Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The effects of years of budget cuts.

In a little noticed story out yesterday, NASA had another screw-up.

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- A robotic NASA spacecraft designed to rendezvous with an orbiting satellite instead crashed into its target, according to a summary of the investigation released Monday.

Investigators blamed the collision on faulty navigational data that caused the DART spacecraft to believe that it was backing away from its target when it was actually bearing down on it.


The only thing remarkable about this was, well, its unremarkability. Over the past few years, we have seen the failure of several Mars missions, a special probe designed to collect comet dust and return it to earth, and of course the Columbia tragedy.

Of course, there have always been mishaps in space, while pushing the frontiers of science and technology. It is a risky adventure, and those who engage in it deserve our respect. We all saw the Challenger explode ten years ago, and we probably saw Tom Hanks re-enact the now hazily distant but all too familiar saga of Apollo 13.

But what is disturbing is that the numbers have turned around. During the 1960's and 1970's, most of our space missions, manned or unmanned, were successful. The inevitable failures were the exception, but not the rule in the early exploration of space.

Today, we see all manner of failures, and on those rare occasions when we see a success (as I blogged about in one of my very first blog posts), it seems to be the rarity, not the more numerous failures.

What has changed since the 1960's and 1970's compared to today?

How about: The missions are often more dangerous or problematical. Well, not so fast. We sent unmanned probes much farther out into space in the 1970's, including one that managed to swing by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in a sort of giant pinball arrangement on its way out of the solar system. Besides, most of the mishaps have involved Mars missions (with the sojourner rovers being about the only successes of note there). But going to Mars was accomplished with very little complication by the 1970's era Viking landers, and today's mishap had to do with an unmanned mission that was heading towards a satellite in earth orbit. So it's hard to argue that the missions are more dangerous or difficult, because in general they are not.

Well, then, what about the techological changes? What about them? Isn't technology supposed to simplify things instead of making them more complicated?

How about the quality of the engineers? It is certainly true that the geniuses, headed by Werner von Braun, who gave us those early rockets have long since retired. But today we have a whole new generation of geniuses. We certainly have schools who can give them and do give them the same education (or perhaps an even more modern one) than the early NASA engineers had. After all, look at how many of those quality engineers Raytheon has?

Ah, there is the problem. Not that you can blame Raytheon for hiring the best people they can get (or any other company, for that matter), but you can blame our government.

How?

Our government has changed from one where in the 1960's and 1970's a philosophy of 'do what it takes to make it work,' to a philosophy of 'make it work for as little as it can take.' NASA started to suffer budget cuts during the Reagan era, and its budget has continued to decline since. At the same time, additional bureacrats (largely due to unspecified mandates about 'accountability') have popped up more concerned with the budget than with the overall mission of the agency.

Not that the engineers that NASA gets are bad engineers, because they're not, but it is certainly true that NASA gets second pick, after private industry, because of their low relative budget. We may not have noticed (as much) in the 1980's, because many of the original veterans were still around, and even when you starve an agency it takes a few years for the long term effects to be felt. But felt they now have been.

Conservatives love to argue that their budget cuts won't impact the service level of government. Well, at least in this case it appears that they are dead wrong about that.

6 comments:

Karen said...

The space age is not *top priority* on bush's list of things to do. Unfortunately, he has us so bogged down financially in Iraq, but wait!!...

He's spending like one of us so-called lib-er-als, so why not!?! Our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, etc., will have to pay. Who the hell cares, anyway, we'll be lone gone by then!!

Indy Voter said...

This isn't an issue where blame lies solely on Bush, Karen. NASA's budget has been tenuous ever since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon (or, more accurately, since the Apollo 12 mission was viewed as old hat by many in the public after the success of Apollo 11). NASA cancelled the last several moon landings, and has had to rely on a lot of PR stunts to keep in the public eye (Apollo-Soyuz, teacher in space, senators in space, etc.) and to keep up funding.

NASA, and space exploration in general, is a long-term project which requires continuous commitment over the long haul for it to thrive. Unfortunately, NASA funding is too easy a target for politicians of any political stripe to sacrifice in favor of pet projects. It takes a certain boldness for a politician to vehemently support space exploration when he doesn't represent a district near Pasadena, Houston, or Cape Canaveral. And boldness of that sort generally does not help a politician's career.

Eli Blake said...

