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Clipping NASA’s wings

Right. I’m going to start this post with a warning. I’m usually a very tolerant kind of person, I much prefer negotiation to conflict and hate arguments. I always try to see both sides of an issue, and my posts here on CUMBRIAN SKY have always, I hoped, been fair and respectful to others’ opinions. But this isn’t going to be one of those posts. This one is going to be angry, and biased, and probably very unfair to some people, and will contain swearing. Why? Because I am just mad as hell about the latest NASA budget – which you must have read about, or heard about, unless you’re trekking to the pole or gliding down the Amazon in a canoe – and what it means for science, exploration, and the future. So, if anything in this post upsets you, or offends you, that’s fine, this is just a personal rant which I’m quite prepared to accept may be inaccurate or unfair in places. I don’t care. I need to vent, ok? And it’s my blog, so I am free to do that. And if you don’t like what you read, well, fine.


A few days ago the White House released into the wild its proposed NASA budget for 2013. And as expected, NASA took a hit financially – its budget was cut. But that wasn’t unexpected, and no-one with even an ounce of common sense or understanding of the way the world works, or an appreciation of the current global financial situation, was amazed. And at $60 million, the overall cut was a lot less than might have been expected in these difficult times.

But what had many people like me reaching for the smelling salts and punching their monitors in frustration and rage was the way NASA’s budget is going to be spread out. Because the fine detail of the budget showed that NASA’s planetary science budget was going to be cut by $300 million! Why? Because money is needed to pay for the whole “commercial spaceflight” thing, the development of the huge SLS rocket system and to bail out the grossly-over budget James Webb Space Telescope. $300m…

And out of that $300m, $226m of it was going to be cut from the money used to explore Mars…

My first reaction was that I’d misread the figures in the story I read online. $300m? Don’t be stupid. That was… crazy! Politicians are always banging on about how wonderful NASA’s unmanned space program is, how it shows us amazing new worlds, how it inspires the next generation, etc… and they were wanting to slash it like that? So I kept reading, hoping I was wrong, but it seemed the figures were accurate and true. Then I followed the official budget release press conference…thing… on Twitter, following the announcements and discussion through the Tweets of people I trusted (thanks Doug Ellison and Daniel Fischer and Emily Lakdawalla) and dear god, it was true. NASA’s Mars exploration budget was going to be hacked with an axe, hewing away $226 million. Unbelievable.

Looking at a page of the .pdf budget release document I was initially alarmed to see just zeroes in the rows for the Mars rovers and Mars Reconaissance Orbiter after 2013, and my knee jerk reaction was to panic and think that those programs were going to be shut down, but an email from Doug reassured me that no, that wasn’t going to happen; they were safe, their budgets were just going to be called something else after 2013. Phew!

But the bad news was camouflaged in those figures. Essentially, apart from the MAVEN “atmosphere-sniffing” mission to Mars, NASA’s exploration of Mars post-MSL was going to be trimmed right back: plans beyond 2016 were vague at best, and NASA’s collaboration with the European Space Agency on a rover-and-orbiter mission to Mars – ExoMars – was going to be cancelled, NASA were pulling out of that partnership, leaving ESA to go it alone.

Now, I have to be honest here, I had mixed feelings when I heard that. It wasn’t unexpected – there had been rumours of a NASA pull-out in the run-up to the budget announcement, and ExoMars has been, shall we say a “troubled program”, which many people think is basically a half-arsed mission at best and a pie-in-the-sky dream at worst. Already scaled-down from its original plan, and already wildly over budget, ExoMars had felt to me for a long time like a great idea on paper but something that would never fly. So losing it in these budget cuts wasn’t as hurtful to me, personally, as, say, having Oppy turned off to save money would have been. But still, it’s a great shame for all the people involved in the mission, who I am sure live and breathe it already every bit as much as the men and women involved in MER and MSL do their missions, and if it had worked, and detected signs of life on Mars then obviously it would have been the Best Mission Ever, ‘cos I’m fickle like that! ūüôā But the worst thing about this is NASA’s failure to fulfill its agreements and support its international partners, that’s terrible, and will lead to big problems down the line, I’m sure. With the exploration of space now so expensive, international collaboration on missions is the sensible way to go, and NASA has lost a lot of face, I fear, in pulling out of ExoMars, even if some of the reasons are sound.

I’m talking as if ExoMars is dead now, but it’s not; ESA has stated that it will now try and get help from Russia, and I wish them well with that, of course I do, but personally I just can’t see ExoMars happening. It just seems too ambitious for ESA, waaay too expensive too, and I just don’t think this is ESA’s mission to Mars. It will get there, absolutely, and do amazing things, but, I fear,¬†not in this way.

