Obama Talks Sense about NASA

By Sean Carroll | March 2, 2008 4:03 pm

NASA Watch quotes from a TV interview with Barack Obama:

“I’ve got a strong belief in NASA and the process of space exploration. I do think that our program has been stuck for a while – that the space shuttle mission did not inspire the imagination of the public – that much of the experimentation that was done could have been conducted not necessarily with manned flights. I think that broadening our horizons – and looking at a combination of both unmanned satellites of the sort that we saw with the Jupiter launch – but also looking at where we can start planning for potential manned flights. I think that is something that I’m excited about and could be part of a broader strategy for science and technology investment … The only thing I want to say is that I want to do a thorough review because some of these programs may not be moving in the right direction and I want to make sure that NASA spending is a little more coherent than it has been over the last several years.”

It would be good to have a President who understood the difference in science payoff between manned and unmanned spaceflight. The former is exciting and inspirational, the latter gets enormously greater results per dollar. The Bush administration, with their magical ability to screw up everything they touch, has been killing off science at NASA in favor of a misguided Moon/Mars initiative (despite public apathy). But the situation is not hopeless. The way we fund science in this country is completely irrational, starting up a ten-year project one year and canceling it (leaving international partners high and dry) the next. The good news is that we can use such capriciousness to our advantage, pulling the plug from expensive boondoggles that were initiated for political reasons rather than scientific ones. I would rather have a thoughtful system of setting research priorities and a track record of commitment to long-term projects, but you go to war with the army you have.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    While correct, this assumes that NASA is primarily a scientific organization, as opposed to a geostrategic technology enabling organization.

    While the science benefits of the space station are low, it does keep soviet rocket scientists employed, instead of proliferating.

    If we retask NASA as a science only organization, how much of the diplomatic/ strategic money will move to science, and how much will simply disappear?

  • Jess Riedel

    I think it is hardly obvious that NASA should be spending large sums of money to send unmanned probes to study the geology of other planets (boring!) rather than sending real humans to mars.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Lab Lemming, there is no question that NASA is not exclusively, or even primarily, a scientific research organization. But when they do justify missions on the basis of science, it should be done for good reasons.

    If the US were to sit down and do a rational cost-benefit analysis, at the end of which we decided to spend 500+ billion dollars to go to Mars, that would be fine. But there is no reason why that should lead to dramatic cuts in the much cheaper science that can be done without manned spaceflight, and that’s exactly what is happening now.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit

    You might want to speak to his constituents at Fermilab to find out how good a job Obama has done recently of supporting fundamental physics research.

    I’ll definitely be voting for the Democratic candidate in the fall and it seems nearly certain to be Obama, but it sure as hell won’t be because of his record in this area.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    Sean, the solution seems clear: the scientific community needs to come up with some national objective that really would best be achieved by astronauts — for which trying to do the same thing with unmanned spacecraft would be an expensive, irrational boondoggle — and then present its case to Congress in a clear and compelling way. As soon as it does that, I predict Congress will try to spite the eggheads by cutting their beloved manned space program, and diverting the money to unmanned space flight.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Jess, you’ve got it all wrong.

    Firstly, the current crop of Martian missions is mostly trying to find signs of life without determining the basic geology of the planet. Despite numerous attempts of determine the history of water, the early environment, etc., we still don’t really know some fundamental aspects of Mars’s composition, like whether the core is solid or liquid.

    And Juno, the only mission for fundamental planetary physics with absolutely no life angle whatsoever, has been threatened with cancellation once. This despite the fact that it is our best bet at determining how Jupiter formed, and by extension, the hundreds of other exoplanets that have been discovered to date.

    And secondly, planetary geology is way more interesting than any other type of science. We just aren’t as good as other scientists at explaining why.

  • George Musser

    Peter, please elaborate. A quick Googling of “Obama Fermilab” brings up some supportive statements and visits to the lab.

  • Jess Riedel

    Sean, I agree that the purely scientific missions are logically distinct from manned “because it’s there” undertakings (so that the decision to fund the former should be relatively independent from the latter). However, I think the politically reality is that there is a trade-off to some extent.

    For the sake of discussion, what are the worthwhile mission which are at risk of being cut because of the long-term mars plans?

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit


    All politicians make supportive statements about scientific research, the real question is what they do when budget decisions have to be made. What happened this past year is that when it came time to figure out how to cut the FY2008 budget to a level that Bush would not veto, the decision was made to achieve this in part by gutting fundamental physics research, especially high-energy physics, and especially Fermilab. Funding for programs crucial to the future of the lab was eliminated, and 200 people are in the process of being laid off, with the rest on involuntary furlough two days a month.

    This kind of thing doesn’t happen to a federally-funded lab if its Congressional representatives actually do strongly support what it is doing and are willing to use some political capital to fight for it. The district containing Fermilab is represented by Judy Biggert in the House, a Republican who probably doesn’t have the pull to fight such a cut, and two Democratic senators, Durbin and Obama, neither of who seems to have found research at Fermilab something worth fighting for, even though the people losing their jobs are their constituents.

