Helping save the planetary space program

By Phil Plait | July 27, 2012 7:00 am

You won’t hear this from me much, but sometimes, just sometimes, I really love Congress. Especially my own Representative, Jared Polis (D-CO). Here’s why.

A few months ago, President Obama and the White House came out with their 2013 budget for NASA. There were a lot of cuts, but most devastating was a $300 million slashing of the planetary sciences budget – a huge 20% reduction in funding. The Mars program alone got cut nearly 40%.

The planetary science community felt betrayed, and took action. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the Pluto New Horizons probe, organized a "NASA bake sale/shoe shine" to raise public awareness of what NASA and planetary exploration does. Here in Boulder (where Alan and I both live) we had a couple of stands set up, and we gave out information about the program. We also had pre-printed letters to key Congresscritters supporting a return of NASA’s planetary exploration budget to previous levels – people signed those, we collected them, and then sent them to our Congressman, Jared Polis.

Representative Polis then delivered them to those other Reps.

I hadn’t heard anything in a while, and then out of the blue, I get this tweet from Rep. Polis:

It says, "@BadAstronomer I gave shoe-shine letters 2 Reps Wolf & Schiff/their response I’m a better Congressman than videographer"

The link goes to a YouTube video he made, and here it is:

How flipping awesome is that? The two Congressmen are Frank Wolf (R-VA 10th District) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank – gotta love his website with the Griffith Observatory in LA as his banner!). I’m thrilled they took the time to respond and to appear on Rep. Polis’s video. I am very thankful for their support, and I hope they can reinstate NASA’s budget. I’ll note I got a letter from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as well, sending her support. While I disagree with her over private space efforts like SpaceX, I’m glad to see her supporting NASA.

We need to explore. We must explore. It’s part of what makes us human: our curiosity, our need to know, and our compulsion to understand. It’s how we learn, and while we don’t always know what we will learn, we do know that more knowledge is always better. And sometimes those investigations pay off multiple-fold.

Regular readers know I have my issues with this Congress. But here we see three Representatives and one Senator supporting NASA, and that’s a difficult stance these days on Capitol Hill. I again thank them, and hope that in the coming year and those after, NASA receives the money it needs to do what it needs: explore the Universe.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

Comments (27)

  1. Woody Tanaka

    Oh, I’m sure that the private sector will pick up the slack, right? Isn’t that we heard about “SpaceX”? That the private sector can do the same things faster, more cheaply and more Atlas-Shrugged-ishly than the government ever could? So why not just cut NASA’s budget to $0 let “the market” decide. I’m sure these companies would jump right in. (Unless, of course, all they’re about is socializing the costs of space and privatizing the profits…)

  2. Wzrd1

    I honestly wish that at least 1/3 of the DoD budget would be shifted to NASA. Imagine if our investment in NASA were increased by such a huge amount!

    I’ll also risk incurring wrath by saying that I conditionally agree with Sen. Hutchinson. Space-X is so-called commercial due to the fact that they have YET to offer commercial service in the form of actual paid launches. They so far have only launch contracts.
    Yes, I know they’re still at the later part of R&D, but the fact is, they’re a privately funded company that has yet to release a functional product. They look highly promising, to give faint praise. If I had the money to spare, I’d even invest in them!
    But, so far, no product. Commercial companies exist to generate revenue, the only revenue they’ve generated is down payments on future launches. The prospects look good for future launches.

    I also tend to agree with her, though I’m uncertain IF this is her view, in that NASA leads in space research. Period. Again, companies exist to make money. Studying Mars doesn’t make money. Studying the moon doesn’t make money. Studying Titan doesn’t make money. Hence, there is zero motivation for a company to do so. Meanwhile, when NASA spends money on said research, NASA sub-contracts out and research is performed by companies, as THAT makes money for them, so does building rockets and satellites.