The reduction in NASA’s budget for planetary exploration will mean several things. Firstly, it will mean we’ll see fewer amazing discoveries “out there”, because there’ll be less money to send things “out there”, or to operate the things already “out there”. I don’t see how the Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity and Cassini (at Saturn) CAN’T have their missions affected by these cuts. Surely there’ll be some impact?

And surely there’ll be job cuts within NASA to help mop up this budget shortfall? Amazingly brilliant and talented men and women at JPL and other NASA centres will be shown the door because some idiot bloody politicians have no idea, no IDEA of the worth of what they do. That makes me mad.

But the biggest effect will be on the future of planetary exploration.¬† I think we’re about to enter what will essentially be a new Dark Age of planetary exploration and that we’ll soon be looking back on this period as a Golden Age.¬†

As my fellow UMSF member Ted Stryk rightly pointed out, there’ll be lots to keep us busy, and lots of discoveries happening through 2015, because that’s when the DAWN probe will arrive at dwarf planet Ceres and also when NEW HORIZONS will scream past Pluto, but after that? Nothing big planned. No more flagship missions. Nothing major on the horizon. Dreams of Europan landers, Mars sample returns and Titan balloons flushed down the toilet.

And why? Well, because the money for them won’t be there. And why? Because it will be going instead to pay for the proposed new manned spaceflight capsule and the huuuge SLS rocket system, and to pay for supporting private firms to fly astronauts to and from the space shuttle, and to pay for the completion and launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

I have mixed feelings about that, too.

As an astronomy enthusiast, I am excited by the JWST’s mission, of course I am. It promises – yet again – to “revolutionise our view of the universe”, and allow us to peer back to the dawn of time, etc etc… That’s all great, and the science will be great too, and I am 10000% behind the scientists involved in the mission, because they just want to get on and see and find and discover things, new things, amazing things…

But JWST has been managed appallingly. Appallingly. It is so far over budget looking at the figures makes you wince. It’s way behind schedule, too, and now won’t make it into space until 2018. It’s one of those engineering projects that is simply too big to cancel or be allowed to fail, and there’s been so much money spent on it already that cancelling it would be absolute folly. But dear god, the cost… It has soaked up money like a big telescope-shaped sponge, draining funds from other NASA missions like a gold-foil wrapped space vampire, sinking its fangs into their throats and gulping and glugging without mercy or guilt. When it eventually flies, and takes up position and begins work, it will leave behind it a lot of ill will and resentment – again, not the fault of the astronomers involved, but of its managers, and I just hope for their sake that it makes some pretty bloody amazing discoveries very quickly, to justify its existence. It’s a fine machine, an engineering marvel, like Hubble before it, but is it worth the vast amounts of money spent on it? Time will tell…

And I should admit here that yes, Curiosity – the Mars Science Laboratory rover – is also over-budget and behind schedule, but, cards on the table, as my main passion is the exploration of Mars I’m more than prepared to forgive the MSL team that. Shallow? Yes. Hypocriical? Maybe. But Mars is my obsession, I suppose, and there’s also a voice inside me saying that in my opinion the discoveries JWST will make will not be as interesting or as important to our everyday lives than those MSL might make, so I’m not going to criticise MSL here, the team has my full support.

I’m honestly at a loss trying to figure out just what is behind this NASA budget cut. I know, I know, difficult times… financial challenges… priorities.. but I was under the impression that NASA was seen as a source of pride by US politicians, especially President Obama. His willingness to kick NASA in the teeth is a real shock and disappointment to me, as I had been led to believe he was pro-science and pro-NASA. And before anyone says that it’s not his budget, it’s¬† Congress’s budget, or something like that, well this is a “WHite House budget proposal” isn’t it? It comes *from* the White House? So it must have Obama’s approval, mustn’t it? If that’s true, then the same President who has welcomed shuttle astronauts to the White House and hailed them as heroes has approved a budget that will all but crucify planetary exploration in years to come.

I’m in a real dilemma about this. I have no bones about admitting I’m a huge Obama fan. I think he is an incredibly talented politician, and a genuine, honset man. I’ve been moved and excited by his speeches, and have always believed that he was as close to a Bartlett as we’re ever going to get in real life. I’ve been genuinely moved whenever I’ve seen him talking to people about hsi lve of and support for science, and last week when he was talking to all those kids at the White House science fare, telling them all how much he admired them, how much he is inspired by them, and all the rest, I really thought that he meant it. Then I read in this new budget that he’s cutting $36 million from NASA’s education budget!! What the **** is that about??? You bloody idiot!!! How can he have stood there, looking those kids in the eye, telling them all those things, making them feel valued, giving them real hope for the future, knowing that he was going to be taking money away from¬†the NASA men and women whose job – and joy – it is to inspire kids just like them and help them shape the future? I don’t get it, I just don’t get it.