  • John Merryman

    Since the scientific community pride itself in its analytic abilities and objectivity, someone might want to start calculating the longterm effect on all scientific expenditures of the current credit meltdown. When what is happening to municipal bonds reaches the federal level, all bets are off.

  • Khurram

    I agree with Peter.
    Also, what does he mean when he says “NASA spending is a little more coherent than it has been over the last several years.” what??
    NASA has been cutting costs left and right. Their budget is already very limited and barely keeping up with inflation.
    “I think that broadening our horizons – and looking at a combination of both unmanned satellites of the sort that we saw with the Jupiter launch”
    Isn’t this what we HAVE been doing??

    Sean I do not think NASA will be a priority for the next president especially Obama.
    http://obama.3cdn.net/a8dfc36246b3dcc3cb_iem6bxpgh.pdf — see page 15

    To balance things out we should also look at Clinton’s initiative to “end the war on science”

  • BG

    Peter: I believe you’re off by a district. Fermilab itself is in the 14th district, and a big part of the problem that you’ve overlooked is that this is Denny Hastert’s (now former) district. He resigned in the middle of his term last November with about two weeks of formal notice.

    It’s true that Durbin and Obama dropped the ball, but the timing couldn’t have been worse for Fermilab – they lost a powerful benefactor right when the funding bill was going through.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit


    Thanks. Biggert’s district is the neighboring one, some of her constituents are among those losing their jobs.

    People keep saying that “Durbin and Obama dropped the ball”, attributing this to incompetence rather than a reflection of their priorities. Is there any evidence for this?

  • Elliot

    For those of you outside Chicago,

    Bill Foster, a former scientist at Fermilab is running as the Democratic candidate in the 14th district against Jim Oberweis, a dairy millionaire.

    The 13th district, Judy Biggert’s is the home to Argonne, another DOE lab.


  • Adam

    It’s hard for me to get up in arms about the Fermilab funding (despite the fact that I work there). Our current president is a jerk who made statements about what he would or wouldn’t veto. The democrats are in the majority, but not a veto proof majority. It came down to cut whether to cut the core safety net programs near and dear to democrats’ hearts or the science budget. Science should have better funding, but when a president is sucking huge amounts of money away for war costs (which congress finally decided to force Bush to put into the budget rather than use supplementary budgetary requests), there’s just not enough money to go around. And, while my livelihood depends on it, I can’t honestly say that the democrats should have taken money from social programs that help people in need.

  • Elliot


    I agree but the choice should not be between social programs and funding science.
    If the war funds were available and the tax cuts on the wealthiest 1% were eliminated, there would be another 400 billion dollars per year for the government to allocate to worthier endeavors.

    Over 90% of the national debt is due to Reagan and Bush II.


  • Adam

    Hi Elliot,

    I don’t want that choice to be made either. I would love for social programs and science to be both fully funded. However, to blame the democrats in congress for having to work with an intransigent president is not particularly fair. Without a veto-proof majority, the democrats still have their hands tied by the Bush administration.

  • http://vacuumenergy.blogspot.com/ Joseph

    The way we fund science in this country is completely irrational, starting up a ten-year project one year and canceling it (leaving international partners high and dry) the next.

    What a dumb way to fund a vitally important government project. Good thing we don’t fund the Iraq war that way (yet).

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    No politician could succeed in convincing the public that manned flight is a waste of money, so no rational politician will try. I can’t blame Obama for that. We’re never going to get very far into space because of the physics of the thing, but we’re never going to admit that we can’t because of the rhetoric of the thing.

  • http://martianchronicles.wordpress.com/ Ryan Anderson

    The Vision for Space Exploration, however poorly named and poorly hyped, is actually a Good Thing for NASA. In theory, it should not take anything from the science budget, because as the space shuttle is phased out and the space station is completed, those funds will be freed up to develop the VSE architecture.

    I think the “Vision” is what NASA needs to be doing. Despite the bureaucracy and rampant Dilbert-ness at NASA, once we leave low earth orbit, even the pointy-haired bosses won’t be able to make it look boring, and excitement about space benefits the science and exploration sides. There is some good fundamental science to be done at the moon, and the Vision has the added benefit of resulting in a really powerful lifting vehicle to launch whatever needs launching, including future ambitious robotic missions.

    Granted, science has taken some hits, and I agree that there is no good reason to cut good science to fund exploration. But neither should we stifle exploration to conduct more science. There is a balance to be struck somewhere.

    I don’t know what an Obama presidency will do to NASA. I am hopeful that it would not delay the Vision for Space Exploration, but would lead to smarter NASA budgets in which valuable science is not cut unnecessarily. Hey, I can hope…

  • Seth


    I agree that none of the Democrats in congress did the right thing in regard to scientific research, and while that is important for me personally, I think it is only one of a great many important things that the government does. I find it rather understandable that, with so much going on in such a large budget and under such time constraints, no one could be bothered to defend what are (on the scale of the United States government) rather small expenditures of money and rather few jobs.

