January 31, 2010 at 19:20 pm | 2 Comments
Lots of Handwringing Maybe Not Warranted
So, Monday February 1, the U.S. budget and NASA’s part of it will be announced and the REAL public discussions will begin. There has been the most amazing amount of speculation, hand-wringing, and downright whining over what’s coming, and I think some of it is unwarranted. I’ve been watching it gather momentum all week, and wondering just when it was that people lost common sense and began speculating wildly?
At this point (Sunday night) we really DON’T know everything that’s going to be announced. We do know that the “return to the Moon” strategy outlined by George W. Bush (which was massively underfunded, but he got political props anyway for coming up with an idea whose time was long past) is on the chopping block.
That’s a biggie, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s an entirely bad thing. It will force us (Americans) as a nation to consider what we want out of our space program. At least, it will force those of us who CARE about space exploration and science to think about it.And, I think that this may be a golden opportunity to come up with some space access vehicles that make sense (since the shuttles will be decommissioned very soon). Do we really want what the Ares and Constellation programs were offering? Is there a better way? Can we take what has been accomplished so far and maybe change it to make it work better?
In space, where are we going? And, why are we going there? Those are questions that this budget news will engender — and I hope that we in the science community make our voices heard about the next steps the U.S. will make in space.
However, this has not stopped a huge number of people who probably haven’t read the whole budget and don’t have the whole story (including politicians who have to play to their bases) from shrilly screaming that NASA’s budget means the end of the American presence in space. In fact, unless the budget is zeroed out (which I doubt), it means nothing of the sort. It means that NASA’s focus may be shifted to things that give the agency a chance of doing some actual science work. Not that you can’t do science in space — but, if we’re going to go to space, we need modern, up-to-date ways to get there, not a rehash of what we used in the Apollo days with the serial numbers scrubbed off.
For many other Americans, the news is hardly more important than what kind of coffee to buy when they stop at Starbucks in the morning. I read an interesting fact over and over the past few days — and that is that many Americans think that NASA consumes as much as 24 percent of the federal budget. I do NOT know where this number comes from, but it’s wrong. The actual amount of money that goes to NASA is less than ONE PERCENT of the federal budget.
That’s right. ONE PERCENT. In 2009, that number came to 0.55 percent of the federal budget. In 2010, the proposed budget may be about 0.52 percent of the federal budget. That folks is one HALF of one percent. NASA proposed a 2010 budget of 18.7 billion dollars. DO the math and you’ll see that it’s a very small part of the U.S. national budget. Just to give you some idea of how little that is, here are some useful comparisons — I scrounged around the Web and found various sites with numbers about what NASA spends and its relationship to other government and personal spending:
* For every dollar that we spend on NASA, our federal government spends another $98.00 on social programs. This doesn’t include what states spend on the same programs in-state;
* In 2010, the Department of Defense will spend $664 billion dollars; NASA will spend (if it gets its budget) 18.7 billion;
* To put this more personally, Americans spend $97 billion dollars a year on beer. We spend over half a trillion dollars on gambling; we spend more $27 billion on pizza;
* Another way to look at NASA’s budget — Bernie Madoff scammed $50 BILLION dollars with his phony investment schemes;
Now, there’s no arguing that$18.7 billion is a lot of money — but look what we get for it: employment for hundreds of thousands of Americans at NASA centers, at the contractors who serve NASA (and yes, I do work for NASA as a contractor from time to time), and for the support industries that work with those contractors. That money in turn gets spent in the marketplace (groceries, toys, booze, cars, goodies), gets invested in stocks and retirement funds, it pays state and local taxes, and unlike the money that gets spent on beer, alcohol, food, etc. it doesn’t have a further cost to society. What we spend on alcohol and food and drugs almost always costs society more later on (in terms of medical care, etc.). NASA money gets spent to create technologies that let you call your mom from across the country, tweet to your buds, save the life of a child with a heart condition, forecast our weather, and fly safely from Point A to Point B.
It brings science to a new generation of Americans — the very ones we want to send to space, to create the new technologies we’ll need for space exploration AND for the ground-based infrastructures that will support it. Our country IS in a crisis of science education due to the past decade of poor treatment by an administration more interested in evangelical votes and corporate contributions and banking deals than science education. NASA is in a good position to spur a whole lot of interest in continued science education. Heck, it spurred ME when I was a kid and many people in the generations who grew up watching Moon landings and Voyager missions, etc. have grown up to participate in the missions that followed. We got good jobs working on things like Hubble Space Telecope and Mars missions, etc.
And, as many of us know, NASA creates and supports technological spinoffs that are at work in our homes, offices, hospitals, airports, and so many other places. Your cell phone, your computer, the stuff in your house — everything you touch very likely owes some aspect of its existence to NASA-related technologies.
I think you get the point.
The other point I want to drive home here is that even if the Constellation and/or Ares programs are shut down or drastically changed — it’s NOT the end of our involvement in space and I wish people would stop with this “sky is falling” mentality. We are still exploring the solar system, building things in space, and employing lots of bright people on the ground. Americans will continue to do that. So, would all the people (politicians and pundits included) who are wringing their hands over the changes in NASA’s budget please calm down? Let’s calmly and rationally look at this new budget and the possible changes in direction for NASA and see what the upside is. The time to scream bloody murder isn’t here, just yet.
