Today I saw President Obama's speech in Florida regarding the plans for NASA in the near and distant future. As usual, he used a lot of words to say very little except of course that he plans to increase their budget by $5 billion over the next five years. Yawn. Have you ever noticed how easily figures like that seem to roll off of the tongue of a politician? It seems effortless really. And then again, Pols from both side of the aisle effortlessly either take those paltry sums from Americans at gunpoint or when that doesn't work they just call up the Federal Reserve, schedule a Treasury auction, and print some more of the nearly worthless junk. But I digress.
Today's speech highlighted a real problem that seems systemic with the current and even past administrations. Essentially the President said that he was committed to flowing money to NASA, protecting valuable government jobs while complaining about the lack of vision and politicization of NASA's budget in previous administrations. The problem I see is that he doesn't have much of a vision for what NASA is going to be doing in the foreseeable future either. I guess just proclaiming to have a vision is supposed to be good enough. I fail to see the logic in spending money on research if you really don't know what you are going to do with it, or where you plan to go. This is more "Ready, Fire, Aim" from Washington. In hearing this speech I am reminded of Nancy Pelosi telling us recently that we needed to pass the Health Reform Bill in order to see what was in it. I thought you made a plan up front before jumping off a cliff, but maybe I am just stupid. Former astronauts later opined that the problem is with NASA management, and that they (the managers at NASA) didn't have the necessary skill-sets to guide the program into the future with any kind of vision. Unless, of course, you accept blindness as a skill. I disagree. The problem is top-down. Washington is brain-dead on the issue.
A quick historical review of NASA will help here. After WWII, German scientists that weren't grabbed by Moscow, immigrated to the United States. It seems all of their homes and factories were blown up and they needed a new place to work. Nazi or not, their experience with rockets coupled with a lot of American dough kickstarted the fledgling U.S. space agency. However it is important to note that in the post-WWII environment, it was necessary for government to have a public agenda that was definitely different than the less-publicized one. America was tired of war, and had no real interest in being the world's policeman. The idea of going to space and on to the moon sounded like a good one and the public bit hard on the hook. The cold war was heating up and quickly the Soviet Union, with the assistance of left wing groups in the U.S., stole bomb-making secrets from us and created their own atomic weapons. Our own current science czar has been connected to groups implicated in this espionage. That is a story for another day. The ability to deliver nuclear weapons was as critical as their functionability. There were two schools of thought on the matter. One was that we should use bombers and other aircraft to do the job. Deep penetrations missions into the Soviet Union were nearly impossible using this method. We needed another way. Rockets were the answer. The American space race was clearly a cover for much testing and development of ballistic missile technology. At the very least, the Department of Defense got a lot of bang for its buck when it came to this research. Not only were we availing ourselves of the ability to obliterate our enemy from a safe distance, but we were intent on the PR plusses of beating the Soviets to the moon, thus exposing their impotence. NASA was born of the need to kill our enemy in every way possible. The Soviet Union's embarrassment alone was worth the price, or so it seemed.
Today, as we watch our government become focused on removing borders and internationalizing our sovereign country, we find that the current administration has no vision for our space program. I believe that this is because "O" and his compatriots believe there is no need for it. There are no military gains to be made by flying to the moon, or Mars, or anywhere else for that matter. Even if there were, I am not sure that would be any kind of motivator for our community organizing President. During this week's Nuclear Conference, his obvious disdain for our superpower status was inadvertently put on display for the whole world to see as he complained about "whether we like it or not" we are still a superpower. The Obama administration has no interest in a powerful America (unless of course he is insulting our allies and attempting to bully Israel).
Truly there are many technological developments that we take for granted that directly came from research related to NASA's programs. The artificial heart, efficient insulating materials for buildings, and cancer-fighting technologies directly benefitted from NASA's investments. We did get a little payback from this investment from the public trust. I believe that space exploration and the research that goes along with it is beneficial to Americans.
The bigger question is this: why is this government's role now? When there was a military sub-plot to NASA, I was Constitutionally comfortable with this role. Even now, NASA delivers spy satellites, GPS and weather satellites that seem to "provide for the common defense". When it comes to space exploration I think that this becomes more of a commercial role. Certainly Sir Richard Branson, Burt Rutan and the folks at Virgin Galactic have proven that you can fly a vehicle into space and back cheaper than the government can perform the same task. Did I say cheaper? I meant TONS cheaper. It is time that commercial companies had the opportunity to take a crack at the "space program" thing.
The President's speech was another verbose, empty bag of toys for the folks down in the Spacecoast area. Again his verbal tomfoolery was intended to let those fine people know that he planned to toss them a little Presidential manna and they shouldn't worry about their jobs at least until the fall elections are over. The lack of substance notwithstanding, this was another fine performance from the "Obscurer-in-chief" or at least he thinks so.