    Now, what could spur nations to develop technology that is used for space flight? Note the rocket research in the US, USSR and PRC. It progressed in near lockstep with ICBM research. Indeed, said research is dual use. The Apollo program was first proposed over fear that the USSR would put nuclear weapons on a lunar base. That notion is preposterous, as targeting is obscenely complicated, early warning is absurdly long and getting the massive things from Earth to the moon insanely expensive, but that was the fear at the time.
    Later, the fear was forgotten, once it was known to be beyond impractical, but then, the moon race was fully on and the reason for it forgotten.
    Lunar landings became so routine that news networks were quoted as saying that NASA lunar missions were now as exciting as “a family trip to Pittsburgh”.
    Personally, I agree, until Apollo 13, lunar flights WERE about as eventful as a trip to Pittsburgh from my native Philadelphia. I tip my hat to those in NASA who worked so diligently to make them so!
    And I sincerely miss the hard science done at the end of the Apollo program, far too many questions still remain about our moon. Far too many questions remain in space science overall.
    But, the US has a long history of finding new ordinance more interesting than new science.

    And no, I’m not anti-military. Indeed, I’m a military retiree. So, I DO know how much money we waste in things military and also know of the necessity of a military.
    But, if asked if I want a new model artillery piece for the Army or a scientific research, I’ll go for the research every time. A new aircraft for the Air Force? Possibly, the technology CAN be dual use for space boosting…
    So, I say, explore or stagnate!

  3. Peter Davey

    With regard to the question of making money, I am willing to bet that studying the environment of a world such as Titan, so different from our own, would be likely to turn up a number of financial opportunities.

    Some of you may have read G Harry Stine’s “The Third Industrial Revolution”, outlining some of the financial opportunities involved in reasonable ease of access to a zero-gravity environment.

    Some of the greatest voyages of exploration in human history were based on the search for profit – the spice trade, the fur trade, the silk trade, and so on.

    Those Chinese voyages down the east coast of Africa were not in search of profit – the Chinese believing that that they had everything they could possibly want – and ended up being cancelled – there not being a large enough faction at the Imperial Court with an interest in their continuing.

    “Those who learn nothing from history may not get a chance to repeat it.”

  4. Mark

    glad efforts are being made to achieve a robust NASA budget. so many short-sighted congressman. i agree that leaving this type of thing to private concerns is a mistake. keep up the fight on this.

  5. Denver7M

    @wzrd1- I honestly wish that at least 1/3 of the DoD budget would be shifted to NASA. Imagine if our investment in NASA were increased by such a huge amount!

    Be very careful what you wish for. Realize that there are millions of jobs at stake here. Huge numbers of local economies depend on the money coming from service members and contractors that work at bases and installations in cities all over this country. You can’t just slash and move a budget that big, it would have to be carefully planned and executed over many many years to avoid catastophic economic consquences.

    I have been in the defense industry for 30 years and believe me, I know that there is a great deal of waste and that we probably could reduce the defense budget by 1/3 if people could look at it with some common sense and leave politics out of the equation. However, you smart readers here know as well as I do that in this day and age, politics has become a dirty and contentious business. EVERYTHING has become politicized to the point where the government of this country is completely frozen into a childish and moronic inability to compromise. Until we can somehow get past this era of political brinksmanship, I don’t hold out much hope for significant progress.

    Phil, I applaud you and the others involved in this effort as it shows that at least to some extent, the voice of the people can still be heard by our Washington leadership. I very much hope you are successful. The Space Program is one of the most honorable and awe-inspiring endeavours in the world today. Anything we can do to keep it active and in the public eye is worth doing.


  6. gopher65

    Wzrd1: Actually, SpaceX has already launched one commercial mission. They were contracted to launch a satellite for the government of Malaysia, and did.

    Their next launch *should* include the launch of a small satellite for MDA (a Canadian company) and 2 small prototype communications sats for Orbcomm. Depending on NASA’s go-ahead, the sats will either be launched as secondary payloads on the next two upcoming CRS missions, or, if NASA (as the primary customer for those two launches) vetoes that, a separate launch.

  7. gopher65

    Denver7M: According to every economist ever, X amount of military spending creates far fewer jobs than X amount of just about any other type of spending. This applies to both public and private spending, BTW. It isn’t a government thing, but rather is due to the nature of military spending.

    During peace time you’re pretty much paying people to stand around and look tough while not actually producing any economic activity (beyond basic activity like eating, driving, flying, etc, but they’d be doing most of that in other jobs anyway). Also, things like tanks and stealth fighters have a tendency not to be destroyed in battle, but rather to get junked after their useful lifetime comes and goes.