    They sure made a mistake, in the long term, but it’s one they can probably be persuaded to fix. In the meantime, as far as evaluating the leadership of different candidates, I think there are bigger issues to think about.

  • Wayne

    Good point Jim. It really does become an arduous back and forth of words. Of course the public loves the prospect of manned missions to deeper space, but that is because the public does not understand the prospect of how to do it.

    I’m currently interning at KSC, and I can’t see Mars in the horizon even if I squint really hard. If anything, the statement is a symbolic or political one. We got there first. Then what? You have a crew of highly skilled astronauts (whose contribution is desperately needed back on Earth) on a desolate, inhospitable surface swarming with more dangerous storms than have ever been seen on this planet, told to wait a year in place to make a ‘safe’ return journey. The orbital mechanics of the journey are treacherous to say the least, and the variables of a 2 year journey to/from a planet, versus a 6 day journey to/from a moon, are exponential in comparison. http://www.MarsSociety.org

    The future of space exploration, manned or not, is not going to rise from the pocket of government, but from private, international collaborative investment that wish to explore (and exploit) the potential energies of the orbits of Earth, Moon, and nearby asteroids and the material resources they have available. Already, there are space programs in US, Russia, India, China, South Korea, Japan, Europe, Canada, and Israel (even Iran). It’s collaboration between any of them that will get us any farther; we’re reaching, if we haven’t already, the plateau of our singular nation’s capability. The only reason government funding has a root hold in space is from the Cold War, anything beyond us ‘getting there first’ versus the Soviets is what we have now– poking around in High Earth Orbit in an ISS that we desperately need to (symbolically) complete by 2010 to show the world “Look! We finished it!”

    Bush’s last-ditch, get there before the Chinese, won’t work. It’s not the Moon. It’s an absurdly painful example of how he’s made policy a majority of his presidency. If anyone wants to actually do anything in space, we need investors in the futures of technology and space science in general, we need to organize these thinkers together, and wait. Let the pieces fall into place from there. Just like the countless by-products of NASA research in getting to the Moon, we’ll discover new technologies that will vastly aid mankind in just the research of the prospect of exploration. Anyone who relies on tax payers to fuel space exploration isn’t serious about it and won’t get far. A limited budget based program, with an iffy goal, is the Shuttle. We can do better than that, but not until the budget is buffeted by more than policy.

    You need the technology, and rocket tech has already reached an impulse maximum, you can’t do much more than what we got after that– we need something new. Then you need a plan, as Sean said, a well-developed, thought-out plan on what the hell you’re going to do when you’re out there.

    The crux of the problem is apathy. Apathy with science, apathy with technology (save what keeps us lousy, lazy, and fat). Students today are not inspired to learn, they just do it because they are told to do it. Just like professors are many times just told to be professors in order to research or study. We’ll only invest in what we have interest in. Today’s youth want mindless toys, not mindful study. We are at a loss for the future of technology, and it is because we as a state are warm, fed, and pilled-out. Who needs technology when you’re already glossed in comforts? It’s going to take something beyond ourselves, some pressure out of peace, that will get this nation busy with novelty. Until then, well, we seekers are left to wait on the rest to organize anything miraculously fantastic.


  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I get uncomfortable feelings when ever manned space programs are proposed. The Return to the Moon program Bush advanced four years ago might have a “silver lining,” but often silver linings have a big black cloud. My sense is that the moon might be a possible platform for astronomical and cosmic ray physics systems. Maybe a largely robotic infrastructure on the moon with a down linked telepresent capability might be a way to run gravity wave interferometers, maybe particle physics detectors which look at 10^3-10^6 TeV scattering processes, and optical interferometers. The moon is a geologically neutral body and for astronomical instruments there would be far less problems with “jitters” or clutter noise. So maybe astronauts can be employed to establish and maintain such scientific infrastructure and fill in needed gaps where robotic presence falls short.

    The problem is that NASA talks a lot about putting a “permanent” lunar base on the moon, by which is meant a lunar version of the current spacestation. This is to my mind a total waste of money and resources, but it is a way NASA and Washington technocrats can keep the American flag flying on the moon with astronauts there singing the Star Spangled Banner. The space shuttle proved itself worthwhile with a small number of missions flown, such as the Hubble Space Telescope service missions. The ISS, which the shuttle program is being devoted to, is largely a complete boondoggle.

