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Blog, interrupted July 27, 2008

Posted by shubber in Manned Space, NASA, public service announcement, smack talk.
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Apologies for the radio silence over the past few weeks – real life stepped up and threw in a couple of major time consumers (big project for work, moving from DC to St Louis, packing/unpacking, speaking at a couple of conferences, etc).

I thought i’d share a little bit of info to further my point made months ago about externalities impacting the space program – specifically, how manned space (NASA, that is) is going to be shut down in the next decade due to budget constraints as we juggle many other issues on the national agenda simultaneously, regardless of who gets elected.  Let’s see, as major constraints we have:

  • Multiple wars (and the resulting need to re-arm, refurbish, restock, etc (so buying stock in MICs may not be a bad idea…)
  • Huge social entitlement programs becoming more problematic as baby boomers retire
  • Increasing cost of fuel – in the big city you may not notice this as much, but many small, poor towns in rural America are seriously hurting as a result of a 150% increase in the price of gas over the past 18 months.  Drilling or no drilling, this is a problem TODAY.
  • Increase in food costs – especially as a result of a retarded effort to turn our food into gas for our cars.  Those who saw my presentation at the SBSP conference in Breckenridge last year might remember the charts i displayed on the caloric inputs required for the production of a calorie of food – so I ask you: does it make sense to poor energy into making corn only (at a 4.7:1 ratio) to turn around and make ethanol out of that corn to, um, burn?   Meat, corn-derived products, basically a large percentage of the food we eat is experiencing price inflation – which again hits Joe Sixpack right where it hurts: the wallet.
  • Bailout #1 – you’d have to have been in a coma or on a seriously disconnected vacation island somewhere for the past 12 months not to have seen the crack fest known as the housing bubble finally start to come to it’s long overdue end.  What is criminal is that those of us who did not partake in this little exercise in self delusion are getting stuck with the check, now that President Bush has gone back on his veto promise and plans to authorize the pandering legislation that the Democratically-controlled house and senate has passed.  In other words, those of you too stupid to figure out that you can’t afford that million dollar house on $43,000 a year, or those of you who don’t understand that the “A” in ARM stands for “adjustable” – and that you’d better be able to make the payment when it resets have no business buying the house in the first place, much less taking out a loan (because here’s a clue for you: it AINT YOUR MONEY TILL YOU SELL THE HOUSE DOOFUS).
  • Bailout #2 – of course you couldn’t have excess greed on the part of the consumer without corresponding excess greed on the part of the banks who lent the money.  So of course we the taxpayers are getting hosed again, in the form of a massive bailout of the banking system.  “Too big to fail”, my ass.  I say let them fail – then the shareholders of those worthless banks can hopefully take a lesson and not do it again the next time they’re presented with something too good to be true.  Socializing risk while privatizing profit – which is exactly what we’re doing with this bailout of “fannie” and “freddie” (such friendly sounding names for such a fucked up way of doing business).

So it is within this context of macroeconomic forces that I look at our space program and make the bold assertion that, post Shuttle the US Government (i.e. NASA) will be out of the manned space program for at least 5-10 years.  They may have aspirations, and plans, for a future VSE, but there’s going to be NO money for it.  Last year’s reporting on the housing foreclosure market showed this graphic for the State of California:

That’s not too bad, right?

For those of you who think the markets have priced all of this in, or that we’re touching bottom and now is a good time to buy, there’s an old saying about trying to catch a falling knife…  and now for the update on that graphic:

Thanks to rjmason for providing these great graphics.

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Comments»

1. nick - July 27, 2008

[due to extreme federal budget constraints due to social security, the mortgage mess, wars, etc.] post Shuttle the US Government (i.e. NASA) will be out of the manned space program for at least 5-10 years.

Another piece of evidence consistent with this: after the U.S. in essence wrote Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a blank check, the default risk on U.S. bonds (heretofore supposedly “risk free”) tripled. The U.S. federal government is now more than twice as likely as the German government to default on its bonds:

http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2008/07/too-big-to-fail.html

With the Fed’s inflationary behavior being almost instantly reflected as pain at the gas pump and in other commodity prices, there is much less room for the feds to inflate their way out of this problem than to inflate their way out of previous debt it wracked up (e.g. when it spent the 1970s inflating its way out of the 1960s debt caused by Vietnam, Apollo, and welfare programs).