    Even during WWII the US produced far, far more equipment than it was ever able to send to the front lines. Most of that was tossed into the ocean after the war, because they considered it too dangerous to sell. So you have a double loss: unproductive soldiers (I don’t mean they’re lazy, I mean they’re not working in factories or designing iPhones), and unproductive manufacturing (tanks, etc being produced and not put to good use before being decommissioned).

    Obviously the reason we tolerate this tremendous loss of productivity is due to the work that militaries due during time of war. We (well, most people) consider defense important enough that we’re willing to take the economic loss, and therefore we maintain a standing military.

    But the fact remains that peacetime military spending is incredibly harmful to the economy of every country that engages in it. If you are spending tax money just for the sake of creating jobs, the best bang for your buck will be two things: 1)long term research and 2)general infrastructure construction. Nearly everything else is a waste of money, from an economic growth perspective.

    That leads us to another interesting fact: even today, the US military is said to be more powerful than the combined forces of the entire rest of the world – including their allies. That seems… excessive. The US military could probably maintain total supremacy with 1/4 of their current budget, even with their wasteful spending. But why take the risk? Why not 1/2 military spending instead, and maintain a huge lead? Heck, why not 3/4 military spending, and maintain an even bigger lead? That final option would leave 1/4 of the US military budget to be redirected. This year that’d be, what? A bit over 100 billion dollars? That money could easily be directed toward a program like NASA, and we’d all reap huge rewards if it were. Imagine a NASA with 120 billion a year to spend instead of 18. :)

    But that’s not going to happen any time soon:P.

  8. Denver7M

    Gopher65- The DoD is responsible for far more than just the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines and all their gear. I actually wasn’t thinking of that so much as I was referring to the Intel Community and the vast resources it employs along with the millions of honest decent people who’s skills are very specific to that industry.
    In order to cut the budget the way you are talking about, those people would have to be re-trained to do other work. Should they be on the hook to pay for that themselves after giving years of service (in some cases a lifetime) to their country? And what do they live on in the mean time? I’m just saying we need to be practical here, ok?

  9. Wzrd1

    Denver7M: I’ve served for over 27 years in the military. I contracted after that for 5. I’m well aware of the economics involved, economics that could trivially be shifted to manufacturing and supporting space research and space flight.
    Then, I consider the warehouses I saw, filled completely with state of the art networking equipment that went unused, only to be sold at DRMO at a massive loss at the end of the fiscal year. Then, replaced and the cycle continues even to this very day.
    Granted, it keeps the network equipment companies in cash, but at the expense of the entire nation! It is the equivalent of the above mentioned pushing war surplus equipment into the ocean (I personally knew a man who was part of that disposal during his redeployment home from the Pacific Theater after WWII). Or more interestingly, a practice described by Orwell in his treatment of Oceania’s war economy.
    Meanwhile, the US Army griped over not getting a new cannon. A cannon that currently serves zero purpose and indeed, would replace quite functional units that are equally accurate. The US Air Force wanted new stealth aircraft, with no current threat that they would be a response to.
    So, if I were to “waste” money, I’ll “waste” it in research, in particular scientific research, as the ROI has always been great for our nation.
    Indeed, Ronald Reagan wanted to have a nation full of engineers and scientists. It was suggested that our economy gear toward an R&D economy, let other nations do the manufacturing. Instead, Bush Sr went with the service economy and let other nations do the manufacturing.
    But, the American anti-intellectual habit is a hard habit to break, as it’s been part and parcel of our national psyche since shortly after our nation’s inception. Hence, our low scores in math and science. Hence our long history of being behind in medical advances (it was especially critical during the civil war, we’re STILL behind Europe in many areas). Hence why Europe has a LHC but we shut down our largest colliders.

  10. biologist

    How about renaming Cape Canaveral to Cape Woebegone until the budget is restored? That would mark the further decline: it was Cape Kennedy as long as the Apollo moon program lived, and then named Cape Canaveral. With these budget cuts, Cape Woebegone is the right name!

  11. This post illustrates the dangers of focusing too much on a single issue when judging representatives in Congress.

    Adam Schiff supposedly represents my district here in Pasadena. He is a tool, totally in the pocket of the region’s military industry (which is HUGE). Schiff never met a war he didn’t like because he knows it brings more bucks to his handlers.