I like to think, and I’m telling myself, that this is all “just politics”, that the budget is designed to start a debate in the US political world which will then allow Obama to stand up and say “Well, look, if you won’t give me the money to let me support NASA like I want to, then this is what I have to do…”

…but another of those voices in my head (it’s a crowded place, I know!) has been telling me for a while that actually Obama isn’t that big a supporter of NASA after all. He talks the talk, shakes the hands, makes all the right noises, but deep inside he’s not really that fussed, you know? I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the feeling. If someone can reassure me, please, do so.

I don’t want to be unfair to President Obama by blaming this situation all on him, and my limited appreciation of the American political system might mean I *am* being *very* unfair to him criticising him like this here, but the thing is, President Obama has put his name to this budget, and he MUST know how much this budget will hurt NASA, he must do. He must know that it will mean NASA abandoning all hope of returning samples from Mars for a generation or more. he must know that it will lead to horrible, horrible pressure being placed on people involved in running the MER, CASSINI and other missions. He must know that it will lead to a gap, a pause in NASA’s unmanned exploration of the solar system. he must.

It wouldn’t be so bad if someone could stand up and say “Look, being honest, we can’t afford big unmanned AND manned programs, and we’ve such amazing plans for the manned side of things that you unmanned mission guys are just going to have to live with it, ok?” but that’s not the case. NASA’s manned program is, as far as I can see, absolutely f****d up. They have turned their backs on the shuttle (for many reasons, some of them sound, I’ll admit) without having a replacement vehicle ready to fly (STUPID STUPID STUPID!!!!!!). They don’t have a rocket to launch capsules on. They don’t have anywhere to go if and when they eventually DO have that spacecraft and rocket. Oh, there are vague murmurs about manned missions to an asteroid and Mars in 2035 (2035?!?!?!?! Are you ****** joking?!?!?!?), but the Mars mission might just be a manned flyby! SERIOUSLY?!?!?! Are you having a ****** laugh?!?!? So, you’re going to build a spacecraft large and fast enough to get to Mars, risk launching it with a crew, send it all the way to Mars and NOT land?!?! Which head-in-a-bucket moron came up with THAT idea?!?! For the money that would cost you could send probably half a dozen landers to Mars, bring samples back to Earth for study, and more. Don’t you dare do that, NASA, don’t you DARE!!!

I can’t help thinking that this mess is just one more sign, one more piece of proof, that NASA has lost its way. With shuttle just a distant memory, the ISS complete but looking for something useful to do, and manned missions out into the great black nothing more than fancy Powerpoint slides, it’s an agency looking for a purpose. Like anyone in a job who is¬†asked to do more and more with less and less money, its desperate to go outside and scream “Noooo!!!!! I can’t!!!!” at the sky, its collective head is well and truly messed up and its weary too.¬†

Modern astronomers believe that we live in a “Multiverse”, a universe of many universes, each one different from the others. If that’s true then there must be universes out there where this is all playing out differently. Somewhere out there there’s a universe where, instead of slashing NASA’s budget like a movie serial killer, President Obama is talking to NASA Chief Charles Bolden in the Oval Office, right now…

“Charlie, you and I both know why we’re here. These are difficult times, and no agency is going to get through them without some hurt and blood being shed.”

“Yes, Mr President, I appreciate that.”

“I was going to cut the budget Charlie, really swing the axe. I have people telling me that’s what I have to do, that there’s no choice. Everyone’s hungry, winter’s setting in, and although NASA’s not the biggest pig in the yard everyone knows that you’re one of the quietest, so they figure they can take some slices off you without too much protest. You’re pushovers, Charlie, you just take it. I appreciate your loyalty, but loyalty hasn’t worked out that well for you, has it?”

“No, Mr President – ”

“I’ll be honest Charlie. I realise that for years now we’ve asked NASA to do more and more, but not given you the money. That’s why you’re spread too thin, and I realise that’s my fault, in part.”

“Thank you, Mr President – ”

“But you guys are at fault too, Charlie. Good god, has no-one there got a freaking calculator? Can’t those people making the James Webb count past twenty with their trousers on? That budget… that’s insane Charlie, insane, and if the damned thing wasn’t so far along already I’d pull the plug so fast there’d be a sonic boom… ”

“It’s a challenge Mr President – ”

“No, it’s not a challenge Charlie, it’s a f**k up, and you know it. Get those guys in line, and get them in line now. And you’d better pray that the thing’ opens up as planned when it gets out there or the public outcry will be so loud that probe heading to Pluto will hear it.”