    NASA was established as an agency to demonstrate America’s technological supermacy over the Soviet Union in the so called “space race” of the 1960s. After NASA got astronauts on the moon in 1969 the agency, or at least the manned space program, has had a weak rudder. It is unclear whether a manned presence in space is needed, but if NASA is going to send astronauts to the moon, or in the cis-lunar space environment it would be best that a clear objective be established based on science and not on “gung-ho” and jingo-istic nonsense that often accompanies sending Buck Rogers into space.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Dave

    A little known initiative of our first MBA president was to institute some sort of system to keep track of how the government agencies are achieving their goals. The NASA Science programs did reasonably well on this since they they are largely based on peer reviewed missions and strategies, with rare exceptions (like Gravity Probe B). But this exercise really revealed the problem with the manned space program: it has no goal. And if there was some goal (besides JFK’s goal for the Apollo program), it could probably be accomplished more cheaply by robots.

    This really seems to explain the space station: there is really nothing that is critical for the space station to actually do, and so that is what it does when funds are tight: nothing. And I dare say that the same is likely to happen to the Moon initiative.

    As for Mars, I think that it is simply doomed by the incredible risk aversion of both Congress and the public. The space shuttle is regarded as “too risky” with its 2% failure rate. But Mars missions can only be much more risky than this. If we can’t tolerate such a failure rate in the future, then the Mars program will die at the first accident.

    Finally, I think that public support for such a program will continue to decrease with the younger generations. Eventually, we’ll have enough data from Mars rovers, so that they’ll be able to make a realistic Mars video game. And the question will arise: “Why should we spend a trillion to send Neil Armstrong III to Mars, when he can ‘virtually’ go there with a $29.99 video game?”

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit


    I’m just not convinced that Obama thinks that the decision to cut Fermilab’s budget was a “mistake”, or that he can be persuaded to fix it. Sure, I’m going to vote for the guy because other things are more important. But it is not going to help the project of persuading him to do something about the HEP funding problem for physicists to promote him as a strong supporter of funding for physics research when his record shows quite the opposite. Sure, he’s a busy guy, but if he and his staff behave the same way this fiscal year that they did last year, there is not going to be much left to fix, and people need to be pointing this out to him.

  • John Merryman

    To try putting this discussion in a larger context;
    If half as much attention was paid to the potential side effects of the melt down of a derivatives and credit market that is many times the size of the world economy as has been put into global warming, the level of public consternation would be quite high. What if those little pieces of plastic just don’t work anymore?
    Paul Volcker was credited with bringing the last round of stagflation under control with higher interest rates, but the logic of reducing an oversupply of cash by causing a recession that reduced demand for it eludes me. The ballooning deficit spending of the time seems the more likely cure. Inflation was blamed on those wanting more money and cured by borrowing from those with more then they needed. Neat trick. So this house of cards has really been building since the sixties.
    The reason no one takes the time to think these things through, is that no one is being paid to, since those running the show don’t really want it looked at.

    My guess is that a lot more PhD’s are going to be wondering why their particular little niche dried up, before this is all over.

    After the dust settles, maybe we will start treating the monetary system as a form of public utility, like roads. Rights and responsibilities have to remain in balance.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Ryan (#20) — The Moon/Mars initiative has certainly been taking away money from science. Neal Lane has said that, at meetings between Congress and OMB, money was slashed not only from NASA science but also from NSF to help fund Moon/Mars.

    Peter (#25) — Obama does think that cutting Fermilab’s budget was a mistake.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit


    I see nowhere in that letter he cosigned any acknowledgment that he and his staff made a mistake in not fighting the cuts made to the HEP budget by the Congress in the omnibus legislation. It’s a letter to the Bush administration, with no reference in it to decisions made by him or anyone else in Congress. A lot more effective and convincing would have been a letter saying “I and my colleagues in Congress really screwed up at the last moment under time-pressure and made a big mistake. Here’s how we suggest fixing it by reallocating FY2008 funds from X to stop the layoffs at Fermilab, and we are asking you to support the legislation we are introducing to do this.”

    As we saw this past year, publicly saying you support large budget increases for science is meaningless if when push comes to shove, it’s low down on your list of priorities and you sign off on cutting it to fund other things more important to you. This is what happened last year, and there is nothing in what you link to that gives any assurance the same thing won’t happen this year.

  • http://www.seedmagazine.com Lee Billings

    Scott (#5) said:

    “the solution seems clear: the scientific community needs to come up with some national objective that really would best be achieved by astronauts — for which trying to do the same thing with unmanned spacecraft would be an expensive, irrational boondoggle — and then present its case to Congress in a clear and compelling way.”

    I think that’s the strategy behind pushing for the Vision for Space Exploration to be redirected from Moon/Mars to exploring and understanding potentially threatening near-Earth objects (NEOs).

