After Inspiration

We space exploration fans and practitioners live in heady times! But I’m going to take a step back from all the SpaceXes and KickSats of the moment to do some philosophizing. Let’s start with the adage that the military is always fighting the last war: I think the saying may be true of science and space exploration advocates, too. Just hold that thought…

Over the last several weeks, I have been enjoying the “Cosmos” reboot. One of the justifications put forward for the show is the need to inspire a new generation to pursue scientific and technical careers, as Carl Sagan’s original did in the early 1980s. Airing prominently in support of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is a Boeing advertisement, perhaps suggesting a career path to those young Americans inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the show proper. It portrays engineers hard at work building – among other key Boeing-associated products – communications satellites, rockets, and solar panels. As the music crescendos, it displays footage of the International Space Station while the narrator declares that Boeing engineers have built “something the whole world can share.” The way the ad spot is cut, one might almost get the impression that the aerospace giant puts forth equal effort – and promises equal opportunities – in civil space exploration as it does in the areas of military aerospace and commercial aviation.

There’s a problem with STEM (that’s “science, technology, engineering, and math”) in the United States, but this “STEM crisis” isn’t really what it’s made out to be. There’s not really a shortage of STEM graduates. There’s a shortage of jobs for STEM graduates. This fact raises a question: suppose “Cosmos” inspires a large number of young Americans. Suppose it makes them want to learn the fundamental science underpinning the physical processes of the universe. Suppose it encourages their passion to build space telescopes and Mars rovers. Suppose it pushes them to wonder if there is alien life on Europa, or Enceladus, or an exoplanet. What do the newly minted young engineers and scientists go on to do?

The things we value as a country, and how much we value them, are effectively determined by the budgets set in Congress. In 2013, Congress spent about $63 billion on science and technology research of any kind. Yet the Department of Defense gets ten times that amount, and about 25 times that dollar value goes toward nondiscretionary entitlements. On top of that, over half of what little federal R&D funding there is goes toward defense programs (which means the fruits of that R&D don’t really percolate out into wider society). NASA does everything that it does on a paltry $18 billion dollars annually – about half a percent of the federal budget.

The message is clear: our country values keeping its social obligations. Fine, good. But the next thing on our national priority list is defense. (And, of course, much of our defense policy is based around big-ticket systems fighting a Cold War that ended when our adversary ceased to exist almost a quarter-century ago. As that adage goes…) As for research and development, fundamental science, medical advancements, or space exploration…well, according to the money, our country barely cares about these things at all in comparison. As a result, some of the most secure opportunities available to STEM graduates are in military-related positions – contrary to what that Boeing advertisement suggests.

This situation is extremely sad and problematic, both for our young engineers and scientists and for the United States as a whole. And it suggests to me that the best target of science advocacy should not be the young Americans working their way up through school. It should be Congress.

Private companies don’t produce fundamental innovation without a clear financial incentive. They don’t do basic science research, and they hesitate to invest in product development that stretches beyond the next quarter, let alone the next fiscal year. We can’t rely on private enterprise for awe-inspiring scientific and engineering feats. Most of the really blockbuster stuff – the continental discoveries and global circumnavigations and Hoover dams and Moon landings and Saturn probes – comes from governments. Not just any government fits the bill, either: only those that take the long view engage in such risky and rewarding activities. Historically, the United States federal government has been an incredible innovator. NASA is an exemplary contributor, holding 1 in 1000 US patents! (And that’s not even mentioning the tangible or intangible economic benefits.) Lest one think that academia will step in on its own to provide the fundamental research, consider that government grants support the scientists in academic institutions. We need the government to be doing this stuff.

Basic research, innovation, and exploration is potent, inspiring stuff. With their ad spot accompanying “Cosmos,” Boeing demonstrated that they have a strong grasp of this concept: giving the Space Station top billing among their projects is a sure way to tug on the heartstrings of future-minded young people. (They’re not the only “Cosmos” advertiser to capitalize on the excitement of space exploration, either.) But in a time when our Congressional leaders simultaneously don’t seem to care about science and lack the courage to close even the unneeded military bases, there’s very little chance that a young engineer gets to work on space exploration. Sadly, one probable outcome is that after their technical education our aspiring space explorers will end up doing what the military-industrial complex calls “capability maintenance” – which easily means work that has all the technical, social, and political value of a “bridge to nowhere.” To a congressperson, military pork is the most valuable and secure kind of jobs program; to a defense contractor, bloated programs are steady income.

