Obama is Coming Around on NASA

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 4, 2008 8:32 am

The Orlando Sentinel (which clearly has a dog in this fight) is reporting that Obama is backing off of plans to cut NASA’s budget. The article is somewhat brief on details, but it seems clear that Obama is now willing to continue shuttle flights until 2010 and to continue the Constellation program (which he was originally going to freeze for 5 years to save money for education).

I’m all for more money for education, but one just can’t stop and restart projects that require major intellectual infrastructure. When highly trained aeronautical engineers are laid off, they’re not necessarily around 5 years later. Re-starting from scratch 5 years later is not cost effective, and may not even be possible after all the relevant expertise has dispersed. In the speech, Obama also acknowledged the mismatch between plans for Constellation and its funding level, and recognized that the disparity has led NASA to cannibalize everything else.

So, it sounds like he’s climbing the NASA learning curve, which can only be seen as good news. He may still ask for changes in NASA’s priorities, but he’s clearly becoming educated on what’s actually feasible. I’m not arguing that NASA necessarily should continue Constellation (since many space-related scientists would love NASA to tilt more towards becoming the NSF in space), but that in previous incarnations of Obama’s space policy, he was clearly talking as someone who didn’t have a detailed understanding of how NASA’s ~17 billion dollar enterprise operates. Now, he does.

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  • Jason Dick

    Interesting. Honestly, I don’t know what to think about the Moon/Mars initiative. It’s big, expensive, and isn’t remotely cost effective for the science allowed. But it’s just so friggin’ cool!

    Good that Obama seems willing to change his stance based upon good information, though.

  • Kurt

    Response to “Good that Obama seems willing to change his stance based upon good information, though.”——-

    Good information?? You are kidding right???

    see video for his exact words.
    http://noquarterusa.net/blog/2008/08/03/thats-not-what-i-said-obama-flips-on-nasa/

    Obama was speaking in front of a crowd in Florida when he stated his change in policy.
    First he wants to cut moon, mars and constellation funding to pay for his early education program and now he says “i told my staff we are going to find an entirely different offset” (see video above)
    now how vague is that? what offset??

    Obama will say or do anything to get elected–A charge leveled against his opponent-isn’t he supposed to be the candidate of change.

    His policy is subject to change at a moment’s notice depending on the polls, the time of day and what his audience is.

    I wonder if Obama camp ever gets tired of justifying his “refinement” of the issues.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I wish the Shuttle program will end already. There is no bigger inefficient sink of money.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Putting people in cans which are then sent into space is looking more dubious all the time. The Constellation program can only be worthwhile if putting boots on the lunar surface can facilitate scientific research. There might be a need for such in order to deploy gravity wave detectors, optical interferometers, radio-scopes and the like on the moon. Such missions would be a send—deploy or maintenance—return sort of thing. Robots could do more of the routine work.

    It does not appear this is the main objective here. There is some talk of a lunar base — a bigger more expensive version of the near useless ISS the shuttle services. If this is to be the purpose of the Constellation program, this is cause for more depression than anything else — bartender, make that drink a double.

    The man in space idea clearly has its limits, and frankly the off Earth environment is lethal. Space is great for scientific work, but when it comes to us squishy watery bags of proteins, lipids and saccharides it offers virtually nothing for us — and is filled with lots of charged particle and high energy photon radiation to boot. All planetary bodies off Earth in the solar system range from virtually lethal to utterly fatal. The robots and instruments sent into space to collect certain types of data have proven to be a thousand times more interesting than astronauts doing weightless gymnastics or hopping around on the moon.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Farhat

    I wish China or USSR do something like set in motion plans for a moon base. That might just be what might put another big round of funding into science like the Sputnik and first manned flight from Russia did. Also, competing for going into space is a much better sink of money than the current wars.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    If Russia or China put a lunar base up that might be a good way to tie their economies down some. To be honest, what is the point of having up to ten people on a lunar base? If there are scientific facilities to run that probably could be done well enough through robotic telepresence. In the end the whole point of a lunar base is to have citizens of a nation able to wave that nation’s flag up there.

    Extraterrestrial landscapes out there are forbidding, unbreathable, horribly hot or cold, there is little carbon or liquid water. If these surfaces are not in near vacuum bathed by unrelenting radiation they cloaked in thick clouds that choke the surface in heat or pressure. Temperatures range from 600 deg C down to 50K. These are fantastic places to research and learn about, but machines do a good job without suffering. The Opportunity and Spirit robots are still crawling around on Mars without so much as a single complaint about the weather there.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    As far as I understand, the shuttle missions have been a disasterous waste of money and resources for NASA and the nation. They have accomplished nearly nothing (other than the Hubble repair) at staggering cost — $175 billion — that could have funded, well, you choose.