    Adequately protecting the Earth from asteroid and comet strikes probably will require manned missions to NEOs. An added bonus is the eventual hope of developing ways to mine these objects for valuable resources.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I am in 110% agreement with this post. High-cost, low-payoff manned space flight is a travesty of ill-considered national “pride”. It needs to be excised from the research body, and privatized by leaner and meaner entrepreneurs, who know damn well that manned space flight, for the foreseeable future, will provide humanity with little more than entertainment.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Policy makers often look at what a science or technology is going to accomplish for the nation. Particle physics got its “boost phase,” to use a space rocket term, from the atomic bomb. For better or worse the atomic bomb was a big payoff that physics delivered to the federal government. Back in the 50’s it became known that the proton was composed of constituents because of its magnetic moment. There was some idea that maybe the proton could be “split” and energy released. The dream of getting more out of E = mc^2 played loudly then. Of course now we know that protons can’t be split and that particle physics is largely an energy sink. You throw lots of energy into slamming protons and antiprotons together to get measurements of the high energy excited states produced.

    The sciences which have had given paydirt of late have been with solid state physics, genetics and molecular biology, laser physics, and the like. Particle physics has yet to deliver up the Higgs particle, which will probably contribute … well the Higgs particle. Of course there is the argument for the intellecual value that knowing the structure of matter and energy brings. Yet that does not motivate most people who are decision makers who look at balance sheets. It also has to be noted that such people can often spend money on things that in a few days cost as much as a year’s operating budget for FNAL, such as this dang Iraq war. A science is likely to keep its gravy train filled if it can produce something which sits on a Wal*Mart shelf, becomes an ARMY issue, a hospital device, keeps the transmission lines running, or produces food. A science which after decades of expensive effort fails to do this is simply headed for trouble. It might sound unfair, but hey! who ever said the world is fair?

    Maybe look at it this way. I just heard a report that the outsourcing of jobs has doubled since 2004. So with the European LHC the US is doing the most American of things: Particle physics is being outsourced. Get used to it.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • John Merryman



    To think that physics needs a reality check! The world turns.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Bush administration, with their magical ability to screw up everything they touch, has been killing off science at NASA in favor of a misguided Moon/Mars initiative (despite public apathy).

    I don’t believe this particular screwing up was accidental. What programs at NASA have been cut or postponed because the Moon/Mars effort is eating all the money? Climate studies satellites.

  • ike

    Interesting point on the climate studies satellites – the most promising one was the Deep Space Observatory (originally called Triana, then DSCOVR), to be positioned at L1 where it would have a continuous view of the sun and the sunlit face of the planet.

    The amazing thing here is that the satellite is built and ready for launch, but no funds were forthcoming. The estimated cost for launch? Free! The Ukrainian government offered to launch DSCOVR for free – and NASA turned them down!

    Then, in the last years of the previous Congress, over half a billion dollars was stripped from the NASA budget. NASA cited this as the reason for cancellation of the project. Why say no to a free launch on a reliable rocket?

    By comparison, the budget for the International Space Station from 1995-2005 was ~$25 billion, excluding the cost of all shuttle flights.

    The whole situation mirrors the recent changes in NASA’s stated goals, which are stated at: http://www.nasa.gov/about/highlights/what_does_nasa_do.html

    “NASA’s mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

    That is the new statement, which used to read, “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers…”

    (From http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/22/science/22nasa.html)

    The real question is what NASA’s mission statement will be in any future administration.

  • http://www.powerwatchers.com Dean Lewis

    Just wanted to say I followed your link here from Shakesville since it dealt with a candidate and NASA issues one of the folks over at the PowerWatchers forum talks about occasionally. I’m not a scientist myself, but the NASA program is very important to me. In the mid-90s I got to read all the Spinoff publications as they came through my publishing office and was amazed at the number of products and technologies NASA research led to. I don’t think a lot of people realize this — especially since Spinoff is no longer made, perhaps because funding problems have caused fewer technological improvements and breakthroughs? — and hope we get a government in 2008 that really pushes NASA the money and builds the excitement to get back on track.

    Thanks for an interesting read!

  • http://crissa.twu.net/ Crissa

    What do we need astronauts doing on earth? What kinda of statement is that? Astronauts should be doing what their name implies, not merely talking to grade-school kids at museums.

    NASA hasn’t picked up any of the pure science missions in the last two years, leaving many scientists unemployed! And manned missions? Since it’s just been an unfunded mandate to go to the moon and mars, we don’t have a spacecraft, we don’t have a mission to do there, and we have expenses… But no results, yes.

    Without forward thinking funding for manned missions, NASA can’t expand its targets at all. Only humans can do detailed geology and extraction on the Moon and Mars. What takes a rover days to try to take a picture of would take an astronaut minutes to examine and process and ready for return to Earth.

    The risk is a stupid worry. There’s probably thousands of people, scientists, even, who’d give their lives to go to Mars.

    …Also, I feel foolish typing in a thread that ends on April 1st.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    John Merryman on Mar 3rd, 2008 at 1:37 pm


    To think that physics needs a reality check! The world turns.


