The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Man Who Travelled in Elephants

Well, that didn't take long. Two days after Bush announced his new space program, NASA announced that it was going to ditch the Hubble. These decisions may or may not be connected, but the coincidence is symptomatic.

Oh well. Lesson learned.

I nevertheless think that manned space exploration is important, and that there is something positive about the announcement, but before getting on to that, let's see what some of my correspondents have to say. (These posts got more email response than anything else I've posted. Maybe my general line that certain of Bush's other policies could be regarded as a nostalgic whimsy of extraterrestrial invaders eager to extraterraform Earth into something like their own warmer and more radioactive planet, with the Mad Max scenario as the preferred arrangement for any surviving sapient mammals, is less controversial than I had assumed.)

Peter Hansen:
I have to say I was surprised and (as a fan of the more critical aspects of your work) kind of disappointed at your post on the Bush space program. At worst an obfuscation of ongoing imperial action set to snow the proles for another election cycle (we'll see if it takes) and at best a great leap forward for the militarization of space (Rumsfeld's been angling for this upper hand for decades). And all with the sort of humanist only-REAL-people-can-experience-things dogma that really makes me blue.

I'd love to see another post on this subject after the haze clears.

(Count me in as a firm upholder of the humanist dogma, by the way. 'Consciousness is an emergent property of carbon.' This is the True Knowledge.)

David Fisher:
This is response to a post on Cyborg Democracy titled "The Man Who Sold the Moon".  If you
aren't the author, then please disregard this message.
Just a few comments:
NASA has an annual budget of about $15 billion USD.  It has tight purse strings, and there aren't any real "pet" projects or useless projects.  Shifting $11B in a $15B budget is not easy... in fact, it's not possible without a serious restructure of the entire program.  If you have a fifteen dollar meal budget for your entire family, how easy can you shift around eleven bucks?

(I think this is a misunderstanding of the budget proposal, but there's no doubt the proposal is skimpy.)  
Boeing's internal rough estimate of developing a replacement for the space shuttle is $20 Billion.  Bush wants to scrap the shuttle, but has not commented on where the R&D funds for the new craft would come from. 
The Bush Administration would like to scrap the International Space Station right now.  The ISS is underfunded, and its six man research crew has been reduced down to a maintenance crew of two.  If Bush really wanted to show committment to the space program and the future of space research, he would find a way to send up the other four ISS crew members. 
I don't know how to classify Bush's space proposals.  "Out of this world" is apt, but so is "out of his freakin' mind".  If Bush has refused to commit the resources to complete and staff the ISS, what makes anybody believe he's interested in building a base on the moon?  A trip to Mars was estimated to cost $400-$500 Billion in 1990.  Such an estimate now would tip the scales at close to $1 Trillion, and that doesn't even include a COSTLY moon base (perhaps over a trillion).  I'd be surprised to see the American taxpayers open their wallets for that.
It's important to note that under this proposal, the Department of Defense will be working much more closely with NASA.  I hate to think that an unnecessary restructuring might shift money towards DoD space programs, instead of traditional NASA research (which isn't entirely devoted to the study of moon rocks and asteroids). 
American conservatives have long wanted to tinker with NASA and recreate it into an agency whose goals are "sympathetic" with the Army.  Slip this proposal through Congress, let them pull out the expensive Mars stuff, and give NASA over to the DoD.  I'm afraid that is the goal here, and it has been disguised by Bush's "aw shucks" snake oil.

David Fisher adds: 
I hope that I didn't come across as hostile or anything. I have family who have worked for NASA for twenty years, and this new proposal is really a slap in the face. I'd love to see a renewed interest in space, a self-sustained moon base, and a robot colony on Mars. But this proposal isn't going to get us there.

Mike Gallagher:

I've read what Wired News put up of your interview and your blog comment;

>I don't, for example, know if Bush's way of finding the money by shifting
>$11 billion worth of existing NASA priorities and giving the agency an
>extra $1 billion over five years is open-handed, tight-fisted, or cack-

I'm not sure myself what to make of it. It will depend for me entirely on what the $11bn shift kills.

Mothballing the Shuttle is a good thing. It was wrecked by politics; a deathtrap before it flew. Completing the ISS is also a good thing, as is concentrating its research programme on human endurance and other aids to manned space flight. It was sold as a microgravity workshop and all
those other things but that's always been nonsense. Planning a permanent presence on the Moon, hooray! That's the kind of thing that the space effort has always needed. Now there will be somewhere to go if they can drive the price of launches down, which will provide incentive to drive launch prices down.

On the other hand, IMAP has just moved cosmology from the status of an unproven theory to an experimental science. A NASA Earth observation satellite found the hole in the ozone layer. Cassini and Huygens will determine whether there is the possibility of life on Europa. A planned
observatory will provide experimental evidence for or against a quantum gravity theory in two years. There is basic science to be done and if these programmes are cancelled, who is going to fund it? Corporate sponsors? Let's not be silly. ESA does lots of great work but NASA still
has the lead in space-based science platforms and the work needs to be done. Without quantum gravity, where are we going to get a star drive?

Finally, I have a deep disquiet about the possible outcome of a space race. Bush has said, "this is not a race, it's a journey," but he has also said, "Saddam is linked with Al Quaeda." Believe him if you like. The timing on this is far too close to China's manned space success to be anything but aggressive. If it becomes nothing but a political pantomime, then what progress has been made in the last thirty years will have been thrown away and once the race has been 'won' we will be effectively back at square one. There is also the possibility of Bush's political opponents pulling the rug from under it in a couple of years and maybe wrecking NASA into the bargain.

James Woodyatt:

You write:
> [...] All I'm saying about it at the moment is that as far as I know
> it's the first time a US President has said we're going to go into
> space and keep on going, and that this matters.

This is really interesting coming from you. Could you be persuaded to expound on why you are inclined to assign any credibility at all to my President's recent statements on this matter?

From my perspective, as an American of fairly anti-imperialist bent, my reaction is that the President is almost certainly engaging in the same sort of cynical manipulation that has been the hallmark of his operation since the beginning of his political career. I simply don't see any reason to take the President at his word on this matter, when he has been such a disappointment in so many other ways: the man has a long history of making excellent noises about visionary progressive policies, then proceeding to make a mockery of them with egregiously underwhelming follow-through.

Why would you take such an optimistic view in this case, assuming you have some better answer than simply "I Want To Believe", as it were? I'm genuinely curious about that.

Let's assume the worst. The unstated purposes of the Bush space program might then include:

Political grandstanding
Military and aerospace pork-barrelling
The militarization of space
Ditching research on the origins of life, the universe, and everything
else that might offend the creationist yahoos
Ditching research that might produce observations embarrassing to the oil industry
Throwing a fiscal millstone to any future administration that might have different priorities

Even so. Without prejudice to any of the above, and acknowledging that the devil is in the details, I still, dammit, think it's a big thing that a president for the first time has signed on to the Golden Age skiffy agenda of open-ended space exploration. The only person who wrote to me agreeing works for Liftport, a company aiming to build a space elevator. That one made my day.


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