Time to start writing Congress on NASA’s behalf…

Pre-State of the Union buzz is that NASA’s Constellation program is dead.

Now, I haven’t really seen the White House rationale for this, but I suspect it goes something like this: “This country is in a pretty crappy economy right now. We’re bogged down with health care policy in Congress. And global climate change will be a more pressing problem in the future. We don’t have the time, money, or resources to devote to something like space exploration that doesn’t return any direct benefits.”

If you’ve been reading my blog since my time at NASA last summer, you know that I am a big fan of manned space exploration, but not necessarily a fan of the current Constellation architecture. I’m fine with seeing Constellation go, but only if we replace it with something gutsier. So I am not okay with axing Constellation and flatlining NASA’s budget. (Though Constellation was pretty much crippled in the first place by the “do it on the existing budget!” directive in 2004.)

The argument against NASA will likely be one of limited resources and the perception that space exploration doesn’t return anything for the average US citizen. As a counter, let’s start writing the White House and our legislators in the Senate and House, and ask them which terrestrial problems can NASA solve for us? The answer is a laundry list – and a compelling one, just off the top of my head!


  • Want to grow the US economy and create jobs?

— Give NASA a strong mandate and plenty of resources!

Funding NASA is one of the very few sure-fire ways for this country to glean direct economic benefits. For every $1 that the United States government puts into NASA, the US economy grows by as much as $8. (One source here). This makes it one of – if not the – most effective ways for the federal government to have a positive effect on the economy. That’s a gain of 800%. Compare that to the ambiguous and uncertain economic growth from bailouts, tax cuts for the richest 2%, two wars, unspent stimulus funds, or Congressional shenanigans. NASA creates high-tech jobs, administrative jobs, IT jobs, engineering jobs, research jobs, custodial jobs, manufacturing jobs, analysis jobs. NASA creates technologies, hardware, and software, and puts out contracts for the development of more technologies, hardware, and software. Money going to NASA boosts the economy of every state in the union, some by hundreds of millions – or even billions – of dollars.

Economic growth by state from federal NASA funding (click for full size)

NASA can best provide these economic benefits if it has an ambitious, driving goal – pushing it to turn out as much of a return on the investment as it can – and sufficient resources to pull it off. If it’s the economy we’re worried about, we should be afraid of not funding NASA enough!


  • Want to keep this country competitive in technological development and scientific progress?

— Fund NASA!

The White House web site recognizes that “the United States is losing its scientific dominance.” Are iPod apps and Twitter really going to carry the tech sector of the US economy in the future? Especially when we are exporting a lot of tech jobs and highly educated workers to other countries? If we want to secure our national future, we need to make sure that we produce plenty of high-powered brains in our own country, and that we work on the latest in science and technology in the research labs and R&D centers available to us. Down the line, if Americans stop caring about science and technology, we are going to be producing smaller quantities and lower quality goods and services. Our development will stagnate when compared to other countries. We will have to look abroad for solutions. Even if that’s not a bad thing outright, why wouldn’t we want high-tech developments and cutting-edge science produced close to home?

We can only derive so much benefit from all the MBAs and lawyers we churn out. But technological and scientific fields develop whole new markets and whole new disciplines that we can use to create better products, better services, better knowledge, and a better society. Remember that when President Kennedy directed NASA to land on the Moon, we had a grand total of 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience. New industries, spun off by fields from specialized materials science to computer technology, that had not even been conceived yet had to be invented. The very foundations of the US manufacturing industry had to be advanced forward a decade to meet the tolerances required for the Apollo vehicles. Imagine what could come out of a similar program today!

NASA is a leading agency in funding both basic science research and technological development. The conclusions from this research percolate into the biotech, electronics, computer, aviation, communications, materials, chemical, defense, and medical industries – just to name a few! The science funding goes to universities and research labs all over America. Technologies developed in the course of pursuing the space program find their way into cars, airplanes, traffic control systems, manufacturing, construction, the food services industry, and even the average American home. If that money keeps flowing, those industries keep growing – and new industries sprout up!

  • Want to keep the next generation interested in science and technology, so we – and they – invest in their education?

— Give NASA an exciting mission and the money to pull it off!

President Obama has made appreciative statements in the past about the role NASA plays in inspiring American youth to pursue higher education, especially in challenging scientific and technical fields. This must continue. We cannot let children think of science and engineering as the sole domain of nerds and geeks, unpopular kids or unrelatable kids. For the US to be competitive in science and engineering, we need scientists and engineers. That means we must have children who develop and maintain an interest in science and engineering. So we need to make science and engineering, and education in those fields, popular. Fun. Invigorating. Sexy.