    He dismisses the views of his citizen constituents and routinely uses his phoney staged “town hall” meetings to give the appearance of concern, all the while doing the exact opposite back in Washington.

    No way would I consider him even remotely heroic, no matter what he does for NASA’s budget.

  12. Kaviani

    That’s great temporary news, but NASA is still firmly leashed by the Feds and will always be struggling vs DoD and priorities will always be dictated from the outside. You know this.

    As for boohissing the private sector for doing no exploration, I suppose Virgin Galactic, Planetary Resources, and Spaceflight Inc are just looking cute? Give them a year, you’ll be surprised.

  13. SLC

    Just a minor correction but Frank Wolf is a congresscritter from Virginia, not California.

  14. Keith Hearn

    It’s nice to see reps from both sides of the aisle agreeing on anything. I wish it would happen more often.

  15. People are simply not scared enough.
    So here goes:

    If that doesn´t make them support NASA I don´t know what will.
    (Fun fact: looking at a rerun of Armageddon on SBS6 on dutch tv).

  16. krdors4

    Wzrd1: I hope you understand me when I say that I take your anecdotal evidence with a grain of salt(as you should mine, we are on a skeptical blog, no?). I served in the army and now the department of transportation as an engineer, and I can say, without a doubt, that the waste I see in the DOT dwarfs anything I ever saw in the military. So by all means lets slash and burn the military budget, but don’t pretend like other federal agencies (including NASA, JWST anyone?) are sterling examples of budget efficiency.

  17. We needn’t take such drastic action as to slash the DoD budget (Though I agree. It would be mind blowingly awesome if 1/3 of the current military budget could be dedicated to scientific research). Given the dividends paid out by NASA dollars (Ask Neil Tyson. He’ll tell you ALL about it), a small percentage removed from any given department is likely to give a higher return, economically, socially, culturally, and scientifically, when given to NASA. We simply have to take 1/2 of a percent of each departments budget, pool that together, and give it to NASA. That would bring NASA’s budget up to about 1% of the federal budget, without any serious hardship on any other department. Of course, there are other programs that may need a funding boost, but the same logic could be applied to their situation as to NASA’s.

    Would this work? What do I know, I’m just a dude who likes space. All I can say for sure is that if there was a little “Donate a dollar to NASA” box on my tax forms, I’d check it off every time. Twice, if I could get away with it.

  18. gopher65

    Denver7M: Actually, I already accounted for that.

    Depending on whose numbers you believe the DoD budget is currently between 700 billion and three quarters of a trillion per year when wartime spending is factored in. In 2010 it was estimated at 1.2 trillion per year if you factored in long term research and long term equipment replacement costs (while still excluding costs related to veterans!). That estimate is believed to be pretty close to correct today as well.

    Basically that’s the US paying for all the equipment destroyed by Iraqi sand. It wasn’t the religious and political terrorists, freedom fighting insurgents, or enemy soldiers that wore out the US military in Iraq, it was the dust storms and the bloody sand. Let that be a lesson as to what’s going to happen to our manned colonies on Luna and Mars :-( . Hopefully preventative steps can be taken.

    But let’s ignore the current wartime spending and the onetime replacement costs for all of that equipment lost in Iraq and – to a much lesser degree – Afghanistan. If we do that then the stable DoD budget for this year (not including wartime spending) falls to only ~550 billion dollars.

    I assumed that 150 billion of that 550 billion is going to support intelligence operations (that’s probably a bit high, but ehhh), and then assumed that would never be touched for political reasons.

    That leaves a remaining budget for the Army, Navy, Marines, and Airforce of ~400 billion. I said that we should reduce that by 1/4 – 100 billion dollars – and transfer that money to NASA (100 billion plus NASA’s current budget equals about 120 billion). I suspect that wouldn’t cause too much pain to the US Military. In fact, just the money going to the straight non-intelligence based military (300 billion) would be greater than the entire DoD budget of 12 years ago.

    Heh. No wonder the US is broke:P. Going from spending 300 billion a year on their DoD to spending 1.2 trillion a year (including replacement and modernization costs) comes with a terrible price.