    For comparison — the entire Apollo Program ran $135 billion (inflation adjusted to 2005). Multiple manned missions to the moon with 1960s-1970s technology versus bouncing around Low Earth Orbit with 1980s-2010s.

    The first sign of a sane space policy from a president will be cutting the shuttle program to zero.

    The second sign would be abandoning the Bush Moon-Mars plan and going with the NASA reference mission Mars Direct.

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    “Extraterrestrial landscapes out there are forbidding, unbreathable, horribly hot or cold, there is little carbon or liquid water. If these surfaces are not in near vacuum bathed by unrelenting radiation they cloaked in thick clouds that choke the surface in heat or pressure.”

    Forbidding? Or… forbiddingly AWESOME!

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Forbidding? Or… forbiddingly AWESOME!

    In many ways the pictures of the martian surface have a stark beauty to them. I can enjoy them from the JPL website without any discomfort.

    As for putting men on Mars — that’s worse than going back to the moon. First off we will contaminate the place pretty badly. This might create noise if one is trying to find signatures of life or pre-biotic evolution. Carrying humans to Mars will be a very expensive program! It will also be very risky.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    I am not too much of a space junkie, but I find the idea of going to Mars irredeemably cool. The Moon — very baby boomer.

    In terms of expense, I don’t see why we couldn’t pull it in for what we did the Apollo program with. Harder challenge — but now we have the transistor? I think they are even miniaturizing it! What we need is someone to decide what the goal is and drive towards it — instead of the hyper-fuzzy nature of the shuttle and ISS programs (“maybe it is… to bring peace among nations?”)

    And hey, if you don’t want to go, that’s OK. One less competitor for my NSF application (“Modified Theories of Gravity… ON MARS”)

    Contamination I agree is a fear with Martian life searches. But it’s a risk I think worth taking, and my guess is that we can do it right.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I followed Sean’s link to the Constellation program and checked it out and then laughed at how closely they are following the Apollo template

    > 2 stage to orbit (check)
    > 2 phases development with common cruise stage, one to LEO and the other to leave Earth Orbit (check, Ares I => Saturn IB, Ares V = Saturn V)
    > common crew capsule (check)

    disclaimer : i was a rocket scientist, and I am a big fan of the non-nonsense no-frills get-it-working-without-fuss soviet/russian space program.

  • Jennifer West

    The NASA link you gave is useless for someone who has no idea what Constellation is – I had to run around the site until I found a definition, which is good and succinct:

    “A new generation of spacecraft will carry humans to the moon, Mars and beyond.”

    Why can they not put this on the top page for the Constellation mission? It is very irritating.

    Julianne, I’m glad for your post, I like to know what Obama is doing regarding science policy. I disagree with one point – I think the expertise can always be reassembled. There will always be engineers and scientists who need work and who are interested in working in a mission like this. It might end up being designed differently, because they will need to hire new people, but the brain power will be there.

    I do think it is unfair to people working on a mission to cut funding for 5 years. I lost 2 positions due to NASA budget cuts during these Bush years. I don’t mind, because I’m flexible and astronomy was never going to be my forever career. Also, I am supporting only myself, not a family. But for the people who got cut with families and careers, it was highly stressful, and none of them would return to work for the same NASA project (that I know of).

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  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I couldn’t be more in favor giving NASA a healthy budget, but not for things like Constellation. Human space flight simply provides way, way too little scientific bang for the buck, and I’m not much for ostentatious feats of nationalistic pride if they’re to the tune of tens of billions. I’ve said it before: Robots are getting better at an exponential rate. Humans aren’t. Smart money’s on the robots.

    I tend to agree that it’s unfair to people to keep yanking the funding rug out from underneath, only to lure them back again with yet another boondoggle…which is why maybe it’s time to pull the plug once and for all and stop jerking these highly skilled folks around. But if they decide they still want to put people in space, perhaps Virgin Galactic or another company of its ilk is hiring.

  • Jennifer West

    commenter 14: couldn’t agree with you more on the Constellation mission. Though I think we’re getting better linearly. I really do. Small slope, let’s say 0 < m < 1, time on x-axis, betterness on y-axis. Did you see WALL-E? He is exponentially better.

  • True_Q

    I’m really torn-apart by NASA’s plans. My mind says that it’s far more reasonable to spent money for a robot exploration. But my heart stands for manned missons. I’m so excited when thinking of a man foot on the surface of Mars. I think that those kind of missons should be fund by international community, not just by one country (or ESA in case of Europe). Unfortunately politicans still look on the space exploration as on a big race. Yeah, yeah… my mind’s gone to another, non-realistic world 😉

  • Diocletian

    The purpose of manned space flight is to take your mind off Iraq. It’s for people who are not captivated by football.