A bit of silver lining in all this gray is that I can think of few things better for the long-term health of space development than a thorough reboot of NASA.

The bad news are the many politicians who think our energy problems are a cause rather than effect of our current economic woes, and further go on to call for Apollo- and Manhattan Project- type of programs to “solve” the “energy crisis”. They conveniently forget to mention the far greater number of failed and grossly wasteful programs of this kind, such as Shuttle, ISS, the 1970s synfuels program, etc.

In fact none of these gigaprojects, including landing on the moon and the nuclear bomb, solved any important economic problems. Give the feds a single and extremely simple goal (land a man on the moon, make a very big boom) and vast amounts of tax money, and they can and often do accomplish that straightforward objective, albeit in the process building up a vast and wasteful bureaucracy to continue spending taxpayer money on far more dubious projects for many decades thereafter. Give the feds a challenging economic problem involving many subtle human unknowns (create a “space infrastructure”, solve the energy crisis, etc.), and expect them to spend taxpayer money in a way resembling economic rationality, and they fall flat on their faces, squandering vast amounts of wealth in the process.

2. Thomas Olson - July 28, 2008

If you really want to lose your breakfast, check this out:

http://www.wired.com/science/space/news/2008/07/nasa_mainbar

I’ve never read such a toadying, uncritical piece of flotsam on the webpage of an otherwise very good magazine – one that should certainly know better. Loved the subtle denigration of SpaceShipOne as being …”so 1956.” Never mind that SS1 was a fraction of the cost and weight of the X-15, and was intended for purely peaceful purposes.

NASA forced into hiding for a decade or so could be the best thing to ever happen.

3. John McGowan - July 28, 2008

I have serious doubts that the manned space program will be killed. In part, this is because the manned space program functions as a large jobs program. I am also fairly confident that the Space Shuttle both puts in orbit and services a variety of highly classified gadgets that are likely to be in continuing demand with multiple
wars and similar international misadventures. While I won’t speculate on the specific nature of these gadgets, my suspicion is that growing concerns over nuclear proliferation are likely to ensure a continuing desire to loft some of these into orbit and some by their nature must be quite large.

More likely, faced with budgetary constraints, NASA will find a way to extend the lifetime of the shuttles rather than invent a new rocket system that does the same
thing, or, perhaps, build additional space shuttles to the same known proven design or build new copies of some other proven manned spaceship design. The current program to reinvent the manned rocket is probably unnecessary and will get tossed
out if serious budgetary constraints arise. This could be a good thing from many points of view if it results in transitioning a proven rocket design to something like mass production.

4. Thomas Olson - July 29, 2008

John, the problem I see with your position is that the Shuttle itself is very high-maintenance – which sucks the life out of a shrinking budget. If budgets are going down, it’s in the agency’s best economic interests to retire the damn thing and build something cheaper and easier to keep flying in order to get more bang for te buck going forward, and keep the agency running on some minimalist basis, at least. The shuttle is a boat anchor that could drag them under for good, at this point.

By the same token, NASA as a “jobs program” is minuscule compared to the MIC – and both NASA and the DoD use the same contractors, so overall, if NASA was shut down entirely, the vast bulk of “space” jobs would simply transition to “defense” jobs. And one must admit those jobs won’t go away unless/until America itself collapses.

Lastly, if NASA had a “proven design” that could be “transitioned to mass production”, why would they sit on it, while Elon Musk spends his fortune reinventing the wheel? Oh…yeah…that little thing called “market demand”…in a major global economic downturn (trying to get back on-topic, here), aggregate commercial launch demand will shrink, and the last thing hungry, war-weary people are thinking about is space tourism.

5. Eric Haynes - July 29, 2008

After further review, I don’t think the U.S. has a choice but to keep the manned space (yes, this means the VSE) program alive. Think about it, will the U.S. allow the Russians, Europeans, and Chinese to have a manned program but not the U.S.? No way, it’s not like there’s even any choice in the matter. The U.S. has to keep it’s Superpower status alive and a component of that is a manned space program. Comeon, don’t tell me you don’t know this.

As far as the housing market, inflation, rising energy prices, etc. affecting the NASA budget? Shoot man, NASA doesn’t get very much money anyway. I doubt cutting their budget even further will bail any of these other programs.

