Should NASA Die? People around Central Florida were anxiously awaiting President Obama's State of the Union address, mostly hoping to hear word about the future of NASA and the space program. During a campaign stop here before his election, he promised that NASA and space exploration would thrive under his administration.
Politicians and NASA
It turns out, that was pretty much a lie to get elected (note: all politicians lie for votes, not just Democrats). The budget proposal from the White House gives roughly $6 Billion to NASA, which isn't enough for Constellation and Ares. Manned space flight is up to the Russians now.
Or is it? I'm hearing quite a bit of whining lately about the impact this decision will have on jobs in the community, both directly at NASA and the trickle-down effect to other businesses that rely upon a thriving industry in the region. If this were the whole story, they'd be right.
Should NASA Die Or Go Private?
It's not the whole story, though. Obama is presenting the notion that it's time to privatize space travel. No longer should it be the realm of the U.S. Government to foot the whole bill, but rather let profit-driven industry take over. It's not such a radical idea. In fact, maybe it's time.
We don't expect the government to run the airlines for us, though we do expect it to provide oversight. If we followed Obama's proposal, NASA would have to change into a governing body that provides regulations to private industry in the business of space travel. Companies like Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, or even Virgin Galactic. NASA already provides millions of dollars to some of the organizations to develop experimental spacecraft.
The essential change in vision is to get these businesses off the taxpayer's back and into a direct line of business with other customers, including commercial, foreign governmental and even personal clients. That isn't to suggest that the U.S. government will no longer fund space exploration; it will. It's just that it won't have to hold the entire infrastructure up by itself.
The Promise of Jobs
Change is scary to many people. Our local government folks are lamenting the loss of jobs. No doubt, there will be some loss of jobs. There will also be new opportunities. Private industry will need experienced employees to succeed. Those folks who may no longer work for NASA will likely find willing employers waiting for them on a new project. I'm not suggesting this is going to be an easy or even equitable change when it comes down to an individual basis.
Killing Constellation and Ares will drop jobs at NASA and the sub-contractors who are designing and building it. Some of those folks will get jobs elsewhere in private industry, some surely won't. There's also no guarantee all of those jobs will stay within the Space Coast region (not all of them are there now). That's the real concern of our local politicians. They want thriving jobs HERE, so people and businesses will pay taxes HERE.
From the perspective of the whole nation's needs, I think it's a good direction. I also think that a number of those private industries will certainly come here (in addition to those at are here now) because this is where you find the experienced employees and infrastructure to support space travel. It's a gamble, but one I'd be willing to take.
The current economy simply isn't going to provide for rockets to the moon, but it's a good time to open up an industry to entrepreneurs willing to provide a service. NASA would become more like the FAA than it's old self, providing oversight and governance for the space travel industry. My only fear of this arrangement is the possible inclusion of the TSA.
NASA Is A Political Football
Of course, much of this is moot. Obama can propose all he wants, but Congress sets the budget. It's Congress that has hundreds of elected officials, many of them from states and districts that include businesses which make a profit with the existing system. Sure, it's a drain on the American taxpayer, but that's never stopped any politician from spending money before.
Bill Nelson and other Florida politicians are surely working the phones and pressing hands to keep their cash-cow churning out milk, even if the cow is nearly dead. Never mind that someone is willing to open a dairy store and sell us milk.