“Our fingers are crossed, Mr President”.

“Charlie… NASA simply can’t go on the way it is, things have to change.”

“Yes, Mr President – ”

“NASA needs a focus, Charlie, it needs to be challenged again.”

“Yes, Mr Prseident, I agree with you – ”

“Today I’m going to give you a challenge, Charlie.”

“Mr President?”

“Charlie… NASA needs to do what it does best. Push back the boundaries, reach out, think big. Ask big questions, and do whatever it has to do to find out the answers. I want to give NASA its focus back by setting it two challenges.”

“Two more challenges, Mr President? But you just said we can’t do what you want us to do already, with our budget. Now you’re going to cut it again – ”

“Cut it? Who told you that Charlie?”

“Well – ”

“Don’t listen to gossip Charlie. No, I don’t want to cut your budget Charlie. I want to increase it.”

“Mr President ! That’s wonderful! But… the money… Congress will never – ”

“I’ll get you the money, Charlie, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll get you the support, the votes, because¬†the people out there, the voters, already support you, they love NASA, but no-one has a clue what the hell you do any more, what the hell you’re for.¬†It’s time to change that. NASA needs to stop dicking about with… stuff… and go do something *useful* out there.”

“Like what,¬†Mr President..?”

“Mars, Charlie. We need to go there.”

“We already are, Mr President. Curiosity will – ”

“No, Charlie, I don’t mean rovers. People, Charlie. We need to get people on Mars. BWe need bots on Mars Charlie, not wheels. The rovers are great, don’t get me wrong, but people don’t feel the same way about robots as they do about people. I want you to land people on Mars Charlie, by 2020. Stop screwing about with weather satellites, orbiters and rovers, and find a way to land a team on Mars that will be able to explore it as only people can, with instinct and a keen eye. Get people on Mars, with a laboratory good enough to determine once¬† and for all if Mars ever had life, or has it now.¬† That’s a mission people can understand, a mission people will support. A mission people will pay for.”

“That’s a big ask, Mr President – ”

“I know, and I’m not finished yet. I¬†know astronomers love their particles, and red shifts, and galactic nuclei, but when it comes to astronomy, there’s only one question people Out There want answering, Charlie, and you know what it is.”

“I do?”

“Yes, you do.”

“I’m not sure I – ”

“It’s The Question, Charlie, the one we’ve asked ever since we started looking up at the night sky – ”

“Mr President – ”

“Are We alone? That’s The question Charlie. People out there don’t give a crap about the origin of the universe, the conditions that existed a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, or the way a neutron star works. They want to know if there’s life out there in the universe Charlie, and that’s what you need to find out. That’s what NASA needs to do, Charlie – find out, once and for all, if there’s life out there in the universe. Focus, Charlie. Concentrate. Stop messing about with deep astrophysical concepts and find out if we have neighbours, near or far.”


“I want you to find a way of looking for life in our own backyard, Charlie,. Enough with the weather systems, atmospheric composition, no-one cares. I want ¬†simple but foolproof tests that can be delivered to the usual suspects and answer The Question. Your scientists have been telling me, and the world, for years that life could exist on Mars, on Titan, beneath the ice of Europa and Enceladus. Yeah? Fine. Prove it. Go look for it. Then look further.”

“Further, Mr President?”

“Further, Charlie. All these exoplanets? Pretty cool. But we need to be looking for one like our own Charlie, we need to be looking for other Earths, that might have life on them, even if its only trees and grass. NASA needs to be looking for and finding that Earth 2 you’ve been going on about all these years. Find a way to find it, and take its picture. I want to see blues and greens, Charlie. Not just a dot lost in the glare of a star. Your experts all insist the math points to there being thousands if not millions of Earths out there. Fine. Find them. Show us them. Build telescopes just for that job. Focus. Concentrate. ”

“You make it sound easy Mr President – ”

“I know it won’t be easy Charlie, but what’s the alternative? More photographs of icy moons… more radar pictures of dunes… more graphs showing the distance to distant galaxy clusters… Enough! That’s not what NASA should be doing, data gathering and picture taking! Get people out there! Make bootprints somewhere! And find out if we’re alone in the universe or not. That’s what people out there – the people who pay my wages, Charlie, and yours – want you to be doing. Time to start doing it. Put people on Mars, with hammers, drills and microscopes, and get to grips with that planet as only people can. Find planets like Earth around other stars. And spend some decent money on SETI, Charlie, let’s find out once and for all if someone Out There really is trying to talk to us. We’ve all messed about with that far, far too long.”

