In a previous post (Housing, Homer, and Space…) I suggested that the worsening economy, combined with a change in political administration in 2009, would lead to the cancellation of the VSE and potentially the end of NASA’s manned space ambitions. While a minority of commenters argued that we weren’t in an economic downturn and a recession was just me being cynical again, I think it’s safe to say that the majority now recognizes that the banking/housing mess is pretty severe and has a long way to go before it works itself out. One indicator: political discussions/debates (if you can even call them that) in the run for the White House are focused more on the economy than that little excursion in the desert we conveniently seem to have dropped from the radar. When the economy is more important than an actual WAR, you know there are some problems here at home.
The elements of the perfect storm (feel free to add others you think I may have forgotten):
- Retirement of the Space Shuttle – whether it’s 2010, 2011, or perhaps earlier (if, tragically, another shuttle is lost before the planned retirement date), this takes away America’s ability to send astronauts to space other than through the use of foreign launchers.
- Retirement of ISS – the beast that will not die(TM) will, in fact, eventually do just that. NASA gloriously celebrated ISS’s 10th anniversary on their website recently. I thought it was a bit ironic, given that arguments for forcing the deorbiting of MIR were based on the age of the station, the ISS will, by 2015, be roughly the same age or older than MIR was when NASA demanded it be condemned to a fiery/watery grave. Now those of you who are more cynical than I might suggest it was due to fear of competition from the private sector, but we’re not going there right now… The more important point would be that ISS has failed to live up to the hype/lie upon which it was sold – industry has most certainly NOT lined up to use the orbiting facility, as we predicted in 1999 when we studied the commercialization potential of ISS at KPMG. At the time our crystal ball was declared “broken” by those who, one might argue, had conflicting agendas and personal gain staked in the continuation of the program.
- Retirement of your Patron Saints – the last of the old guard is stepping down. Congressman Weldon is retiring, and while it is clear that whoever replaces him will have to pander to the space contingent in Florida, that freshman congresscritter (male or female) will have NO seniority and very little to offer in the horsetrading that passes for budgeting on Capitol Hill. Imagine Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars – very little understanding of the Force, and even less ability to use it.
- Cancellation of VSE – don’t kid yourselves. This program is a Dead Man Walking. If you work at NASA on this program – GET A TRANSFER NOW. As soon as the votes are counted in November, this program is heading to the scrap pile – it has two very important negatives attached to it. First, it was Bush’s idea (so you can expect that Obama or Clinton will give it about as much attention as they will to Albania). Second, it costs WAY too much – especially in a time of recession and with too many interests clamoring for a share of our federal budget, a Mission to Mars won’t last – particularly when you also have your primary jobs advocate for Florida’s space force no longer around (see 3 above).
- The RECESSION – this is the biggie. The pain is already starting to be felt across the country – from Wall Street (the “subprime” meltdown revealing a much bigger systemic problem tied to derivatives and CDOs, requiring the entry of Sovereign Wealth Funds to prop up the otherwise UGLY balance sheets of household names like Citigroup) to Main Street (with more for sale signs and a rising number of foreclosures blighting communities across the USA). Unfortunately, the hangover after the 7 years of post-9/11 partying that we gorged ourselves on will be ugly, indeed. Because it isn’t simply a matter of cutting back spending, many have to repay the overspending they already engaged in – which results in further contraction of current spending than simply returning to the mean, and that spells recession (or worse). The recession will take years to work out, because it took years to build up – with the result being that it will likely last into the second term of the next president (or the first term of his/her replacement). Since we, as a country, are loathe to have our taxes raised – arguably, they should be eliminated altogether, but that’s another debate – spending will HAVE to be cut, as the dollar continues to weaken and the government finds it hard to sell debt… because Economics 101 tells us that if a currency is weak it has to offer a higher interest rate on debt in order to compete with stronger currencies, BUT the government is unable to drive rates up because it will further damage the housing market (all those pesky ARMs that are tied to the interest rate). Talk about a rock and a hard place.
- And speaking of rocks… then there’s Iraq. Or, as John McCain likes to imagine it, the next 100 Years War. We are currently embroiled in two shooting wars that have no visible end in sight, in addition to numerous wars against nouns (Poverty, Terror, Drugs, you name it). These cost money. LOTS of money. Assuming we don’t get involved in any more wars (shooting or otherwise) we are still burning the candle at both ends – from overdeployment of troops in theater due to a lack of fresh reserves to overtasking our folks here at home with “homeland defense”, the next administration(s) will be hard pressed to cut these areas of the budget.
- As the holy grails of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security remain off limits, and other lobbies (agriculture, big business, education, etc) have much stronger lobbies than the space community, it doesn’t bode well for NASA’s budgetary ambitions when it comes to a brand new program that has a BIG price tag associated with it. This doesn’t mean NASA is dead – the other parts of the agency will fare quite well (after all, across multiple field centers there are lots of jobs in lots of districts, which protects NASA to an extent from too much budget cutting) and may in fact improve when that $16B or so is reallocated after Manned Space comes to an end.
Now there are those who would argue that any loss of momentum is a bad thing:
“If we stop and go in a different direction now, we will have lost a lot of the last four years and a lot of momentum. That would not be the kind of sustained national commitment that the Columbia board called for.” -John Logsdon, George Washington University
Unfortunately what he doesn’t realize is that while the Columbia board may have CALLED for a sustained national commitment, it appears they didn’t actually check with the American taxpayers to verify that they were signing up for this commitment. And in this, he’s not alone – many space tragics make the same mistake in transference of their personal desires and passions for space onto their fellow Americans.
It appears that NASA may have figured out that they’ve got a perfect storm brewing, and they’ve come up with an ingenious solution – PR. That’s right, folks, NASA has gone to Madison avenue and hired a public relations firm to get the word out about how great Constellation is and how it’s important that we do whatever it is they intend to do with Constellation. While I’m sure that some PR agency executives are happy with this decision (after all, they get paid), NASA won’t be happy with the outcome. Because frankly, when economic concerns trump an actual WAR we are fighting (or two, if you consider Afghanistan and Iraq as separate countries), all the PR in the world won’t get the masses riled up about sending some astronauts to Mars, or back to the Moon, or even just to a nearby asteroid…
One thing that may give some of you heart, though, is that if NASA officially leaves the manned space game the door is wide open to you private sector proponents who have long claimed that they were the main obstacle to the successful private development of the sector.
… of course, if that wasn’t really the reason, then I suspect you aren’t going to be quite as happy about my prediction coming true as one might expect you to be.