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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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.”

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