    We might also say the stomach turns as well. Particle physics is entering into a position similar to the arts, and I mean the fine arts that require patronage. Without that the fine arts would dry up and we’d only hear country music, angry heavy metal bands and rap. Oh boy, wouldn’t that be special?! Unless some possibilities that quark-gluon plasma/condensates and their duality to black holes give us unimaginable energy sources, or the Higgs turns out to be a matter to energy catalyst or … , particle physics will be high brow aspect of physics that struggles as a high dollar version of general relativity. Physics departments do in some cases have their token GR guy who is a bit off in their intellectual corner, crowded out by the solid state and laser physics groups who have all the money

    As for space and it possible near term future resource we might want to look at a “massless resource.” Already the business of space is with communications, which is massless. I’d say that if there is a future economic frontier in space it is with solar power satellites. The resource is massless, and there is no cost is hefting minerals back to Earth. In geostationary orbits these could radiate solar energy back in microwaves which are received and the EM fields “transformed” for grid transmission. Who knows, for deployment and intermitent maintenance there might be need for short duration manned missions.

    Minerals from space will not happen soon. Consider that a 3000 ton rocket was used to return a few hundred pounds of lunar rocks. Review the rocket equation!

    v~=~Vtimes ln(m/M),

    v = final velocity, m = payload mass, M = initial rocket mass and V = rocket plume velocity. That logarithm is a killer.

    Politics is often motivated by what I call FGHI, fear, greed, hate and ignorance. The Republican party has a pretty good hold on all four of these. When it comes to ignorance the GOP with its religious-theocratic wing wants to promote bronze age mythologies about the nature of the world. So space science that aims to unravel the nature of the big bang doesn’t register well on their radar. Also global warming is not good for business for many of their patrons, in particular the oil companies. So dropping programs for Earth sensing helps put that issue “outta sight, outta mind.” Whether the Democrats rectify this situation is anyone’s guess. Remember, the Democrats are beholden to the same corporate patrons the GOP is. At least they are not the same pack of complete psychopaths.

    George Bush learned geopolitics by playing the Milton Bradley game “Risk.” He sees the world in these elementary terms, and I suppose he really thinks we can start colonizing space. I find it amazing that this nation put such a goof-ball idiot in the Whitehouse, along with the mafia of psychopathic dunces that surround him.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    opps, the rocket equation should read

    v~=~Vtimes ln(M/m)

  • Wayne

    Uh, well, the missions are thought out, that’s how we got to the Moon to begin with. It all comes down to funding, and the acquisition of those funds. The point of NASA at its advent was to beat the Russians to technology that could put us on the moon. Done.

    What the focus now is what to do with the organization we had for that single mission. Either extend its applications to something along the lines of government funded scientific research, experimentation, and application in a general sense– with each specific department (high energy, aero/astrophysics, observation, exploration, engineering, genetics, nanotechnology, food science, geology, etc.) submitting an annual report to a committee (like Congress) that reviews the statements, and direct funds proportionately– OR– privatize.

    The only way technology gets off the ground, either physically or ideologically, is money. How do you channel funds? Public/Private organizations/donations. You want more money for the space program? Send in a tax deductible donation. Rather have government spending on high energy physics? Send in a tax deductible donation. Or, rally enough public support, kind of like a Presidential election, and get funding. Make the research you want done known, and get the money that way.

    People don’t want to pick what to fund, they just want the government to do it. Therein lies the problem. We have so much we could be funding, so much we could actually get done when we channel our focus (and money), but we end up with a bunch of half-assed research from half-assed funding in a plethora of different disciplines because we don’t. Democracy becomes a big “Here, take my money, you deal with it,” when one has been around long enough. As long as people aren’t bitching about where their money is going, it’ll keep being spread like too much butter on too much bread, and you’ll never have a decent bite.


  • Wayne

    That first line was for Crissa, not you Lawrence.

    Another point, we’ve reached the apex of this country’s capacity for putting ‘things’ in space, from here on out its an international effort or a waste of time. Pool resources, get something done. Spread global resources out over 10 different international space agencies trying to get to the Moon and you’ll have 10 shoddy Moon bases, 10 shoddy flags, and a lot of nothing practical to say for it (except of course that each of those countries would have their own version of “That’s one small step for a man…” in each language respectively).


  • Elliot


    Some of us like country music….and rap…as well as rock, classical and jazz.


  • gstuatGMU

    Paraphrasing some of the above, going to Mars in the near term is too hard (read expensive and dangerous) in light of incentives to go there. However, we probably will see a need for space travel in the far future (say 10^8 years, or maybe a lot sooner) when the neighborhood goes to hell. Assuming the race survives, there’s plenty of time to develop many imagined and unimagined space drives (think Alcubiere). Known physics ought to give us antimatter propulsion (and maybe Bussard drive) in a few decades, and that would make interplanetary (and maybe a start at interstellar) travel actually practical.