  • Ali Mentary

    Robotic exploration or not, we are 7 billion people fighting over resources and raw materials.

    We will double again in 20 to 30 years and the available resources and raw materials will not. If poverty and famine make you uncomfortable now imagine what will be with 15 billion people around.

    Unless you go pick them up wherever they are.

    Or halve the population instead of doubling it.

    What is certain is that without alternative sources, the struggle for resources and raw materials is going to focus in taking them where they are now. Places like Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, ANWR, the gulf, and so on.

    Without manned space exploration and exploitation the only option left for the future, and the most expensive, is war.

  • Ali Mentary

    PS.: have a nice day :)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    We live in a time when we are just starting to explore space and not in a time when we have colonized many planets. I explain here that this is no accident.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I am of two minds about this. I will confess I have some admittedly emotional sense that I’d hate to see the whole manned space progam cancelled out. Maybe with care we can baby step off Earth in the long run.

    It is pretty clear we can’t push into space fast enough to handle our resource and population issues on Earth. The O’Neil idea we can all homestead off Earth in the near future and solve our problems that way is frankly a fantasy.

    Clearly space probes, instrumentation and robotic probes are what we will most successfully push into space. Humans in space might facilitate this, such as in case with the Hubble service missions, but if this is our prelude of moving into space these are at best baby steps that will take a long time to measure up to anything.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B. ?

    One thing we need besides a science-savvy and reasonable president, is more scientists in Congress. Check out the link below, referencing physicist Rep. Rush Holt of NJ calling for better investigation of the anthrax affair (which apparently, does not deserve to be considered “closed” anytime soon!):

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/radio/2008/08/05/holt/index.html

    Heh, the irony of that first name!
    PS, I suppose that when a Congressman etc, is called “a physicist” it typically means, has the degree and not still also working as such – true?

  • http://deleted Simon DeDeo

    Rush Holt is great — used to do plasmas! Darcy Burner (favourite newcomer for the left-wing blogs) is running in Washington; she used to be a computer engineer, and when I spoke with her at the Daily Kos meetup in Chicago she seemed very savvy and “science smart” (e.g., she may not know the field, but she knows how to reason scientifically and how and where to be skeptical — not an easy task.)

  • collin237

    Farhat wrote:

    Also, competing for going into space is a much better sink of money than the current wars.

    Unless someone finds a profitable use for a substance in the ground of the Moon or Mars or something. Then science is out the window again.

    :)

  • Jonathan Burns

    Agree with Julianne’s point: it’s either continue Constellation or scrap it.

    On balance I’m glad Obama wants to continue, even while feeling that Mars can wait. I watch the little lab bench advances, and although I don’t expect any single breakthrough to cheap access to space, still they accumulate – and converge toward a situation where we could get far more bang for the launch buck, if only we had a practical robotics architecture in LEO.

    By this I mean, automated docking and cargo handling; an erector set of modular programmable manipulators; a practical catalog of connectors, reaction wheels, tether spoolers, non-contact energy transfer points, gas and liquid taps, an intranet, can-openers … In sum, a mature, robust version of what we’ve only been able to play with on the ISS. I think of it as “SpaceMall” – a facility at which multiple customers can have their special payloads installed on suitable platforms, assembled from off-the-shelf components, in orbit, by programmed or teleoperated manipulators.

    That would get us into the big stuff. Production lines for printing conductive polymer and photovoltaic layers on CNT-strengthened ribbons; nuclear-powered tugboats; smart probes for near-Earth object assay and smarter platforms for NEO mining. The O’Neill project is far from dead, it has just been absorbing the first few waves of actual space experience, which had to include exploring the major technical obstacles.

    I can imagine implementing SpaceMall as a very clever accumulation of purely robotic components. But it is a whole lot easier to imagine, if we also assume that we have some engineers in LEO as well, housed in TransHabs or Bigelow inflatables or such, with hands-on access to the components.

    If it were strictly a matter of planetary science, I would be very willing to let space development continue through robotics alone; and to accept the criticism of the ISS as a scientific dead end as conclusive. But instead, I look at the prospects for space industry, and they seem far more concrete if you invest in what the ISS could have been, if the U.S. had had a mature heavy launcher working at the time; that is, an orbital R&D workshop aimed at bootstrapping a sound space infrastructure.

  • http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/helium3_000630.html geowar

    In response to collin347’s comment “Unless someone finds a profitable use for a substance in the ground of the Moon or Mars or something. Then science is out the window again.”

    helium-3 (He3)

  • geowar
  • geowar
  • geowar
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