Constellations – Let’s Play Connect the Dots

(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.

5 thoughts on “Constellations – Let’s Play Connect the Dots

  1. And you know- I mean you KNOW- how this is going to play out. The final bill will have no money for NASA and no money for industry to develop technologies to replace NASA’s manned spaceflight division.

    I was extremely disappointed in this decision. The lack of vision in our political process makes a cynic of me. My livelihood doesn’t depend on the space program the way yours does, but as a lifelong fan of space exploration, I can’t excuse this. Not to mention that as an astronomer and planetary scientist, I know good and well there is only so much that can be accomplished with probes- to really get into the guts of a planet, you need something/someone who is able to discern on the ground. It’s just bad science, and anyone who knows me knows it is a quirk of my nature that nothing on this earth offends me more than bad science.

    I haven’t talked to my father today, but he is going to be so sad when he hears this. He doesn’t work for NASA anymore, but he’s worked on the (many) shuttle replacement initiatives over the years and he was one of many who have fought long and hard to keep them alive. My dad IS a rocket scientist because he watched men walk on the moon when he was a kid- it’s been his passion all his life. And I’m an astronomer because of that same passion that he passed onto me over the course of my childhood.

    I get the hand-off to industry- it’s been obvious a long time now that this is the final destination of manned spaceflight, like many technologies before it. But, preferably, that hand-off would be when industry is READY for it- which is most decidedly not the case right now.

    Today is a very sad day. 🙁

  2. Aside: The first staff meeting I attended during my bizarre sojourn as a Rolls-Royce contractor involved a bunch of engineers who had just come back from a conference. At said conference, there was a presentation about the lack of young aero-engineers. The men expressed bewilderment, saying that their jobs paid well and were reasonably secure- they couldn’t understand why so few would be interested.

    I just started laughing (though in a polite way and mostly internally- I’d just started after all). I told them, essentially, “Look, I busted my ass in undergrad to get a degree in astrophysics, which I don’t want to be immodest but is NOT the soft option, and I make $30/hr with no benefits as an entry-level contractor. My brother boozed and partied his way to an econ degree and he makes $60/hr for the same level of position, WITH benefits even though he is also a contractor.

    I can’t IMAGINE why our youth would be passing science by in spite of education’s best efforts.”

    /end aside

  3. It just boggles my mind that they can’t they see that getting rid of these jobs – especially right now – ruins the dreams of all those kids that got all that money to go into science education 15 years ago? and 20 years ago? and 30 years ago? They’ve been pushing space as the reason to get involved in science for years. There are fleets of engineers – even engineers like my husband, who went to school specifically to be part of the space/aerospace programs at NASA, and who studied things like Orbital Mechanics and Planetary Motion – in danger of losing their jobs so that more kids can have those dreams. Engineering (and any science profession) is hard, it’s hard work, and frequently unrewarding. And it’s REALLY FRUSTRATING to fight that even against the very people that push how great it is to go into science, only to have them yank the rug out from under you on the program you got hired to be part of.

  4. Screwed up priorities–this Administration has them. Sorry to hear about this indeed.

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