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The Spacefaring Web 2.3: Kind Words for the NASA Budget
John Carter McKnight
February 20, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

The new NASA budget is rich in subtle messages for the space movement. So far we are making only the most tentative efforts to process, let alone respond to, those messages. I claim no expertise whatsoever in legislative analysis, and I look forward to hearing from those more knowledgeable than I. But there are several points to be made with regard to the recurring themes of this column. In brief, I see the budget as the beginning of a call to complementarity, or a view of NASA as a grouping of nodes in, rather than a militant alternative to, the Spacefaring Web.

The budget shows the beginnings of a discipline most unusual in democratic government. There is a near-irresistible tendency to promise everyone their own slice of the pie - which usually means that nobody gets their fill, and Uncle Sugar has to write an IOU to the pieman for extra deliveries. The typical NASA budget isn't at all the most egregious American example - one would have to look to the Army Corps of Engineers for that - but it is a textbook study in the democratic process. Key congressional districts get their science centers and planetariums; key defense contractors get endless funds for viewgraph engineering, gold-plating and brass-polishing; bases and centers are funded to keep payrolls high. Scientific constituencies each get thrown their scraps of robotic missions and research funding, and humans-in-space is allowed to keep ticking over. Everyone who might complain too loudly gets thrown just enough to keep the volume down, and in a good year some real work gets done. Just the way the system's designed to work.

But this year's NASA budget is different. There's a pronounced robotic focus on Mars, albeit at a slower pace than was proposed a few years back, and a flat-out declarative "no" to the Europa and Pluto constituencies. There are two beneficial forces at work there. One, the current multi-national, multi-mission Mars effort is generating real network effects, adding to our collective understanding in a way that serial, stovepiped megamissions to multiple destinations could never match. I expect that, particularly after the 2003 missions, the scientific community will regard the benefits of a networked "flotilla" of smaller probes as so great that it will become the norm in robotic planetary exploration. Secondly, there is an extraordinary, admirable honesty in the cancellation of the outer planets missions.

We cannot do everything well at once. Doing a first-rate job requires ruthless prioritization and focus. Many constituencies of the government treat it as a pushover granny, and consequently act like awful children, ever demanding more treats now. The cycle tends to increase, with more goodies offered in the hopes of appeasement just feeding demand and encouraging louder cries for more. Only a clear "no" can put an end to the cycle.

I don't mean to imply that the projects are at all undeserving, or that the Mars constituency is any different from that of Pluto (other than being more skilled and experienced with the political process). I'd be as thrilled as anyone to see data from Europa or Pluto. But both the science and the treasury will be better served by more, and more advanced, missions later. The outer planets are prime for a networked approach in a dozen or twenty years, with a generation of craft designed in light of our experience with Mars - and perhaps with the advanced propulsion that is such a notable feature of the new budget. On the other hand, I do have to admit that the unique opportunity to study Pluto's atmosphere could merit an exception to NASA's budgetary tough love.

There are many more examples of the tough "no," the biggest, of course, being the cap on construction of the International Space Station. Even I'm not cynical enough to take any pleasure from the observation that capping the crew at three puts a "QED" to the naked-emperor observation that the ISS was about defense-contractor maintenance and geopolitical make-work, which the figleaf of scientific research never could hide anyway. So, with the station's purposes effectively served, the cuts mark an unwillingness to write a blank Congressional check for that figleaf, given how egregiously the participants abused a system already quite carefree in allocating pork.

The bottom line is that we don't need human spaceflight today. We're not going anywhere, have no real plans to go anywhere, and are unlikely to form a consensus for some time that we should go anywhere. The reason we have ISS and Shuttle missions is to keep the skills of the people who know how to do human spaceflight, should we ever actually need them for anything. Should anyone doubt that, simply look at mission agendas: there is no comprehensive focus for human-conducted on-orbit research. For example, the amount of work being done to prepare for a future piloted Mars mission is effectively zero. Even the justifications for the biomedical research being done are tautological: "we're up here for a long time to study the effects of being up here for a long time." And duplicating work the Russians did on Mir in the last decade.

Maintaining capacity for its own sake isn't just bureaucratic self-perpetuation - though of course that is a factor. It's classic industrial policy, and a genuinely good idea. In the early 1990s we bought a couple of Seawolf submarines that nobody really wanted - because the alternative was to close a shipyard. Jobs and votes aside, once lost, the facilities and skills would be nearly impossible to re-create should the need arise. It was both cheaper and safer to buy a few subs that would just go around in circles, keeping the workers and crews sharp for when they might be dearly needed. The Shuttles and Station are space Seawolfs, maintaining the capacity should it be needed.

That said, the proper level of funding should be the exact minimum necessary to maintain a base infrastructure and cadre. A article suggests that the current budget may be pitched too low. That's a matter for those more expert than I, but it does seem that cuts to the size of the orbiter fleet and pad facilities could be made without losing the "fleet in being" capacity.

Much of the interesting space news, and much of the sector's dynamism, is coming from the military. This was to be expected: President Bush's choice of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense virtually ensured it. The immediate civilian benefit this year comes from the unexpected funding for nuclear propulsion: the balance of political constituencies had always been such as to shut out viable and promising research in this area, after initial Reagan-era SDI funding dried up. With a decline in anti-nuclear activism, the fat thumb of resurgent space defense interest was able to tip the scales.

It's been interesting watching the space movement respond to this development. The lack of a vocal internecine argument is a generally positive sign that we've come out from behind the barricades of the politics of a generation ago, when the movement factionalized over détente versus Star Wars. The silence may indicate that some real critical thought is taking place. The other possibility is that, without the manichean hawk/dove dogma of the past as a guide for rote responses to new events, we'll simply choose not to think at all about the increased role of the military in space.

Which would be a shame. First, because the military space agenda is one of the largest influences on the shape of our spacefaring future. Our efforts, be they commercial, scientific or political, will be futile if we don't understand the opportunities and constraints resulting from military interests. Second, because the increased participation of the military offers an opportunity to preach the good word of the Spacefaring Web to an audience at least initially inclined to listen. The American military has been struggling for a decade to make the transition from Industrial Age to Information Age, from stovepipe chain-of-command to network-centric warfare. While the old guard may be more entrenched than at NASA, the military has done outstanding work on the technological and cultural changes necessary for the transition. They have much to teach not just NASA but all the institutional participants in the Spacefaring Web. Those contributions should be warmly welcomed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, because the cultural gap between the civilian technological elite and its military counterpart has grown so wide as to threaten the social cohesion of America. Beyond the Beltway and the space-defense industrial complex, the middle class and intelligentsia have virtually no contact with the military. After the cultural hot wars of the 1990s, the two have retreated from each other in mutual incomprehension. The danger in such a state of affairs should need no elaboration.

I have always been skeptical of space projects as an opportunity for peace, love and understanding. But I do think that the space community - and American civil society at large - could benefit from a respectful dialog between the military space community and space advocates from outside the interlinkages of the government and aerospace contractors. I don't know where such a discussion might lead, or what policies the space advocacy groups should adopt on military issues - which is precisely why I believe such a dialog should take place.

And that's a fitting note to end on. This budget, and the new thinking it represents, can take us beyond preconceptions, old ideologies, political bad habits of dependency. It points toward possibilities of greater networking in robotic missions, between NASA and the private sector, NASA and the military, and between the military and the space movement. Pretty good for government work.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

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