The Magazine

Obama’s Asteroid

The decline of NASA and the senseless priorities of our government

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Recently I spent some time surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, who are braver and more committed to human progress, who know more about science and technology, more about business and industry, and more about budgets and expenditures.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

This is an experience Congress and the White House should have. Except Congress and the White House have this experience every day. And me too, but at least I know when it’s happening.

It was happening with unusual intensity last month in Colorado Springs at the 29th National Space Symposium. This is the biggest and most important annual worldwide gathering of the biggest and most important organizations and entities in the biggest and most important industry in the solar system. The biggest, certainly, in terms of reach. What other enterprise has sent employees on a 238,900-mile business trip to the moon? And the most important industry in the solar system by definition. No other industry is out there. The rest of the working world is stuck on Earth.

The Space Symposium Big Bang was the result of an astrophysical singularity called the Space Foundation, a global nonprofit established in 1983 “to advance space-related endeavors to inspire, enable and propel humanity.” That is, to get people to look up and go “aww” instead of look down and go “eww.”

The Space Foundation cosmos expanded rapidly. By now the corporate, governmental, civilian, and military galaxy of its annual symposium encompasses supernovas of luminary speakers, quasars of radiant panel discussions, constellations of participants from more than 30 nations, magnetic fields of 160 exhibitors, and 9,000 attendees in orbit. Senior management gravitational pull was felt from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon, ATK, Arianespace, General Dynamics, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and scores of other corporations of great mass and magnitude. A Perseids meteor shower of astronauts was seen—Buzz Aldrin included. And from the firmament of our armed forces did shine the brightest stars, some with four of them on their shoulders.

One evening I had the privilege of sitting at dinner with General William Shelton, commander, U.S. Air Force Space Command. Alas, the only launch capabilities about which I have any technical knowledge involve golf clubs. We discussed payload targeting frustrations on the links, and Gen. Shelton gave a polite hearing to my theory that if we dumped all the other clubs and just carried a 5 iron we might play a better game.

“Putting included?” asked Gen. Shelton.

“Putting included,” I said, glad to be able to answer a technical question.

I got to meet Gen. Shelton because I serve on the Space Foundation’s board of directors, although my only qualification for doing so is a kind of clownish enthusiasm about outer space. Over the years I have tried to fulfill my civic duty, aiding in the functions of various worthy organizations, this magazine for example. Somebody has to tie the balloon animals. 

But at the National Space Symposium the joke was the U.S. government. Here was the world’s foremost congregation of people and things having to do with space, and who didn’t show up? NASA.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration itself shouldn’t be blamed. The Air Force might not have been at the Space Symposium either, if it weren’t for Space Command’s being based in Colorado Springs and its brass willing to drive their own cars across town
and pay for the gas.

Sequester has every government agency trying not to look wasteful. This means all of them are going undercover in deep disguise. Knock on the door of NASA headquarters and they’ll probably tell you the initials stand for “Nation’s Abstemious Spending Advisory—go away, we’re counting nickels!” Also, civil service muck-a-mucks are still sensitive about the 2010 GSA $822,751 conference beano in Las Vegas. Never mind that those government employee partygoers were stimulating the economy in a city that bore the full brunt of the ’09 recession and were also, at least temporarily, too busy and snozzled to spend the rest of the General Services Administration’s $26.3 billion annual budget, so it was a win-win situation all around for the public.

Government travel to any kind of meeting has been on a short tether. You’ll recall our ambassador to Libya had a meeting with an angry group of armed fanatics at Benghazi last year, and the U.S. government didn’t send extra personnel.

Nonetheless, a National Space Symposium without NASA was like a White House Correspondents’ Dinner without journalists. That is to say, it didn’t matter as much as you’d think. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was long ago taken over by a business that is wealthier and more powerful than journalism, the business of manufacturing celebrities. Something analogous is taking place in space. NASA’s $17.77 billion 2012 budget is less than 6 percent of the $304.3 billion global space economy.

That isn’t NASA’s fault either. The 18,000 NASA employees are full of galactic talents and abilities and are ready to accomplish whatever they’re directed to do. The fellow who directs them is no slouch either. NASA administrator Charles Bolden is a Naval Academy grad, retired Marine Corps general, former test pilot and astronaut, and has a graduate degree in science. But, of course, NASA is a political instrument. And our political system does not seem to be able to figure out what NASA is instrumental for.

This didn’t start with the devolution of the Space Shuttle into a giant extinct flightless bird, or the surly Russian ticket-taking for a trip to the International Space Station as if their Soyuz rocket were a wildly expensive carnival ride, or the cancellation of President George W. Bush’s Constellation Program with its majestic Ares rocket able to propel democracy-building to Mars.

Funding for the original manned Voyager Mars Program was scratched in 1968, before humans had gotten out of Low Earth Orbit. Mid-’60s plans for a Venus fly-by with astronauts actually flying by it met the same fate.

Space has always been confusing to politics. Confusion was already evident in President Kennedy’s 1961 address to a Joint Session of Congress, where he famously said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” (And let’s thank him for that final dependent clause.)

But he didn’t say why. Kennedy had some phrases–-“a great new American enterprise” and “time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement.” (After that typed line in his reading text, the president scribbled an afterthought, “which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.” But no ways were specified.)