I’m in my early career. I’m not as bitter as, say, NASA Watch yet (and the ire I do have goes straight at Congress rather than at NASA administration). I consider myself fortunate that, even though I don’t work for NASA, I am working on a NASA mission that’s relevant to civil science. But I do see that there are hard, important problems out there that we need to solve – some, problems of national import – while we divert resources elsewhere. I imagine if we decommissioned a few surplus ships, we could instead land humans on Mars. I think if we could close a few extraneous bases, we might instead determine that we are not alone in the universe. Or I wonder, if we shut down our arsenal of Minuteman missile silos – leaving our ability to combat modern threats unaffected – could we instead attack what is probably the greatest known future national security issue: climate change? I want to make the world a better place by working on those problems, and by stretching human capabilities and knowledge out into space. And I, for one, view a lack of investment in science and innovation as more relevant to the United States’ national security than many overt military programs.

We have to remember that the point of NASA is not just to inspire. And the point definitely isn’t to be a jobs program for targeted areas of Alabama, Texas, California, and Florida. Historically, it wasn’t even to explore space. The point of NASA was to move our nation forward in scientific and technological capability. Popular inspiration is a nice, and effective, bonus. But our leaders in the Capitol are clearly in more need of science advocacy than we are. If we could inspire a little more political courage from them, to move money from safe-but-unnecessary programs to critical development agencies and unleash those agencies to innovate, then the rest of America can go on to great things – after inspiration.

8 thoughts on “After Inspiration”

  1. NASA has proven itself totally incapable of effectively managing its mission and budget. Considering that most of its funding over the last thirty years has been wasted on poorly-engineered manned spaceflight programs (our descendants will look at the Shuttle program and its abortive replacements with nothing but contempt and rightfully so), why should the agency be trusted with more money?

  2. In my opinion, that’s a simplistic reading of the situation. It’s important to remember that NASA does not decide its own mission or budget. The Space Shuttle came out of a directive from President Nixon, the Constellation program was from President Bush, and the Space Launch System sprang fully-formed from the 2010 Congress. The Gemini and Apollo programs were targeted directly at President Kennedy’s vision (perhaps the greatest factor in the success of Apollo was that President Johnson agreed with him). As a potential solution to the problems you suggest, I would actually propose that NASA itself have more control over its missions and budgets – to encourage the long-term consistency critical for space exploration programs.

    I agree that there are important, pernicious issues with the human spaceflight programs from the last decade. (That’s what drove some of my comments in my last paragraph!) But another important thing to remember is that NASA is not, in fact, synonymous with human spaceflight. NASA has a diverse portfolio of robotic exploration, technology development, and science, ranging all the way from the enormous space telescopes to the tiny seat-of-the-pants CubeSats. Many of these projects are very successful, and this area is where I would love to throw additional funding.

    My essay’s purpose was to suggest that, even in the presence of these issues, NASA is a far more important, productive, and valuable place to spend our national resources than are many of today’s military boondoggles – which, in their scale, lack of relevant mission, and tenacious grip on taxpayer money, dwarf anything that could be or has been mismanaged at NASA.

  3. To address your points:

    NASA does not have to meekly submit to whatever bone-headed plans are thrown at it by the Administration and Congress. NASA is an executive agency with considerable discretion in how it spends money and the ability to use a million accounting and legal tricks to get what it wants. If they’re being forced into programs their leadership doesn’t approve of it speaks to incompetence on the part of their leaders.

    Just to give you a comparison, the Space Shuttle program alone (not counting money and ten years wasted on Constellation) cost along the lines of $200 billion over its existence in present-day dollars and consumed on the order of 30% of NASA’s total budget for a generation. This wasn’t just a colossal waste of time, money and ultimately the lives of fourteen astronauts, it sucked the air out of the room for the productive segment of NASA – the unmanned science division. You are not going to be able to find a military project that was mismanaged on that titanic scale – certainly the military runs a few technical programs on that magnitude, but they produce hardware that is by and large technically sound.

    Also, I’d suggest that you’re being extraordinarily tin-eared by stating the armed forces do not have a mission in the present day when in the last three months we’ve seen the beginning of a new Cold War. It is 1985 all over again in Europe, only the front line has moved east somewhat. While the massive military spending of the Reagan era would seem to be unnecessary for now, the need for a strong American military has been proven beyond all doubt in the Ukraine.

  4. I don’t think your comments about NASA’s administration of its budget are very well-founded. While the agency can make some changes to its operating plan, Congress is very specific about programmatic funding in its budgets (starting on page 67) and didn’t take kindly to NASA’s previous attempts to modify its own operating plan as a way to change policy. In other words: NASA did try to do what you suggest – it didn’t work, and the agency got in trouble for it.

    I agree that the cost of the Space Shuttle was a major problem. But against those numbers, I’ll happily stack the Joint Strike Fighter, with total program costs nearing $400 billion and a level of required maintenance funding that the DoD calls “unsustainable” (GAO report). Or the V-22 Osprey, which, although not as large a program, saw development cost increases of 1100%, not to mention twice as many accidental deaths than the Space Shuttle. Certainly not least, the entire Iraq war fiasco cost the United States over $845 billion outright (likely more once all the ripples fade); about nine billion of which is flat-out missing – that’s half an Apollo mission!