    Should human space travel research be kept alive until good propulsion is developed? Yes, if we can do so without doing crazy stunts like a manned Mars trip now appears to be. How about ROV or AI Mars trips? Send robots to prepare the way for humans, who could come when it’s not a multiyear adventure with no hope of rescue or even help when things go wrong. Apollo was less extreme, and then our incentive was powerful, and we were young and foolish and had the best people and the enthusiastic backing of the whole free world. Even then, the program was cut short and there was a huge sigh of relief that things had gone so well.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “Known physics ought to give us antimatter propulsion (and maybe Bussard drive) in a few decades”

    Known physics won’t even give us a cost-effective replacement for burning coal in the next few decades.

  • John Merryman


    You have fallen into the trap of distinguishing government as separate from the people. Think about that. Where I’m from, Baltimore, the sort of people who like fine arts, tend to also donate lots of money to it, as well as any number of other purposes, so that the local symphony receives some public funding isn’t a big deal. That many of the other forms of music you mention are best appreciated through an alcoholic haze might reflect on the fact that a lot of their funding is generally channeled through the sale of alcohol.
    The people who call themselves conservative these days are not real conservatives, in the sense of adhering to some stable civil philosophy that balances rights and responsibilities. Government is the essence of real conservatism. A nation without a government would be like having a body without a central nervous system. It’s called a vegetable. Which explains the organizational abilities of our current administration.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    John Merryman on Mar 3rd, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    You have fallen into the trap of distinguishing government as separate from the people.

    Our current President has been hard at work for over seven years to do just this.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Lab Lemming on Mar 3rd, 2008 at 5:44 pm
    “Known physics ought to give us antimatter propulsion (and maybe Bussard drive) in a few decades”

    Known physics won’t even give us a cost-effective replacement for burning coal in the next few decades.


    Sadly this may be the case. A replacement for oil is a tough call as well. It is impossible to know what the future holds, but right now there seem to be serious barriers to our progress along these lines.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • John Merryman


    It was Reagan who verbalized it, with, “Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” But even Carter ran as an outsider, coming to clean up Washington, so the problem runs deep. Relations between people and their government have been an issue throughout history. The reason we keep trying to improve them and not get rid of them is because the alternative is worse. All I can say for Bush is that he provides the opportunity for a fresh start, since he has mortally wounded the financial underpinnings of this current order.

  • Melusine

    Won’t Bill Foster help FermiLab?

    Obama endorsed him:



  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit


    Since Foster is the Democrat running in a special election against a Republican, it’s not exactly surprising that Obama endorsed him and not his opponent, and says nothing about Obama’s interest in Fermilab.

    If Foster wins, that should help Fermilab, since at least they will have one person in Congress who is willing to fight a cut in their budget. It would be helpful if it were a prominent Senator like Obama, but lacking that, a Representative who has just managed to take a fairly safe seat away from the Republicans might be the next best thing…

  • Melusine


    I think it’s safe to say that many politicians don’t deeply understand the importance of FermiLab and the like. Poll people around Chicago and many probably won’t even know FermiLab exists. Whoever said particle physics is becoming like some esoteric field along the lines of the fine arts, is probably correct. It’s up to Foster and others to sell it. (I can’t even get my father to look at the stars, and he’s no dummy.) It’s just not going to impress like a cancer cure.

    But like Wayne said, and Obama has said in a recent speech, there’s a lot of chaff to cut out: grants for studies on female orgasms and the like – c’mon, I think people can figure that out for themselves. (:

  • BobN

    If the US were to sit down and do a rational cost-benefit analysis, at the end of which we decided to spend 500+ billion dollars to go to Mars

    Perhaps all it would take would be a convincing public relations campaign based on the premise of wanting to “fight them there instead of over here”. At 1/6th of the cost of the Iraq debacle, I would expect another “slam dunk”.

  • SLC

    Gee, Prof. Carroll is somewhat negative about manned space flight. Doesn’t he realize that this negativity will place him alongside Prof. Bob Park on Dr. Phil Plaits’ list of scientists who don’t know what they are talking about?

  • Khurram

    It seems very likely that if Obama becomes president NASA will face deep cuts. He does not seem like a friend of NASA.
    I think he is just getting started. Isn’t there another way to pay for all these programs?
    Here are a few blurbs from his website:

    “Well, what we’re going to do is, we are going to delay or cut programs that I DON’T THINK are as high a priority. And we’ve identified a range of ways that we can save money in terms of how we purchase goods by the federal government. There are some programs related to NASA, for example, that we would not eliminate – but defer – so that the spending is spread out over a longer period of time. There are a host of programs at the federal level that I think are less of a priority than making sure that our kids are getting a good start in life.”

    “The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years”

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    SLC on Mar 5th, 2008 at 1:21 pm
    Gee, Prof. Carroll is somewhat negative about manned space flight. Doesn’t he realize that this negativity will place him alongside Prof. Bob Park on Dr. Phil Plaits’ list of scientists who don’t know what they are talking about?

    You need to address some central questions.