The point of this post was to highlight the effect of budget cuts. And yes, they have extended back for decades, but certainly we know that conservatives are much more in favor of cutting budgets for government agencies than liberals.

NASA is a government agency, and one which has high visibility, especially its successes and failures. So we can see the effects of the budget cuts on full screen display in front of us. The effects of budget cuts in other programs, for example a person who can't afford their prescription, or a child who skips lunch at school, an adult who can't afford to attend a community college because they can't get enough financial aid and so does not move from 'unskilled laborer' to 'skilled laborer,' or a person who has to quit a job because the bus line they used to ride is eliminated, are also failures caused by budget cuts.

Just we don't see them as easily or visibly as we see the effects of these cuts on NASA. But they are just as much a reality.

Indy Voter said...

As far as NASA's funding is concerned, it's been the Republicans who have been more solidly supporting itover the years, Eli. You probably remember the "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we ..." arguments which were commonplace for redirecting money away from the space program towards other government programs - liberal ones mostly - during the early 1970's. It was the Democratic Congress which forced the cancellation of the later Apollo missions, not the Republican administrations of Nixon and Ford. Reagan also gave a big boost to NASA funding under the aegis of SDI, and it was under the first Bush that the development of the International Space Station was begun (it was called Space Station Freedom then).

A friend of mine who worked at JPL during the late 1980's and early 1990's remarked that Bush gave space exploration a lot higher priority than Reagan had. Vice President Quayle headed up Bush's space council, and she told me that Quayle was actively involved, knowledgeable, and a strong advocate for the program, or pretty much the opposite of how he was generally characterized in public.

I haven't followed the intricacies of space funding as closely during the last two administrations, so I can't say whether Clinton or Dubya was more supportive, or even how the Republican Congress differs in its attitudes from the Democratic Congresses of the 70's and 80's, but it certainly appears to me that - as your article suggests - NASA's become a much lower priority. The decision to let Hubble die after barely a decade in space rather than performing maintenance on it which would extend its life for years, for instance, was dismaying.

I didn't set out to introduce such a partisan tone to this discussion, as I'm a strong supporter of space exploration (as you appear to be) regardless of which party's in power, but your previous comment cast unfair aspersions on the Republicans regarding their historic support for space exploration.

Eli Blake said...

IndyVoter:

How did I cast aspersions on Republicans here? I don't think I said the name of either party or any member of either party in the post. I made one comment that conservatives (who can be members of either party, BTW) are generally more in favor of budget cuts than liberals. But the point here is about budget cuts in general.

My point is about budget cuts generally. There are those who believe that you can cut budgets and it will be absorbed simply by unspecified 'fat.' However, experience shows that this is not the case, when you cut government budgets (whoever is doing the cutting) then you get less effective government.

The reason why NASA is a good agency to focus on is that the impacts of the budget cuts are very visible, get in the paper just as much as the successes, and as such don't need to be argued in a vacuum-- they are out there for all the world to see.

If anything, that may help save NASA-- if it is easy to cut NASA's budget, how much easier isn't it to cut the budget of some agency where the corresponding cuts in services won't be visible to very many people beyond those actually affected?

Right now, the paradigm governing our Federal budgeting process is that the ultimate goal should be to reduce its size, cut taxes and cut spending. I personally reject that paradigm in favor of a paradigm (which we had for a long time) focusing on how best to make government work best for the benefit of the nation and all of its citizens.

Indy Voter said...

I don't agree with you on the current paradigm, Eli. The Republicans/"conservatives" certainly aren't cutting spending, and their ideas for "cutting the size of government" are more along the lines of either (a) outsourcing programs to the private sector, thus reducing the government payroll but not the true size of government, or (b) mandating that states pay for programs which the federal government either won't fund or seriously underfunds.

I'm slip-sliding way off the original topic here, but one thing that I've felt Democrats and liberals need to do is to break out of the mindset that Republicans and "conservatives" favor smaller government. That simply is not supported by the actions of the Republicans and "conservatives" over the past six years, and I would argue it hasn't been supported the entire dozen tears the Republicans have had control of the House.

If you look at what "cuts" the Republicans have supported, you'll see they're targeted against groups which vote Democratic. Areas which affect everyone (defense, highways, Medicare, etc.) have generally received more funding, as have areas which affect groups which vote Republican (esp. the wealthy).