But NASA can’t simply “inspire the youth” just by its mere existence. It needs to be in the news. In the news, doing cool things. In the news, doing cool things, constantly. For that, NASA needs a really high-profile, risky-yet-achievable, demanding, sense-of-surmounting-the-impossible mission. As if this nation had dedicated itself to a goal, before this decade is out, of something on par with landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. Something that captivates a youth with an Internet-induced, ever-shrinking attention span. I propose establishing a permanently crewed base on Mars within the next 15 years, by 2025. Such a mission will not only keep the young scientists and engineers of our nation rooting for the space program, and interested in the space program, while they are learning – it will also give them something productive to work on when they finish! NASA is both a means and an end, but only if it has sufficient resources and a mission far more ambitious than the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration.

  • Want to find ways to feed the hungry?

— Tell NASA to put a permanently crewed base on Mars!

If we try to establish a self-sustaining colony on the Moon or Mars, we need to feed the crew. And if we go for Mars, a self-sustaining base is pretty much a requirement to make the launches feasible. The astronauts would not be able to rely on regular resupply missions.

This means taking what we know about how things live and grow, and finding a way to develop food sources in a space outpost. We would have to leverage everything we know about hydroponics, algae growth, genetic engineering of bacteria, nutrition – the alchemy of turning raw materials into nutritious, palatable food for humans. And since launches to Mars would have severe mass limits, all this will have to be packed into as lightweight and small a package as possible.

Once developed, those technologies would be perfect for taking to the Third World, to the deserts, to impoverished nations and soup kitchens on Earth. We could solve global hunger once and for all, by finding ways to provide families with self-sufficient food-generating equipment. The kind of equipment that comes from NASA ingenuity and NASA money – but it will only do so if the government directs NASA to tackle the problem!

  • Want to get medical care to as many people as possible in poor, remote countries with little infrastructure?

— Send NASA astronauts to Mars!

If we send astronauts to Mars, they are going to be completely out of reach of medical care. The nearest emergency room will be – at minimum – 45 million miles and half a year away. The Mars base crew are going to have to take care of themselves. This means that, not only is at least one of them going to have to be an ER surgeon or something, but they are going to need medical equipment. Not just any medical equipment, either; ultra-rugged equipment that functions on little to no power with near 100% reliability. Equipment that gives fast, comprehensive test results. Equipment that is easy to use and understand. Equipment that is, or folds up to be, very small and ultraportable. You know – tricorders.

The Mars base is also going to need treatments. Treatments that are easy to administer. Patches, drugs, capsules, ultra-miniaturized subcutaneous infusion pumps, and the like. But again, getting things to Mars requires that they be small and low-mass – five years’ supply of daily vitamins for a dozen or so astronauts would hardly fit the bill! So, they are going to need rugged, reliable equipment to manufacture those drugs on Mars with super-limited resources.

Imagine if Doctors Without Borders could get their hands on all that. Or the Red Cross. Or the Peace Corps. They could…but only if we tell NASA to go to Mars and give it the means to do so!

  • Want to solve global climate change?

— Tell NASA to keep people permanently in space!

Yeah, that’s right – I didn’t say “mitigate” or “delay.” I said solve.

NASA drives innovation in batteries, photovoltaic cells, Stirling converters, fuel cells, and nuclear power. NASA has to squeeze every last drop of electrical power out of every battery on every spacecraft. NASA has to build their electronics to take meager power supplies.

Crewed spacecraft are closed environments that must support human life. They have to recycle, to reuse, to be careful what they bring in and out. They have limited supplies, limited fuel, limited electrical power, and they must accomplish ambitious science and exploration goals.

Send astronauts to Mars, and they will have to make more use of the scarce resources of the Red Planet than even Space Station astronauts do on ISS, because they will be so far from assistance. They are going to have to maximize what they can do for any input of solar power or raw material. Everything that comes from Earth is going to be incredibly precious, and will have to stretch out its useful lifetime for months or years. The astronauts are going to have to recycle their air. And they’re not going to be able to rely on taking their equipment to the shop every few months or replacing it every few years – it’s all got to work reliably for decades.

Those high-efficiency solar cells, low-power electronics, extreme-reliability equipment, 100% recyclable materials, CO2 scrubbers and chemical recyclers are sure going to come in handy for replacing coal and oil here on Earth.

So let’s solve some problems here on the ground. Let’s go out into space!

