On Space Priorities: NASA and its funders

Howdy all, Ken here.

I’m just sitting here on a quiet Sunday morning thinking about all of the recent and upcoming activities that the National Space Society of North Texas (NSS-NT) has undertaken.

Our chapter activities are geared towards talking with people, not just to people. We don’t address auditoriums full of students, but rather talk with families that visit museums and other public events. Our displays are very interactive and hands on, and it gives us a lot of opportunity to discover what it is that the “average joe” thinks about space, and what some of their priorities are.

NASA’s priorities, in a nutshell, are to realize the goal of the VSE by going to Mars, and to continue to study the farthest reaches of our Universe.

The priorities of the public? Asteroids. It is the one topic that consistently everyone has an interest in. People have heard about 2004 MN4, and know something about some pass in 2029, they’ve seen Deep Impact or Armageddon, it’s one of the aspects of space that has reached a common level of awareness, and it’s a topic that people think is important.

The ISS is kind of “eh, whatever”. Its utility hasn’t been sold to the public very well. The idea of using it as a staging point to points beyond is an idea that does seem to make sense to people, but strictly as a science lab or “humans as guinea pigs” place isn’t as compelling for them, and it comes across as an expensive endeavor.

I’m an unabashed Moon guy, and command a significant amount of Moon-related materials. I don’t exclude Mars, but I don’t emphasize it either. Typically, I don’t get too many questions about Mars (nowhere near as many as about asteroids). My personal belief is that it is too far below the radar in the quotidien lives of most folks, and so by pursuing it as a goal and realization of a 70+ year-old Von Braunian dream NASA is heading in a direction that increasingly removes it from the priorities of the public.

There is a lot of interest in space in general, but it’s hard for people to put their fingers on what it is specifically that interests them. For the parents it’s easy, they’d like for there to be some sort of job possibility in space should their child choose to work there, but doing what they have no idea. They don’t want to be wiped out by a nasty asteroid impact. (As an aside, the TV movie “Asteroid” was set here in Dallas. Scenes of destruction include the Reunion Tower globe, a DART train, and downtown being turned into a crater a mile wide). One notable demographic trend that I’m seeing is that first generation hispanic American families are strongly encouraging their children to pursue engineering and other technical fields in order to step up from the trades to the professions.

Using materials from the Moon for space activities is sensible. Being able to fix our space assets is sensible. Getting energy from space and tapping a 4.5Bn year power supply is sensible. Using the ISS as a staging point and space base of operations is sensible. Voyaging to the asteroids and negating their menace is sensible. Studying the Sun and watching it for flares is sensible. Creating a permanent space-faring capability is sensible.

How about a job building Solar Power Sats at GEO?
How about a job building Solar Power Towers at the Lunar poles?
How about a job fixing robots at a Moonbase?
How about a job fixing satellites in GEO?
How about a job piloting the ISS-EML-1-ISS route?
How about a job tending far side radio scopes?
How about a job growing plants in a Lunar greenhouse module?
How about a job prospecting Near-Earth asteroids?
How about a job upgrading L-point probes?
How about a job tending the Moonbase ECLSS? (i.e. cleaning the toilets)
How about a job in space?

Perhaps NASA needs to slow down a bit and actually try to see what it is that the nation wants it to do. After all, NASA administers space for the nation. Perhaps by pursuing goals and agendas that more closely align with those folks who pay the bills, NASA can better assure itself of the kind of funding levels it really needs. And if it does it right, NASA is going to be directly paying for very little of the above.

This may well mean that NASA’s realization of the dreams of Von Braun and other “stale, pale males” (as Dan Goldin might put it, 😉 might have to wait a while. It’s not like Mars is going anywhere. But in creating a permanent and “sustainable” (as the VSE puts it) space infrastructure, NASA can help carry the U.S. into space for good. That, to me, is a worthy dispensation of the tax dollars that I, as a Libertarian, am loath to give to our government.

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5 Responses to On Space Priorities: NASA and its funders

  1. Paul Dietz says:

    The problem for NASA of trying to use asteroid defense as a driver for their funding is that it probably won’t work. The rational approach to asteroid defense is to use telescopes (possibly some in space) to determine the orbit of all threatening objects. Possibly a few would need unmanned rendevous to more accurately determine their orbits. But only if an object on a near-term collision orbit was found would larger scale space activities (for defense) become essential. This isn’t very likely. So, the most likely outcome would be some more astronomy, a few more probes, and not much more funding.

  2. Brian Dunbar says:

    Perhaps NASA needs to slow down a bit and actually try to see what it is that the nation wants it to do.

    We know in a general way what the public wants: they want SS1, they want to believe in progress. If you want NASA to halt in place to find out specfics … we’ll be waiting a while. Consensus is hard to come by these days.

    Innovation … a commercial company that listens to just their customers for ‘what they want’ will only make incremental improvments in their current product. Which is okay if your product is ‘ok’ but isn’t if your prodcut is expensive, hard to understand and prone to spetacular failure.

    You want innovative you come up with a killer app, market it so that people find out they really DO need it and make your fortune.

  3. Fred Kiesche says:

    Slow down a bit?

    NASA could give turtles lessons in energy conservation.

  4. murphydyne says:

    I didn’t say to use Asteroid defense as a driver. I suggested that NASA might want to consider making it a bit more high profile part of their activities, in part from increased funding. I don’t think the folks on the street will be happy, though, until we can put astronauts on asteroids. Then I think they’ll feel that we can actually do something about them.

    Mr. Dunbar, I do not consider “slow down a bit” to be “halt in place”. I just think that this whole project is not the best that it can be or what’s in the best interests of the American taxpayer. It does help to listen to the shareholders every once in a while. It does help to maintain the flow of capital.

  5. Brian Dunbar says:

    It does help to listen to the shareholders every once in a while. It does help to maintain the flow of capital.

    You seem to be expecting a government agency to function like a business would; it can’t.

    We must listen to the shareholders of a public company – they are literally the owners. We only are shareholders in NASA by proxy and metaphor.

    My point is that you can’t get consensus – it is unpossible. You can lead and set direction, however. That is what the executive branch/NASA should be doing – set a goal, explain why and start marching.

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