#35 & #43:
Besides dooming the U.S. hatmaking industry with his bareheaded 'viggah,' John F Kennedy set NASA on its course to the Moon with his Message to Congress in May of 1961 and his more famous 1962 Moon speech at Rice University.
At NASA Headquarters, on January 14, President Bush made a speech about new directions for the U.S. space program, including a return to the Moon with the ultimate goal of putting a man on Mars. Perhaps significantly, this initiative was missing from his January 20th State of the Union Address.
First, it is interesting to compare these speeches. Now, I don't want to get into a Texas vs. Massachusetts debate, Yale vs. Harvard, or even 'jocks and geeks,' but my end conclusion was that unfortunately Dubya's speech writers have not been putting out their best.
The next few days after the Moon/Mars announcement we of course saw inevitable sniping about how could the nation afford this given the present budget climate, etc. etc. I have had to endure some pretty fierce ribbing from European counterparts at recent meetings about this issue.
My questions have been: What did the NASA budget look like in 1962? What has the NASA budget done since? What about science in general? What about other major pieces of the budget pie?
So, given my penchant for posting horribly long tables, here is the Federal budget history, from 1962 onwards.
|| Year |||NASA Budget |||Total Gov't Outlays |||NASA % |||National Defense % |||General science % ||
Some points to note about the table:
(*) 1. TQ stands for the 'transition quarter' of July through September of 1976, which bridged the change from July-June Federal fiscal years to October-September.
2. Figures are not in constant dollars (a MAJOR fault with the above table).
3. All data are from historical tables of the US Federal Budget
Some additional data that I stripped from the table to avoid clutter:
- the interest on the debt in 1962 took up 8.54% of the total outlays. By 2003, the interest took up 16.59% of the budget, down from a high of 22.22% in 1997 during the Clinton administration. Basically, we have twice the amount of proportional debt, in non-constant dollars. Note also that the Federal spending on science as a whole has declined in proportional terms.
Here is the diagram on the projected budget for the new NASA objectives presented by the President during his January 14 NASA HQ speech (click on it for a larger, readable, version).
Of note is the definite horizon/end of the Shuttle and ISS programs. This also means the end of non-"human spaceflight" experiments aboard the ISS. For years NASA has trumpeted space as a place for new manufacturing technology and as a source of new materials, and justifications for the Shuttle and ISS were written in those terms. Unfortunately, even routine scientific research is extremely difficult to do in a test vehicle, and that is what these platforms are - the risk of catastrophic failure on launch or re-entry was always very real.
The budget presented shows that there really is little new money to be devoted to this re-ignited mission of exploration. Of special note is that after 2009, there is no projected increase in the budget - it simply keeps pace with inflation. What is clear is that this mission will eat away at most every other aspect of NASA science - aeronautics, remote sensing, astronomy, etc. - very much as the ISS and Shuttle budgets did.
One remaining point. When the U.S. went from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Shuttle, we built each successive generation of booster/capsule systems from scratch. Based on previous experience, of course, but any engineer knows that systems as complex as these need extensive testing before using them for human flight. Why does the U.S. do this? Because we put the prime contracts out to bid. Sometimes Boeing would win, sometimes Lockheed, sometimes others. Each of these had submitted a proposal that had to be different enough to catch the selector's eye. The Russians, in contrast, have stuck with the basic RK-7 Soyuz rocket configuration for over 40 years. They have of course modified the boosters and capsules over the years, but the stability in the core program gave them one tremendous advantage: low cost. It is very probable that Russia could launch a manned mission to Mars for about one quarter of what it will cost the U.S. -- however, they currently lack the political will and financial power to do it. And that is, in the end analysis, what counts.
Having people in space is always much more expensive than simply launching metal. It's certainly much more exciting too, but we always have to be ready to face a catastrophe. And there will almost certainly be another disaster somewhere in this Moon/Mars series. I am not sure the U.S. has the political courage to face another space catastrophe so soon.