in a permenant cold war malaise.

    Its a good place to point someone that asks what the benifit of going to the moon EVER was, even if the science of the story’s dino-killer villan is a bit iffy.

  15. Kaptain K

    “The answer to “why?” is serendipity.”

    I second that. And well amplified by james.

    Thomas Watson (founder of IBM) once said that he could envision a time when there would be as many as 50 computers in the world.

    When the mayor of Cleveland saw the telephone at the World’s Fair, he said “what a marvelous invention. Every city should have one.”

    Our distant descendants will wonder what took us so long!

  16. Grand Lunar

    “I really hope that someone high up in the NASA bureaucracy reads this, or reads what Rep. Gordon is saying, and that it sinks in. If it doesn’t, putting humans back on the Moon is sunk before any metal is even cut. ”

    This is what I’m most worried about concerning the return to the moon.
    I’d hate to see it get chucked for some lousy reasons, just as Apollo was.

  17. Bryan D.

    It seems to me “because its cool” is not a good reason to spend a few tens of billions of dollars, better they go into actual science.

    That reminds me of an episode of Invader Zim when he asks a Martian why they killed their entire race to turn Mars into a rocket ship, and his response was “Cuz it was coooooool.” :)

    This thing just make me wonder what would have happened if they had not canned Apollo as soon as they did, would we have Lunar bases already?

  18. MaDeR

    Dr. Surly, we’re curious species with strong tendencies to exploration and colonization. We think it is cool because evolution make us to think that. Reason is simple – this is beneficial for homo sapiens. Colonizing our solar system is investment in humanity, and so big investment returns their profits far, far in future (hundred or two years). No private company can afford it – only goverments.

  19. james

    If NASA had not canned Saturn (a good luancher is far more important than any individual payload) we would have something much more useful than moonbases-> large LEO space stations, and maybe the beginning of some form of Skyhook.

  20. james

    I think part of the problem is assuming that NASA will do it alone. Why not involve the rest of the world, particularly China, in going to the Moon? Also, what about the private companies involved with the X prize and Richard Branson? I’m sure they’re game.–

    NASA has an entreched resistance to anyone encroaching on their turf, especialy private enterprise. The thought of some small, start-up company providing reliable manned access to orbit at something close to the fuel cost would be a nightmare, because it would show that all the money has been poured into a shuttle shaped hole for the last 25 years. Now the shuttle is about to be retired, that is beginning to change, butthere really is no private space industry to work with, ESA is wracked by the same problems as NASA, the Russians are skint (and ruled by a crazy KGB man), and the Chinese program is still in it’s infancy.

  21. Melusine

    I’ve felt wishy-washy about the Moon mission for some time (not initially though). Reading John Baez’s comments on Cosmic Variance, and the links he attached, pretty much says why. (I think that thread is recommended reading.)

    I want the spacecraft more than the Moon base. I’m pro-human exploration, but I don’t want it at the expense at cutting unmanned missions. If the money can’t happen, scrap the Moon mission. I am doubtful of going to Mars for a long, long time. If I can’t feel real sure about it when I’m reading about this stuff every day, I can see why much of the public is ho-hum or not interested at all.

  22. Melusine

    Correction: I don’t want it at the expense OF cutting unmanned missions.

    Hug a rover.

  23. John Powell

    BA, I don’t get why NASA is on the hook for why _the President_ thinks we should go to the Moon and Mars. It wasn’t NASA’s idea to make it a priority. The way our system is supposed to work* is the President should be making the case to Congress, and then Congress deciding if NASA needs to get a budget increase or slash other programs.

    *Really the way its supposed to work is that NASA should suggest during the budget process what they would like to do and why. If they have a good case for a Moonbase and Mars exploration, and a dollar amount in mind, then the President can include those in his budget proposal to Congress.

  24. Robert

    What NASA should do is offer larger prizes, of up to 10 billion dollars, purchase launch flights to the Moon, and rent base facilities on the Moon.

    The first company to land 3 people on the Moon, and have them stay for two weeks, and repeat the mission within six months, should receive a prize of 10 billion dollars. Once a company has established a base on the Moon, then NASA should rent facilities on the Moon, NASA should also be required to purchase launch flights to the Moon.

    Here is what we should do on the Moon.

  25. John Powell

    {soap box}

    Q: Why should we have crewed space exploration at all, when science can be done cheaper with probes and satellites?

    A: Exploration beyond climate monitoring and comet/asteroid defense is pointless unless we are going to _live_ in space someday. Crewed exploration is the only way to learn how our descendants will live in space, whether that be in free-floating colonies, on asteroids, comets, moons or other planets.

    “The Earth is too small and fragile a basket for humanity to keep all its eggs in.”
    -Robert Heinlein

    “The dinosaurs died because they didn’t have a space program.”
    -Larry Niven

    {/soap box}

  26. brent

    don’t forget that those who really run nasa are bureaucrats. if this whole deal is defined by the president, and they don’t agree, they don’t fight him and be replaced. they do enough to look like they are with him, and wait long enough for bush to be replaced.

    it is a very old game. elected officials are temporary.

  27. L Hopper

    I for one am EXTREMELY happy that Bart Gordon is now chairman of the science committee. I live in his district and have always voted for him (note: I am a libertarian). He is the ONLY politician I know who consistantly comes home and holds town meetings. He is the only politician I know who sends some sort of response to emails/letters. And believe me, I’m contacting his office all the time–always on science issues. He really does listen to what the people have to say. I encourage you to contact his office if you feel strongly about an issue.


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