Kennedy did not make an emphatic call for a “space race.” In fact he said, “This is not merely a race.” And in his 1963 speech to the U.N. General Assembly he proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union team up in their attempts to put a man on the moon.

Perhaps the closest we get to a purely political explanation of space programs is from President Kennedy’s much-quoted 1962 speech at Rice University: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade .  .  . not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept.” And the same could have been said about a 50-mile hike. Pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not a political concept or politicians would know a lot more.

Fifty-one years later President Obama’s space entree is the same serving of vagaries, hold the pizzazz. In the NASA section of the president’s 2014 budget proposal, the challenge is “to rendezvous with a small asteroid .  .  . and move it to a stable location outside the Moon’s orbit. .  .  . Eventually, astronauts would visit the retrieved asteroid .  .  . fulfilling the President’s goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.”

Or, as one of the Space Symposium participants put it, “To boldly go where no man has ever shown much interest in going.”

The budget proposal paragraph on asteroids (which shows every sign of having been written by a junior staffer) ends, “In addition, NASA will accelerate its efforts to detect and characterize potentially hazardous Earth asteroids, to both address the threats and clarify the opportunities these objects represent.” Threat? Destruction of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Opportunity? Destruction of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.

 

The Space Foundation gave its Lifetime Space Achievement Award posthumously, this year, to Neil Armstrong, for one small step for man. Neil’s son Mark spoke briefly at a reception after the award ceremony. “I’m 50,” he said, “so I’ve just had time to see the U.S. space program go from its peak to what I hope is its nadir.”

Meanwhile other people have been taking one giant leap for mankind. Space turns out to be extremely valuable—a great new private enterprise. Commercial revenues from space services, products, support industries, and infrastructure totaled $225.87 billion in 2012. That’s almost three times the amount that governments around the world spent on space last year. And let us not forget, when governments spend money on space, much of it is spent on intercontinental ballistic missiles, spy satellites, military command and control, drone guidance, and—for all that those of us who have a “Bottom Gossip” security clearance know—orbiting death rays. (DoD’s space budget is 65 percent larger than NASA’s.) Governments get world domination. We get SiriusXM satellite radio. And we’re outspending governments in space anyway.

The words “Space Age” have a quaint, nostalgic tone—sitting on midcentury modern furniture watching The Jetsons. But get out of the butterfly chair and fold the rabbit ears on the Philco—you’re living in the Space Age.

Without the space industry all those dishes hanging off window sills, receiving HD television reception and providing high-speed Internet connection in even the most remote corners of the world, would be just so many woks gone wrong.

Without the space industry, the only way you could use your satellite phone to communicate with someone would be by bonking him on the head with it. And satellite phones aren’t even big enough anymore to be very useful for that.

Meteorological predictions would be Grandpa’s mutterings about how his joints ache. There would have been no forewarning of Superstorm Sandy, and former members of the Jersey Shore cast might have been blown all the way to Canandaigua. What a natural disaster that would have been for New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Your GPS would be an old coot perched on your dashboard, chewing a stalk of hay. “Git on over to Old Pike Road. ’Cept they call it County Route 738 nowadays. An’ turn left where the Hendersons’ barn burned down in ’63.”

Air traffic control is largely satellite dependent. Absent satellites, when you’re squeezed into the middle seat on a flight to Orlando, you might not just wish you were dead, you might get that way.

And you couldn’t go to Google Earth to find out whether your neighbors are raising pigs in a backyard pen. You’d have to take a stepladder and peek over the fence. Nope, just dirty kids and a very dilapidated swing set.

 

Which brings us back to Congress and the White House. For more than 60 years it has been almost a rule of American politics that the less important an issue is to the American public, the more serious the American political system is about it—the United Nations, Korea, McCarthyism, the Suez Crisis, the wheat surplus, Quemoy and Matsu, the Peace Corps.

Back when we were the only rich nation on earth and the unemployment rate was half of what it is today, Congress and the White House launched a War on Poverty. When people customarily dropped dead in their sixties and medical treatment for the aged consisted of “Take two aspirin and call me if you don’t wake up in the morning,” Congress and the White House created an enormous Medicare program. And when we were flinging things and people into space for no particular reason—“to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”—NASA was receiving nearly 4.5 percent of the federal discretionary budget. Now it gets less than 0.5 percent.

The rule works in reverse too. The more important an issue is to the American public the sillier the political system gets. When information about the dangers of the 9/11 attack was lost among federal security bureaucracies, Congress and the White House added another layer of federal security bureaucracy. When the financial system fell down, Congress and the White House gave money to the people who caused the collapse instead of the people the system fell on. When the cost and complexity of medical care began to worry everyone, Congress and the White House changed the subject and bent our ear about insurance instead of health until we all felt like we’d been button-holed at a Rotary meeting by the local John Hancock agent determined to explain the relative merits of whole life and term. And now the scope of our federal budget deficit is matched only by the scope of the nothing Congress and the White House are doing about it.

There’s a lesson in all this, maybe a universal lesson. I don’t pretend to be wise enough to know what the lesson is. But let’s send our children to the planets and the stars. And let’s keep them out of Congress and the White House. 

P.  J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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