    The first is for what purpose will we send astronauts to the moon? Beyond a possible replay of a space race with China, or some American flag jingoistic thing on the moon, a pretty clear case has to be made for why humans are needed on the surface of the moon. I am not utterly against this whole return to the moon idea, but I do think that some very clear reason must be given for this. The only hint I can think of is with the HST shuttle missions, where a manned presence was needed to facilitate scientific instruments. Maybe a similar argument can be made. Without that I think it is far better to invest in an added 1000/year PhD’s in science and engineering, or building infrastructure, and frankly energy development is a looming MUST DO.

    The second big question is a question on the whole idea of human colonization of space. Is there any real prospect for this? Consider Antarctica, there has been no large movement of people to the continent. Why? The answer is simple — it sucks there, at least as a place to make one’s life. The planets are far worse: no breathable air, lack of water, solar UV and charged particle radiation problems, extremes of temperatures, and on and on. There is not a lot there for us aqueous bags of polypeptides, carboydrates, lipids and the like. It is a great place to do space science and astronomy, but people just are not going to homestead on the moon any time soon.

    And please drop this analogy with the 15-17th century explorations. These were done first to open trading lanes because people were already in these distant regions of the planet. The Ottoman empire bottlenecked the Silk route and that stimulated the development of the caravel for open ocean voyages. When Europeans colonized the Americas there were also people there who taught them how to make a living, and a lot of thanks we gave them! At least there was breathable air, game to hunt, wood to make shelter and the rest. Space offers us mostly just space.

    Now I will say the idea of closing down manned space programs gives me a bit of a twing. As kid I watched one of the Apollo launches, which is a very early memory indellibly burned in my mind. I’d hate to close the door to our possible presence in space just yet. But if that happens it will be about baby crawling and then baby stepping out there. It will take a long time if this happens at all. To be honest I also say there is a prospect that most the people who have or will ever go into space may have already done so. We might end up as permanent Earthlings — here to stay.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Wayne

    Indeed, we may yet remain Earthlings. Honestly, Earth is already a hospitable spacecraft hitched to an incredible fuel source hurtling through space at 200 km/s or thereabouts. We have everything we need right here if we just figure out how to live in harmony with it. Perhaps we’ll harness the potential energy of our own orbital mechanics to shack up with a new star system when the time comes. Check this out:

    http://www.viewzone.com/milkyway.html [Scroll down a little, check out the Star Map of Infrared data]

    Maybe we already are intergalactic travelers?

    Anyways, I agree with Obama’s cuts. Our country has already had it’s generational suck of tax payer monies for the war. We went to the moon to stay on technological par with Russia in the Cold War. This time we went to Iraq to secure oil fields, not quite the moon, but essentially as desolate with similar results (not to mention the military proliferation, which is exactly what Earth needs more of). We need to focus on us now, the people, their well-being, and education. We need to resurrect this Red, White, and Bluely indebted corpse. We need to recover.

    The space program won’t die so long as humans remain on this planet, our spirit to explore won’t just go away. NASA isn’t going to evaporate, but it will need consolidation. Give it time. Space exploration is wonderful and inspiring, but if we siphon the rest of the money we don’t have, there won’t be an America to go anywhere anyway. Send in the robots.


  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I have been aware of Sagittarius clouds impinging on the Milky Way. I am unaware of any literature which claims our sun was a part of this dwarf galaxy.

    http://www.viewzone.com/milkyway.html [Scroll down a little, check out the Star Map of Infrared data]

    Also some of the terrestrial claims can’t be correct. Remember the Milky Way galaxy is over 50,000 light years across, and the remnants of the Sagittarius galaxy have been tidal rendered into extended clouds many tens of thousands of light years long. This process has been a multi-hundred million year process. Statements about global warming or planetary perturbations are not likely to be correct.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • SLC

    Re Lawrence B. Crowell

    My comment 52 was meant as a bit of a snark on Prof. Carroll. For the information of Mr. Crowell, Prof. Bob Park is a professor of physics at the Un. of Maryland and was formerly the representative of the APS in Washington, DC. Prof. Park publishes a weekly column on his Un. of Maryland web site called What’s New. Dr. Park, who is a pretty snarky character, has opined that the manned space program is a waste of money and that, from a scientific point of view, unmanned space probes can do the job much cheaper because they don’t require the life support systems that manned space flights do. A link to his web site is attached. Dr. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, is 180% out of phase with Prof. Park and has stated on his blog that, in his opinion, Prof. Park doesn’t know what he’s talking about in his opposition to manned space probes.


  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I get Park’s “What’s New” every Friday. I generally agree with most of what he says about these things. I will say I am not as hard on the manned space program as he is, but to be honest I think that without some real justification for it that it will in due time be closed down.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Pingback: Obama is Coming Around on NASA | Cosmic Variance()

  • Erik, San Fran, USA

    We need the Constilation program to study the potental of looner Heluim 3. NASA is finnaly developing a ration package of vihels to explore the solar system. The Aries 5 could put humans on the Moon, telscopes in orbit or send Robots to Jupitor. We need that sucker bad.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


See More

Collapse bottom bar