“Is that all, Mr President?”

“It’s enough, don’t you think, Charlie?”

“Yes, Mr President.”

“Okay then. get out of here Charlie. Go tell your people they’re about to change the world. Again. ”

Of course, that’s a wildly, wildly optimistic and naive scenario, and it could never happen in reality. But that’s what I’d rather NASA would be doing, personally – concentrating on sending people to Mars, and looking for extraterrestrial life. I honesly think that if NASA was to shift its focus away from all the extra “stuff” and concentrate on those two goals the public would get right behind it, then the politicians would have to, too. And again, that might just be me being naive and unrealistic, but in all my years of doing Outreach work, giving talks in¬†modern schools and drafty church halls, talking to children and farmers, teachers and dustbin men, that’s what I’ve been told, again and again and again. People want to know if there actually is life Out There, and they’re fascinated by the idea of people, not probes, going to Mars. I wish NASA would focus on those two challenges, but it’s not going to happen, not in my lifetime anyway. And I am starting to feel quite resigned to the fact that I won’t live long enough to see people walking on Mars, at least not if it’s left to NASA. The Chinese might make a dash for it, just for national honour, or some private company might put together a bootstrap mission, a there and back again “flags and footprints” extravaganza done as cheaply and simply as possible, but I don’t have a lot of faith in that happening when we’ve yet to see a single private spacecraft in Earth orbit.

So, here we are… NASA is having its wings clipped, and its budget for planetary science is going to be slashed. We are still – as we always are, whatever year it is!! – “at least 30 years away” from sending people to Mars, and there’s no sign of things improving.

It could all be very different, of course. The money is there, it’s just not being given to NASA. NASA could have put people on Mars years ago, if there’d been a US President ¬†with a) a backbone, b) vision and c) the sense to spend money wisely, on things that actually advance us as a race instead of stunting our growth.

The money IS there, it’s just being used ****** stoopidly.

Something I read on Phil Plait’s brilliant “Bad Astronomy” blog made me both shake my head in disbelief and curl up my fists in rage and despair. He reported on his blog, in the aftermath of the new budget announcement, that the cost of the US military’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is $20 million an hour. AN HOUR!!!! If you get your calculator out you can work out in just a few moments that the cut to NASA’s planetary science budget, that $300m, works out as the equivalent¬†of the cost of waging the so-called “War on Terror” for fifteen hours. Fifteen ***** hours! That’s not even a whole day! Now, I know that we have to defend ourselves, and the people over there, and not for a fraction of a moment am I suggesting that the people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve anything less than our full support as they put their lives on the line to keep us safe from maniacs, but come on, $20 m an hour? That’s just bloody ridiculous. Worse than that. it’s obscene. And there are people advocating going to war with Iran, too? Doesn’t it make you want to scream? I know it does me.

I don’t know what we can do about this, I really don’t. I can’t see a way out of this mess. The politicians holding the purse strings are at best ignorant of the value of what NASA does, or at worst don’t give a crap as long as they are okay and get re-elected next time. Obama seems like he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions, even though he’s the most intelligent President for many years. NASA’s work is proven to inspire people, young and old, and its work and discoveries benefit us all. Every dollar spent on NASA is an investment in the future. Every dollar taken away from it is a mistake.

I just feel lost with it all, I really do.

But I know that future generations will look back at us and shake their heads in disbelief at the way we ran down the cosmic beach and splashed out into the universe’s surf for a while before turning around and running back up the beach again, turning our backs on the waves glittering in the sunlight behind us, and on the islands calling to us from the distant horizon.


3 Responses

  1. Since January of 2009, NASA’s mission has not been space exploration. NASA’s mission is to prove than global warming is destroying the planet. Federal agencies, like NASA, are controlled by the Executive branch. Obama installed Bolden and Garver shortly after his inauguration to carry out his mission. It’s a sad thing to watch.

  2. The question is not so much that too much money is being diverted from low budget, high scientific return missions to the Solar System into big, general astronomy projects. It is that too little money is diverted from useless peace time military projects (which by the way are bound to become obsolete in a few years) into science, education and welfare projects. No use in scientists squabbling over peanuts when the lion’s share is really going to mega companies.

  3. Reblogged this on John K. Patterson and commented:
    I have to give my most vigorous agreement to this blogger’s main point. NASA needs to reach Mars, and push back against the politicians that bully it and slice away its funding for their own ambition. NASA has to swing a few fists, at least long enough to get a manned rocket off the ground and on its way to Mars.

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