Monday, 8 August 2011

Those were the voyages....

My political comment on Those were the voyages, a narrative of past glories, faded dreams and the US Space Program, by James Lileks.

There are so many problems the US faces in having a manned space program.

1. Lack of Leadership. President Obama’s attitude towards establishing a lunar base is
“We’ve been there before.”
He sees the manned space program as a series of bigger and better publicity stunts. His speeches are statements of intent for a plan to be made by someone, sometime, in the nebulous future, details to be worked out by future administrations.
“We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history…By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”
But nothing concrete during his administration.

2. Congressional Pork. The attitude of the POTUS is actually an advabce on the attitude of Congress, The whole space program is seen as a way of buying votes for individual congresscritters, funneling money to their congressional districts. If nothing actually gets accomplished, so much the better, as it means the largesse will continue. The last thing they want is the gravy train to be derailed by premature success.

3. The “Can Do” attitude of NASA administration – along with blatant dishonesty trying to sell their projects by minimising the likely costs, and over-promising performance. Then when they only get 70% of the money actually needed, not having the guts to say “no, we can’t do this, either give us what’s needed or don’t waste money on a project that’s doomed from the start.”

4. Misinformation amongst the general public about the situation. Many people think the US is routinely flying not just Interplanetary manned missions, but Interstellar ones. That we have FTL. They don’t realise that our current capabilities are about the same as they were in 1960.

5. Misinformation amongst the general public about the budget allocated to NASA. Many think it must be 10% or higher. Some think it must be 30%, or more, rivalling HEW or the Dept of Defence. In fact, it’s 0.5c in the dollar. The total amount spent under the Obama administration on space development is far less than was spent to bail out GM.

I expect a Chinese permanent presence on the Moon by 2050. Probably not self-sustaining by then, but lunar exploration being about as routine as Antarctic exploration today (ie not very). And just as with Antarctica, the discovery of lots of resources too, to be developed in the century after that. The Moon is an excellent place to make the “baby steps” needed before tackling Mars and the Belt.

I don’t see the USA participating in this, though US companies may dominate LEO by then.


Zimbel said...

#3 - I'm not certain that they can legally do this; the executive branch is obligated to take and spend money as Congress directs even when that doesn't make much sense to the executive branch (an underfunded project, as an example). That, of course, ties into #2 where many congresspersons view space program spending as local pork.

#4 - do you have support for this view?

#5 - I was skeptical - then I came across this: NASA’s budget … as far as Americans think NASA’s allocation, on average, was estimated to be approximately 24% of the national budget

Unknown said...

Totally off topic, but a wee while ago you mentioned that banks were foreclosing on people who didn't have mortgages. At the time it was uncertain they were doing so, but in retrospect they were.

Anyway, John Oliver produced a report on The Daily Show about a couple who "foreclosed" on the Bank of America. :-D

It's a real feel-good story (I don't feel the slightest bit evil saying that. :-) )

Here is what I hope is the link:

Unknown said...

On topic... When JFK told everyone America was going to the moon, he had the votes for the appropriations. He couldn't make a unilateral decision; in fact, the Constitution is quite explicit that the Executive can't even keep a penny jar in the office. To achieve something grand, like a viable space strategy, Mr Obama would need a comfortable majority of both houses who agree that such a thing is needed. Mr Obama isn't persuaded such a thing is needed, and the House wouldn't agree with him even if they did agree with him. (They're out to destroy him as a President, although I think some of them are out to destroy him as a man!) And that lot think repaving a rutted road a profligately grand project.

So is it a failure of leadership? Not really; he's never concentrated on a space program. At least he isn't offering meaningless sops to win over tech-heads.

People think the US gives out 10% of its budget to foreign aid, too. There's an almost comical misunderstanding about the budget; it's comical until you realize that of the nations that actually publish their budgets - they all have the same perception problems. It's not what is accurate, it's what is perceived.

I agree there should be a better effort. I think America needs to regroup and start some big projects, new railways, new space efforts, new infrastructure efforts and so many other things. Unfortunately the political process has become hostage to small thinkers and naive fiscal chickens.

And it doesn't help that people don't understand, or agree on, the importance of space as a place to go. If you're busy trying to keep your job, it's difficult to think about big issues, basically. It needs a charismatic leader and a big worry. And people just don't think China is a big threat like the Soviet Union was.

Anonymous said...

"in fact, the Constitution is quite explicit that the Executive can't even keep a penny jar in the office."

Nowhere in the Constitution does it even remotely say anything resembling this.

Zimbel said...

The best reference I can find on executive spending is in Clinton v. City of New York

And the material in that court decision states that I'm wrong.

The Government has reviewed in some detail the series of statutes in which Congress has given the Executive broad discretion over the expenditure of appropriated funds... In those statutes, as in later years, the President was given wide discretion with respect to both the amounts to be spent and how the money would be allocated among different functions.

So while the President doesn't have power to not spend what Congress tells them to, they always have been allotted much of that power by Congress (since 1789) for the discretionary budget, which NASA would be under.

So my comment on #3 was wrong. My apologies.

Zoe Brain said...

I love having intellectually honest friends who fact-check themselves.

Thank you, Zimbel.

Unknown said...

Anonymous: Of course it is! Section 8 says: "The President shall not keep a penny jar in his office" :-D (Sorry! I'm really bad at resisting the opportunity to poke fun at myself.)

It was an analogy, a metaphor if you like. The Constitution gives the Executive branch no fiscal power*; it gives all that power to Congress. (Zimbel's point notwithstanding, of course.)

The President is obliged to suggest a budget, but he can't enact it by decree, any suggested distortion of the 14th Amendment notwithstanding. And as Zimbel points out, there is precedent for giving presidents some power to allocate funds. (Zimble, thanks for pointing that out!) But that's not exactly akin to having a penny jar in the office. If Congress says "you can't spend more than thru'pence ha'penny on NASA", then NASA gets that amount, if they're lucky. But my basic point was that president can't take from one pot of gold to makeup for a shortfall in a pot of tinker. It actually takes an act of Congress to do that! So he can't reallocate from Defense to NASA; the bureaucrats can play games with the system (and it's been alleged they have done), but essentially the president's fiscal powers are minimal.

I have no answer how he's managing to pay for the munitions used in Libya. As far as I know there's no appropriation for that (well needed) effort.

*Because I couldn't remember the Const. saying the president was obliged to provide a budget, I checked. It's not in there! (All this time, and despite being quite familiar with it, I thought it was! Huh, just goes to show.) All of the fiscal powers are allocated to Congress in Sct. 8. I think Clinton vs NYC indicates how the Const. is interpreted so that it can provide a workable government (yeah, well, I have no answer for that, either!)

Unknown said...

I have to ask this here, as Suzan won't publish my riposte's. Are you serious that she's allowing disagreement on that odious post of hers? She insults me and then refuses to publish my responses - that's not allowing disagreement, that's allowing some disagreement. It's also cowardly.

And I'm surprised you didn't identify Dana's question as a straw-man. The answer is "it depends", because Dana doesn't define anything and creates a false test while asking her question!

Carolyn Ann