January 30, 2010 at 19:34 pm | Leave a Comment
Moon and Mars, January 29, 2010
If you had clear skies last night, the gorgeousity of the Moon and Mars probably greeted you as you stepped outside and looked up. It’s tough to take an image of such a sight — but I gave it the old college try anyway, using my Canon Vixia HD video camera. This is the result. Of course, the Moon was so much brighter than Mars that I expected it would wash out the scene and I’d miss Mars completely. In the real sky, the Moon was bright and Mars was a little red dot next to it. I messed with my settings a bit and snapped this view. Mars shows up as a little red disk next to the Moon (which really doesn’t have rays).
Did you go out to see Mars last night? Or Jupiter in the west (not long after sunset)? Will you go out tonight? If you do, check out Mars: a world where our robot explorers are still roaming about and/or returning good science to teach us more about this desolate red world.
January 28, 2010 at 13:10 pm | Leave a Comment
Apollo, Challenger, and Columbia
- If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.
Gus Grissom, Apollo 1 astronaut
This week marks three epic disasters in the United States space program’s history: the Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom during a routine training mission on January 27, 1967, the Challenger disaster that took the lives of astronauts Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe on January 27, 1986, and the loss of space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2002, that killed Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, and Laurel Clark.
It’s a rather poignant time for U.S. space exploration as we face the last shuttle launches and an unknown period of time where our country will NOT have a readily available way to get to space. There are hints and rumors that the new budget will not contain funds for the Ares program, and this has a lot of people wringing their hands in agony of our lack of space exploration capability. It’s not a wonderful coincidence that these cuts come as we remember those who gave their lives in pursuit of space exploration. But, I don’t see the loss of Ares funding as the tragedy that some do. In fact, I hope that it galvanizes us to dream up better ways to get to space — more efficient, less dangerous, and above all–accessible to any of us who want to go to space some day. If that happens, I think it will be a good way to salute the Apollo, Challenger, and Columbia crews who gave their all so we could explore. Let’s do them the honor of pushing forward and continuing our push to space regardless of the challenges we face at the moment.
And remember, we ARE still exploring space — from ISS, at the planets, and gazing out past billions of light-years with our orbiting telescopes. We’ll get ourselves out there someday, too.
January 27, 2010 at 23:40 pm | Leave a Comment
Astrocast.TV and Me
As anybody who’s surfed the Web any length of time at all knows, there’s a bounty of information out there about astronomy and space exploration. It seems that every time I turn around there’s a new web site or blog or online media presence devoted to the subjects.
Of course, long-time readers here know that I’ve been blogging and writing about astronomy-related topics online since the mid-1990s. It’s a fun gig and for some years now, it’s been part of my regular job as vice-president of Loch Ness Productions — a production company my husband and I started some years back. We produce fulldome video shows (for fulldome planetarium theaters). I’ve written more than two dozen shows over the years and am working on new ones as we speak. Recently, we branched out to create vodcasts and podcasts for such clients as the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and Haystack Observatory. We also sponsored and produced for the 365 Days of Astronomy project in 2009, and I’m producing more podcasts for the project in 2010.
In addition to my multimedia projects, I’ve also written exhibits for Griffith Observatory and the California Academy of Sciences, and am working on a set of exhibits for NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I have worked on a wide variety of other materials that help museums and science centers and observatories bring the wonders of astronomy and space exploration to anybody who’s interested in learning about it. That’s my day (and night) job, and it’s so darned cool that I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world! If it’s about astronomy and space exploration — I get to write about it in whatever media I wish.
Which brings me to another cool outreach effort I’ve been involved in for almost a year now – an online “TV” segment about what astronomers are observing and learning. Last year, I wrote a short little space-related article for the New York Times and that led to my being contacted by the producer of Astrocast.TV, an online news magazine about astronomy and space science that shows up on the first of each month. After some discussion, I agreed to become the producer of a segment called The Astronomer’s Universe.
I’ve worked on seven segments so far, and two more will show up in February highlighting the recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. Here’s a little promo video featuring our series host Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern, talking about each of our segments. Check it out and then make Astrocast.TV a regular stop in your astronomy and space science web-surfing routine! I especially urge you to check out our February 1st episode, which will feature not only my AAS interviews, but a special segment on Earth science, created by another Astrocast.TV producer, Bente Lilje Bye!
January 26, 2010 at 13:05 pm | 2 Comments
She’s Going to be a Stationary Platform
What’s a planetary scientist to do when a rover gets stuck in the sand after six years of exploration, is still working well, but can’t move anymore? You turn it into a stationary research platform. NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has ended six years of roving in a sand pit and will now become a fixed science platform. After it works itself into position to survive the Martian winter so that it can get more sunlight on its solar panels, the rover will ride out the severe weather and begin doing a class of science that can only be done by a freestanding set of instruments.
For example, Spirit is already studying tiny wobbles in the rotation of Mars over time. This allows scientists some valuable insight about the composition of the planet’s core. It’s not something that can be done overnight — it requires months of radio-tracking the motion of a point on the surface of Mars to calculate long-term motion with an accuracy of a few inches. And, since Spirit is now a “point” on the surface, it’s in a perfect position to do this work. If Spirit continues working, it will help determine whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid — a question that is still unanswered.
Tools on the rover’s robotic arm can also study variations in the composition of nearby soil, which has been affected by water. And, as we do hear on Earth with fixed weather stations, the Spirit rover can monitor the weather and watch how the constant Martian winds move soil across the surface.
I think it’s a wonderful chapter in the rover’s life, which has been longer than anybody expected. It’s also a tribute to the folks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who built it and continued to guide the rover around the planet until Spirit got stuck in a sandpit last year. A perfect example of making the best of what could have been a truly bad situation and coming out ahead!
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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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