6 thoughts on “Time to start writing Congress on NASA’s behalf…”

  1. What sickens me more is that the JPL people I know are salivating because they think this is going to mean more money for their robotic toys. Rather, this reminds me of something more like, “First they came for Constellation, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t work for NASA, then they came for the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t work for JPL, then…” The JPL people seriously think you can do more science with robots than people. It’s like a religion over there.

    What bothers me even more than more is that Obama seems to want to cut this program on his own prerogative, regardless of the expert opinions of, say, the Augustine Commission, which was very supportive of manned spaceflight. Which means he could just as easily strike at anything in the space program that doesn’t tickle his fancy.

    And what bothers me more than more than more, is that we are now going to return to the listless and purposeless space program of the 1980s and 1990s. Back then we had Space Shuttles, but no idea what the point was. An ISS without a real purpose. Then Bush comes along and (for better or worse) gives NASA some direction (albeit perhaps not enough funding for it). Now we’re going to back to a purposeless space program (unless you count building umpteen carbon-dioxide-detecting satellites a purpose).

  2. Cornell is full of Mars rover types, and all of them moonlight as field geologists and are quite adamant that a human being can do lots more science a lot faster than a robot. I heard that Steve Squyres timed his grad students, and on average, the work of 1 MER in 1 day requires them 45 seconds. There’s a statistic for those JPL types to keep in mind! 😉

    I agree that a space program without direction would be terrible. But I think what bothers me more than more than more than more is that the Shuttle *has* to retire now. So what are we going to do with ISS? I guess we’ll be turning it over to Russian operations – at least until ESA gets a man-rated version of Jules Verne up and running. Then we’ll be behind all of Eurasia, hoping for Falcon 9 to come along…

  3. I think your argument is a little naive in places. One-off devices developed for Mars are just not going to scale out to being practical in the 3rd world (and vice versa – is NASA likely to use an OLPC on a mission?). I do however completely agree with the multiplier effect that NASA jobs have on other areas of the economy, but that same effect exists in many any other forms of government spending (wars excepted). Look how hard communities fight to keep local military bases open.

    Back in the 60s NASA was clearly the technical juggernaut inspiring kids to become scientists and engineers. These days I think it is exactly the iPhones, iPods and droids that you mentioned that are inspiring youngsters (all of which were American innovations). If space has anything to do with that it’s the robotic missions to Mars that are capturing all the attention as opposed to human spaceflight. It seems to me that the spacestation crew spend just about all their time on either personal or spacestation maintenance as opposed to doing any useful science with that hardware.

    As an outsider I think Obama’s space strategy is exactly on the right track. NASA is not owed an exciting mission, if it can make the ISS amount to something over the next 10 years maybe it can earn one.

  4. If you think NASA wouldn’t be interested in OLPC-like computing technology, you don’t understand just how limited power is on space missions! Something like that – robust, rugged, powerful enough for practical tasks, and low power usage – would be *perfect* for Mars. Which means that development can work the other way, as well.

    The biggest problem I have with kids getting inspiration from iPhones is that I have to wonder what those devices are inspiring kids to *do*. Become the guy who wrote the most popular “pull my finger” app? Get a lot of “like” votes on Facebook? Make a couple thousand bucks? We must ask ourselves how much any of that matters. On the other hand, what does space exploration – crewed or robotic – inspire the next generation to do? Investigate the universe! Answer fundamental scientific questions! Solve challenging engineering problems! The kinds of things that dramatically improve life on Earth as well as in space.

    What you’ve said about the Space Station may have been true before it came up to its full crew complement, but is not true currently. With only three people on board, there was little time between Station maintenance tasks to accomplish a lot of science, though they did get plenty done. Now there are enough crew members that there are some dedicated to science! The biggest issue for the continued scientific utilization of ISS is the orbital access gap after the Shuttle retires. The Shuttle brings a lot of experiments and equipment UP to the station, and brings a lot of experiments and results DOWN. Soyuz does not have the “down-mass” capacity to bring completed experiments back to Earth, nor would Orion. What we need to fully utilize ISS, in my opinion, is a vehicle like the X-38 – something that would probably best be developed in-house at NASA, since there’s not yet a lot of incentive for private companies to make a profit doing something similar.

  5. Clearly pull my finger apps have no importance, but neither did my first program that simply printed my name out on the screen over and over. The point is that it inspires people (young and old) to believe they can also create something. Some of those people will enjoy the experience and and will embark on a path that will see them eventually solving some real engineering challenges that improve the quality of life for all of us.

    Your comment about the “down-mass” of the Soyuz was interesting, I hadn’t heard that before. Like I said, I hope NASA can prove in the next ten years that it can make something of the ISS. In the final analysis it all beats spending the money on inventing ever more efficient ways to kill other humans.

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