Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Say Goodbye: Final Chapter

Space Shuttle Discovery was flown over Washington, DC one more time today on its way to the Smithsonian:

Image credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Harold Dorwin

[Click on the image to enlarge. Go to image credit link to find more image size options.]

Say goodbye to that “vision thing”. This is a summary chart from NASA's FY-2012 budget (PDF):

It's a screenshot I took of that PDF document in the link, and then edited out all the sub-items. To see the full summary, check the first page of the PDF.

NASA’s entire budget, about $19 billion annually, is less than two months’ “supplemental appropriations” for the useless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for this fiscal year (FY2012). In its FY2013 slideshow the Defense Dept. thinks it can save almost a third of that with “better buying practices”:

This is page six of that slide show. Note the items I've highlighted in yellow. They are all savings the Pentagon thinks it can achieve by doing various things more efficiently. Add them up, and that's $16.2 billion, nearly NASA's entire budget. By its own estimates, the DoD wastes almost as much money as NASA has to work with in a given year.

Let's skip to page 13 of that slideshow for another interesting tidbit:

Once again, I've highlighted an item, the DoD space budget. It's about a third of NASA's entire budget. What does the DoD do? Mostly, it maintains a network of surveillance satellites, including its own weather satellites. It has its own communications satellites, too, as well as the Global Positioning System satellites. Still, it's rather a lot of money.

Speaking of a lot of money, let's skip to page 20:

Assuming things don't get much worse in Afghanistan, that number I circled is the billions of dollars we'll be spending to keep our army there for the next fiscal year. That's four and a half times NASA's budget. Perhaps some day we'll compare that to what we ought to be spending more on here in America, but for now I think the point that it dwarfs the budget of a major agency, and that as I've mentioned before, almost no Americans are employed by that money, it should be obvious that we could find better ways to spend it than making the rubble bounce halfway around the world.

Despite all the money we've spent on being better at destroying other peoples' countries than anyone else, we never seem to have the money to make the world a better place. Discovery and her sister ships may be the last of their kind, at least as far as the American aerospace industry is concerned. Somehow, in the almost thirty years the Shuttle was in use, we could never fund a replacement.

There was a time when America, when confronted with a daunting problem, would look on it as an opportunity to make things better. We lost that urge a long time ago. Now, if we're afraid of it, our urge as a nation seems to be to destroy something. I hardly recognize the fearful and small-hearted place we've become.

(h/t Taylor Marsh for the picture.)


Expat said...

IIRC, Carl Sagan publicly urged the completion of the super-conductor, super-collider project in Texas with the observation that the likelihood of the necessary expertise could never be assembled again for what was being budgeted. Once the decision to abandon is made, the opportunity is in effect lost and can never be reconstructed, some part of the future becomes inaccessible. He knew of which he spoke. In so many ways, the world has seen the end of a golden age and has entered an age of blight.

Cujo359 said...

It's not irretrievably lost, Expat, but it's much harder to do once most of the folks who understand the technology have gone on to do something else. That's the problem I see with developing a Shuttle replacement. The operations team is now scattered to the four winds. It could probably be retrieved in the next few years. The design team was gone a decade ago.

It was patent foolishness to let such a thing go, but we did. It will be much harder to create a follow-on space plane.

The USAF has been working on a "lifting body" design, which is basically a space plane, but it's unmanned and has no real ability to return a payload that I'm aware of. That's about the only viable project I'm aware of at this point, at least in the US.