(I apologize to anyone who is not expecting political talk on this blog. I rarely go there, and if you hate me for it, you can pretend this post doesn’t exist. 🙂 )
Let me start this off by saying that I am not a rocket scientist. I don’t claim to be one, but I am married to one. My rocket scientist spouse is a contractor for NASA working on the Space program – both with the Shuttle and with the International Space Station.
Today, President Obama released his proposed budget for 2011. You can read all of it online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/– the part I want to talk about is here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2011/assets/trs.pdf – specifically page 18, “Termination: Constellation Systems Program”. You can read all of it, if you like. I did.
In the words of a very famous person… “Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
The President’s 2011 Budget proposes to cancel the Constellation program, allow the current Orbiter/Shuttle program to die of natural causes when it terminates sometime in the next 1-2 years, and replace it with a yet unnamed, yet undetermined, “bold new approach” with “game changing technologies” that “embraces the commercial space industry.” Constellation is being canceled because it costs too much money and because it “doesn’t meet our national priorities.” This budget will, instead, accelerate work in “climate science, green aviation, science education, and other priorities,” all with money previously slotted for space exploration.
There are a lot of problems with this, not least of which is “And what are you going to do with all the people whose living depends on these programs, considering we’re in the midst of a very large economic recession and that job futures are extremely dim for just about all of the aerospace and defense sectors already?”, but I’ll let that go for a minute and focus on that last sentence.
The President wants to increase funding for science education… and get rid of the only active space exploration program (Constellation) to do it, with no actual replacement in mind.
To put it in other words: the President wants to spend lots of money promoting young scientists into making robots, aerospace engineering, all of the specific and technical fields that make Space possible… and then cancel the program that puts those scientists to work, in favor of some amorphous “new and awesome thing that we’ve not decided on yet.” Everyone thinks that it is great! when someone features a young group of scientists that make a robot that will find, pick up, take apart, and store tennis balls. As soon as those scientists grow up, go to college, get jobs, and make a robot that will find, pick up, take apart, and store molecules and objects from other planets, asteroids, or whatever… nobody cares.
It’s as though they don’t see the connection.
We instill in our youth the joy of space exploration – go see a movie like October Sky – only to take away their opportunities to follow that career later in life to greater fund “green aviation” and funnel more kids into math and science careers. (I’m sorry, I don’t work in the field, but even this pea-brained Anna can tell you that it’s a lot cooler to say “I ran data for that project that went into space” than it is to say “I ran the data on those fuel efficiency cells on an airplane that nobody’s ever heard of” not to mention the buzzword “green” thing.)
As for embracing the commercial space industry…
“… investment in a well-designed and adequately funded space technology program is critical to enable progress in exploration, that increased international cooperation could lead to substantial benefits, and that commercial services to launch astronauts to space could potentially arrive sooner and be less expensive than Government-owned rockets.”
When I read that, this is what I hear: “We think that commercial space programs are going to get here sooner, so we’re not going to bother, because it’s expensive. Instead we’re going to do a Bold New Thing like make all our people that are here to work in space exploration into R&D scientists in buzzword technology like “green aviation”. All those kids that we’re spending all that money on can either pray that they get picked up as a corporate shill or come join the lab rats working at NASA.”
To add a layer of complexity, there is currently one commercial space exploration company in the United States – SpaceX. To some extent, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, The United Launch Alliance (which is both Boeing and Lockheed Martin) and Orbital Sciences all operate rockets as well, but currently SpaceX is the only US company actively entering the manned spaceflight field. All other commercial manned spaceflight is foreign, and that – combined with the phrase “increased international cooperation” smacks too close to outsourcing to make me really thrilled, especially considering the constant pushing of “science education” and the number of engineers already trained and working in the US.
The other possibility with this statement involves the government purchasing spaceflight technology from those companies instead of developing it themselves… which probably doesn’t do a lot in the saving money department, or will end up screwing over the engineers that developed it in the first place. (I bet they don’t tell students about that when they’re doing all that “science education” promotion.)
Don’t get me wrong. It’s 2010, we’re at the ass end of a NASTY bit of economic downturn, and though the “end is nigh”, we’re not seeing a lot of bounceback yet. I get that it’s all about the dollars.
But if it’s all about the dollars, why bother funneling millions into creating new aerospace and robotics engineers at the expense of the jobs of an entire generation or two of existing aerospace and robotics engineers that really would like to continue working in that field.
It doesn’t make any sense.