    Finally, please refrain from making broad judgments about my politics for which I’ve given you little evidence. In some ways, I’m a political realist. I agree that our military has an important purpose, and should not disappear. But I do want to think carefully about what American interests are, and how to achieve them. For example, I’d be very interested to know what exactly American interests in Ukraine are, and how Putin’s ambitions for exerting Russian regional hegemony translate into such an existential threat to America that you believe we need to get back on a Cold War footing. I’m glad you brought up Ukraine, actually, because I think it highlights how American deterrence strategy – based in the Cold War school of thought – doesn’t seem to be very effective in the modern era. I’d be happy to swap most of our nuclear capability (which I doubt really deters anybody) for more drones and SEAL teams (which have been very effective at enforcing US security interests in the last decade). I’d be even happier to swap it and other big military programs for a true climate change mitigation/adaptation strategy – since I believe climate change represents a far greater threat to the American people than does Vladimir Putin’s bullying of his neighbors.

    That’s a big reason why I’d prefer to see a massive shift of our national priorities from defense to R&D. (And, hey, if we invent Mister Fusion, we can sell it to Europe so they can divest from Russian oil.) I know I’m idealistic, but I have thought these positions through. The plea I’d make to Congress is to give the issues similar thought, laying aside considerations of whose districts will have jobs building parts for the F-22.

  5. In general, appropriators in Congress have relatively little influence on how the armed forces (for example) spend their money because the military actively works to get the funding it wants for the programs it wants. That’s part of being an effective agency. If NASA lacks budget flexibility or is being dictated to by Congress that is entirely due to incompetence or apathy on the part of its leadership being unable to work the legislative process – Congress would never succeed at establishing a program by legislative fiat like SLS on my side of the house.

    Moving on to your examples of military “waste” – the Joint Strike Fighter and the V-22 programs produce functional hardware that meets its original program goals and contributes to the missions of their parent services. The Space Shuttle was ultimately not functional, did not meet its program goals (in fact, it fell spectacularly short of them) and destroyed NASA’s mission. This is a discussion of money invested versus money simply wasted. As for the Iraq War, I dismiss your points – war is expensive and victory and the improved strategic situation that comes with it is simply invaluable.

    You claim to be a “political realist” (whatever that is) yet you don’t “get” the fundamental American interest in the Ukraine or the nature of deterrence that would be necessary to prevent the Russians from making these kind of moves.

    America is all about a rules-based international order, structured to the point that the concept of a predatory “rogue” state has validity. This fuels prosperity, security and stability for everyone. Our enemies, from jihadists to the Russians, believe in the rules of earlier eras – might makes right. Russian moves in the Ukraine are a fundamental challenge to the present peace and stability of Europe, something worth spending a great deal of money to maintain.

    The deterrence necessary to prevent the Russians from making these moves is not our existing nuclear arsenal (which is not a deterrent to Russian action at this level) nor our existing snake-eating commandos and drones (which are more suited to killing terrorists than defeating a regular army by themselves) – it’s our conventional armed forces with their supposedly inappropriate weapons that are supposedly stuck in the past of state-on-state conflict, which you are advocating cutting. That, my friend, is tin-eared. The only thing right now that will stop Russian armored divisions are American ones.

  6. I’m not really interested in having a policy debate with an opponent who contradicts cited evidence and “dismisses” arguments without substantiation. If you want to pretend that the Joint Strike Fighter program asked Congress to fund an alternate engine, that the military told Congress to keep open all the bases it does, that the Iraq War improved America’s global strategic position, and that our best foreign policy move right now is to counter-invade Ukraine with armored divisions, well, don’t let me stand in the way of your imagination. You can keep calling me “tin-eared” and I can keep trying to find gentler synonyms for “naive” all we want, but we still won’t get anywhere.

    I stand by my original essay: our current national spending priorities are mistargeted. NASA may not be perfect, but it provides more value to the nation than many big, entrenched defense programs. Finally, I believe it is possible for us to have a secure nation, achieve our foreign policy objectives, save some money, and reap dividends from a robust research, development, science, and exploration program – if only we can get out of the Reagan-era military-industrial mindset.

  7. I can see I struck a nerve with my comments on Iraq. And I am insulted that after I took the time to explain the deterrent value of a conventional military at length that you resorted to name-calling rather than bothering to look at the substance of my points.

    Given that you appear to have conceded that (1) the “big, entrenched defense programs” that you yourself cited in discussion are technically sound and have positive benefits for national security and (2) that NASA cannot manage its existing budget effectively, I have a difficult time seeing you standing by your original essay. You appear to be unable to defend your position short of dismissing criticism outright.

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