  19. Nyetwerke

    Until I see action and voting or additions to the the House action, its all just words and unfortunately as is the environment that they create, it comes across as pandering. Two years is a long time to Congressman so for them to make a statement about far ranging goals, I am skeptical. For instance, the bank bailout was larger than the entire fifty year running budget of NASA.
    I work for a city government so I know about budgets and pandering. I thank the two gentlemen Wolf and Schiff but I want to see it in writing and in voting.

  20. gopher65 wrote:

    Imagine a NASA with 120 billion a year to spend instead of 18.

    Instead, I wonder… “imagine the Dept. of Health and Human Services with a 150% increase in budget”

    How many non-insured Americans could seek treatment for a chronic condition with that amount of cash?

    Let’s go one further- end the War on American Poor and Blacks– the war on drugs– think what would happen if all those billions were instead spent on treatment!

    I’ve yet to meet a junkie that wanted to be strung out.

    Before anyone asks: yes, I’ve known a few. One of my best friends, and a noted string bender died from a heroin overdose. And I know that he didn’t want to be addicted.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good news coming from Congress?!? Colour me flabbergasted! 😮

    But happy.

    Great to read this & well said’n’done BA. :-)

    @19. Nyetwerke: “I thank the two gentlemen Wolf and Schiff but I want to see it in writing and in voting.”

    Agreed & we need to keep the pressure on to make sure they follow their words with the appropriate actions and votes.

    @20. Solius :

    Instead, I wonder… “imagine the Dept. of Health and Human Services with a 150% increase in budget”

    In that case I’d guess the Admins would take a big pay rise and the medical companies would increase their prices for everything. (Cynical.)

    You realise it doesn’t have to be either /or don’t you?

    We can and are well advised to spend extra money on *both* space exploration and healthcare.

    @17. Catalyst : “All I can say for sure is that if there was a little “Donate a dollar to NASA” box on my tax forms, I’d check it off every time. Twice, if I could get away with it.”

    Me too & I’m not even American! 😉

  22. Peter B

    Solius @ #20 said: “Instead, I wonder… “imagine the Dept. of Health and Human Services with a 150% increase in budget. How many non-insured Americans could seek treatment for a chronic condition with that amount of cash?”

    I’m intrigued that whenever people are unhappy with money going to space exploration, the alternative suggested is either health or poverty relief.

    Why should space exploration and health/poverty relief be mutually exclusive?

  23. gopher65

    Believe it or not, the US federal and state governments spend as much per capita on government funded healthcare as their Canadian counterparts. And the Canadian government spends more than anyone else in the world, excepting the US. The US private sector then spends again that much money on healthcare, for a grand total of twice the healthcare spending of the next worst country, Canada.

    So it isn’t like the money isn’t there for universal healthcare in the US (and Canada and the US have approximately equal survival rates despite their different systems). Every American could be covered, doctors could be well paid (it’s the best paid profession in Canada), and every major and most minor procedures could be made “free” (paid for via taxes). And all this could be done for exactly as much as the US is currently spending on Medicaid and Medicare. It isn’t done because the American people *like* their current broken system. If they spoke up with disdain for it, it would be changed.

    (My parents live in the US, and they pay 1500 dollars a month for basic medical insurance for themselves and my sister. Ridiculous.)

    So it isn’t “we can fund healthcare or we can fund space”. No. The US can do both. It just needs to fix its fubbered healthcare system, decrease military spending to a more reasonable point (300 billion a year would be a good level), and increase the age of retirement by 3 measly years — and then everything will be fine.

  24. ElmarM

    Hutchinson and Wolf are morons. They will want to cut the funding for the commercial crew programme, which they hate (due to it being against their favorite lobbies) to fund the planetary science programe. They would never even consider cutting the stupid pointless SLS that they support over everthing else.

  25. BigBadSis

    Wow! I’m simply impressed that Rep. Polis did this video! I’m sure he’s one busy guy, but he reached out to you in a way I would never have expected. I would invite him to move to Maryland so I can vote for him!

  26. Alice

    Wolf is the Congressman from Virginia, not California :)

  27. @0 – You’re lucky to have Jared Polis. I live in Mike Coffman’s district. The guy’s so worthless he went through a Miliband loop to avoid explaining his own actions.


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