Just a couple of economics food for thought. Oil prices are falling fast because there was a panic, and now that’s died down. Who ever heard of oil prices dropping during the height of summer before? Well, it’s happening. Plus people are really changing their habits. I bet oil will really drop after the summer ends, I’ve heard it really should be around $85 a barrel, I believe it. And get this; I read a report that the Chinese economy that’s rising so fast is overestimated by 40% Not only do I totally believe this I just have to let other people in on this. Face it, the Chinese are great at copying everything, doesn’t mean they’re the number one economy in the world for christsake.

I don’t this the future is really all that bleak. Even though we have huge problems now doesn’t mean the world comes to a complete stop. Actually, the future in space is all UP. The private sector is going Sub-orbital and maybe LEO. NASA is getting away from LEO (John, the Space Shuttle is on it’s way OUT, it’s the worse money hog of them all) and going Lunar. This is exactly the way the UP in space should evolve.

One more comment on the VSE. I think Bush was smart to push this through in 2004. NASA has probably spent just enough money and cut enough metal that the new president (Obama) cant’ just jump in and cancel it. Now if Obama replaces the current NASA administrator (Mike Griffin) I’ll be worried as I think Griffin’s the right guy for the job. He inherited a complete mess and has done as good of a job that is possible for that type of political job. Don’t forget, the NASA administrator spot is a totally thankless job that takes balls of steel to anything done. A new president and a new NASA administrator might just do the trick to ruin everything. Finally, I hope you forgive me for writing so much. Feel free to comment on my personal observations. Thanks!

6. 21st Century Waves » Welcome to Carnival of Space — 31 July Edition - July 31, 2008

[…] The Space Cynics highlight the macroeconomic storm that they predicted starting to unfold, and how it’ll sweep away NASA’s manned space program. […]

7. Ken Murphy - August 2, 2008

Crisis = opportunity

I won’t dispute the dire economic circumstances y’all have laid out. My only dispute would be with the magnitude. Everyone thinks it is all about mortgages. That’s a part, but the real story that the media isn’t telling you is the CDO side of this whole debacle. I won’t waste y’alls electrons here with an explanation, but I do discuss it in my last couple of posts over at the Selenian Bondocks.

One of the points I try to emphasize in my outreach & education work is that the space industry is one of the few domains left where the U.S. has a competitive advantage. Most of our other industries have been gutted and sold overseas, or are in areas where the competitive advantage is difficult to sustain. The space industry has high barriers to entry, hurdles that we’ve largely overcome. Increasingly, I think you’re going to see a growing awareness that NASA is only good at serving NASA’s interests, not the nation’s interest. NASA will not get the U.S. (i.e. commercial, security, & scientific interests) into space, it will only get NASA into space under the guise of a ‘National Space Transportation System’ (NASA’s words). The STS was supposed to be a ‘National Space Transportation System’, and look where that’s gotten us.

Or, as I noted to Dr. Paul Spudis and Dennis Wingo at the last LEAG conference, NASA is not on my critical path to the Moon.

I think it is rather sad that it looks like Bigelow’s $750Mn in launch purchases America’s Prize is going to go unclaimed. That the U.S. cannot build an entirely American rocket is sad testament to the extent of economic damage inflicted on this nation over the last several decades. We’ve got a lot of clean-up work ahead of us, but I do believe that America’s space industries are one of the bright spots in that future. The opportunity cost of not doing this space thing is too terrible to consider.

8. xx - August 20, 2008

If all mortgages are being paid by the people, all houses should be owned by the people too.

9. SWG - August 22, 2008

Re: Eric’s comment, “NASA doesn’t get very much money anyway. I doubt cutting their budget even further will bail any of these other programs.”

However, this overlooks a few points that budget-hawks-for-a-cycle politicians exploit regularly:
–The ease of cutting money “that’s just spent on space,” as if we’re shipping crates full of twenties into orbit.
–The economic ignorance of the American public, which has no idea how little money NASA receives of the total bloat.
–The emotional satisfaction our politicians get for being praised as “tough on NASA/the budget.”
–The political cowardice politicians experience at the thought of confronting AARP about cutting retirement benefits.

Congress and every president since maybe Nixon has been playing chicken with an economic train wreck, and it’s horrifying to watch.

10. Frank - September 7, 2008

Any comments here about Obama’s recent change of mind in saying he will support NASA with extra funds ($2 Billion I think it was)? Will this or McCain’s policies have any impact on this coming crisis?


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