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What’s wrong with NASA?

A Wired.com article, How NASA Screwed Up (And Four Ways to Fix It), details what the top 4 priorities should be (and quite frankly they sound reasonable to me) and they detail what NASA’s apparent top priorities are today (according to them).

Top 4 Priorities (according to Wired)

  1. Conduct research, particularly environmental research, on Earth, the sun, and Venus, the most Earth-like planet.
  2. Locate asteroids and comets that might strike Earth, and devise a practical means of deflecting them.
  3. Increase humanity’s store of knowledge by studying the distant universe.
  4. Figure out a way to replace today’s chemical rockets with a much cheaper way to reach Earth orbit

Top 4 Apprent Priorities (according to Wired)

  1. Maintain a pointless space station.
  2. Build a pointless Motel 6 on the moon.
  3. Increase humanity’s store of knowledge by studying the distant universe.
  4. Keep money flowing to favored aerospace contractors and congressional districts.

Wired is clearly taking the utilitarian approach to what NASA’s overall guiding philosophy should be, which is “Any research time/money spent should have a direct, marketable, and useful purpose. Every mission should contribute to some product or body of immediately useful knowledge”. Studying Mars doesn’t contribute to anything immediately useful, but Venus on the other hand is an example of a runaway greenhouse effect (and therefore immediately useful in studying Earth’s global warming). The International Space Station is a bottomless pit of money and no useful studies or knowledge is coming from this (and neither would an International Moon Base).

If you look at their list the #1, #2 and #4 items are utilitarian in nature, only #3 would likely contribute to knowledge of no immediate need or use (beyond a very small group of scientists). And to further bolster their point the “apparent priorities” as they have defined them show that #1, #2 and #4 current items not only do not have a utilitarian purpose but are pointless or corrupt, only #3 remains intact.

The Wired article makes a couple of excellent (and maybe a little cynical) points, the first is that a moon base would be astronomical in cost (pun intended) and have little scientific benefit relative to other projects. I can concede that point but it would be really cool to have a moon base especially if you could see it with a reasonably powerful telescope on a clear night. The second and perhaps most cynical point that I have inferred because they don’t explicitly say it is that if NASA were to prioritize a cheaper and more effective method for getting into space it would probably shut them down. The economic barrier for private industry to get into space is so high right now (and there are those who are working privately on changing this, Elon Musk, Richard Branson) that private enterprise can’t make anything near a profit. But if NASA were to research and ultimately develop a relatively cheap way of getting into space (something not likely to include a chemical fuel) it would lower that economic barrier for private development to step in and ultimately supercede many of NASA’s current priorities (let Marriott develop a space state/moon base, contract out satellite launches and repair missions).

I think the last point that I want to make is perhaps the most disturbing statement of the article. In justifying the #1 position Wired laments the lack of study of our own Sun and says this,

“The agency is conducting only a few sun-study missions — even though all life depends on the sun, and knowing more about it might clarify the global-warming debate.”

Umm… I’m no climatologist but what are they talking about? My first and only assumption is that they are talking about the “dispute” over Milankovitch cycles. I’m pretty sure that these have been ruled out pretty conclusively as having no appreciable effect on our climate by the IPCC report and mainstream scientific consensus, I think a mission to “clarify” this point would meet with much (and justified) resistance within the scientific community. You can find a link on it here. I think this might be an example of “fair time” gone awry.

PS. I have long held the belief that NASA was a phenomenal waste of money. Which surprises many people to hear this knowing my obsession with all things space-y and science-y. And yes NASA’s budget is infinitely small compared with the federal budget in general but it has always bothered me that we are spending billions to study gravity wells around Earth or a distant supernova when those billions could go to school lunches or raises for teachers or more and better computers in schools (and that’s just my education agenda, vote for Skeptigator).

I have since reevaluated this position and wholeheartedly support the NASA program. I’ve gotten even more liberal in my old age (ok fine I’m only 29). How about this? Let’s stop researching the next generation of nukes and that alone would triple NASA’s budget and fund all of the education programs above.  That might be an overstatement but even a small fraction of the defense budget would have a huge impact in all other programs.

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Filed under: Environment, Science

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