Can We Tweet You Major Tom?

Diminishing Powers seem to grasp reality in phases. Past self images lurch to synchronize painfully with events. Just ask the Romans, Ottomans, the Chinese Emperors, Sovs or Brits and Dutch et al.



There’s little reason America should be different. It may be even harder for us. We generally are oblivious to America as metropole. Until 2008 we took the fringe benefits for granted. We should expect our flashes of recognitions to surprise. Like a baseball bat in a dark room. If how a Power rides the adjustment curve says as much as its Noontide reign? We have massively surreal moments ahead. Just ask Clement Atlee Obama in three or eight years.

We’ve all discussed at length (and seemingly agreed) that the British should have known the Empire was over in 1940, their actual bankruptcy. American financing and willingness to at least pretend to a quasi-subordinate role after May 1945 cushioned matters. Americans got a longer ride from Japan and then China from 1980s till Fall 2008.

Hindsight brutally reveals that the 1947 Greek Crisis and the Marshall Plan pulled the mask on British feebleness. Psyches are a tricky thing, though. Just a year later, in 1948, the British — still embued with imperial self image — sought to ‘guarantee’ Western European defense with the Treaty of Brussels. The prostrate Europeans saw more clearly than British delusions. In 1949 the Western Europeans demanded Americans handcuffed to them all, keeping the Germans down and the Russians out – hence NATO.

Suez was a shock in London no doubt. It still took 20 years after 1947 and a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins, to jam financial reality to the fore and force British withdrawal from military footprints East of the Suez (Singapore, Malaysia and the Persian Gulf). George Lazenby’s fiasco in 1969 served as exclamation point. America unfortunately likely will not have until 2029 to adjust.

Whatever Happens Be Gentle With Tom Hanks

Where does the collapse of the American civilian space program fit? Do Americans really care about it? Few deny it’s a hangover imperial luxury. Shouldn’t we just let it go?

Landing on the Moon remains perhaps the last truly astonishing triumph of the American idea (beyond wearing out the Sovs). But in terms of the popular culture, it’s about as relevant as a Woodstock reminiscence clip. Americans only seem to care about space when it’s well done on a movie screen. (American military reliance on space deserves a separate topic (but then the American people have almost no familiarity with military – again unless on TV or a movie screen)).

Bush launched an absurdly ambitious boondoggle for American contractors to return to the Moon and Mars. A Mars Mission is a long running fantasy among certain Movement demographics for various biological, philosophical and spiritual reasons. You may recall Movement types in the 1980s — including a back bencher named weirdly ‘Newt’ pushing for Mars. Under Bush 41, Bill Kristol/Dan Quayle’s office served as the campfire around which the various constituencies gathered. Newt then picked up the Mars torch in 1995-96. After 8 years of exile under Bubba — presto! The Warlord eventually is manipulated to make it happen. (Remember Dave Chappelle’s now hoary ‘Mars, bitches !!’)

Like the Warlord’s other schemes it falls apart. Obama appointed a NASA Review Panel to find cheaper ways to get into space. Today his Panel reports NASA can’t go anywhere even on $80 billion through 2020. Not even the Moon. Meanwhile, nefarious *ferriners*, the Indians, Japanese, Chinese and even the Germans have or are planning on sending probes to the Moon. American public reaction? Yawn.

So shoot the horse. It’s time to put down the civilian space program as a grossly unjustifiable self-perpetuating government-industrial sector. Closing out this consortium of interests seeking handouts and subsidies to find a reason to get more money is overdue. Billions spent and to be spent on a rocket engine (Ares) even Obama’s Review Panel excludes from 3 of its 4 castrated scenarios. As some totem of uplifting nationalism the program is useless as even Sally Ride and others on the Review Panel concede. Who really believes seeing more pictures from the Moon would restore faltering legitimacy to a federal government? More than a functional jobs program? That wad has been shot. NASA (as currently configured) is the poster child of past tense Imperial self imagery and indulgence.

Obama by all accounts set up the Review Panel look for budget efficiencies. Upon receipt of the Panel’s Report he may even pretend that he has options. The always formidable Norm Augustine noted “Our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that’s terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area.”

Squandering control of national destiny has consequences. The Warlord was too stupid to realize it. Your job, Mr. Obama, is to ease the American people into the truth. Before your own East of Eden moment is forced upon you. You don’t have 20 years.

Comments

  1. Anon says

    ROFL… Saw some stuff like that in the private sector too. We had a magnetic robot that flied, used to add bolts to parts moving on a straight line. And the best imaging systems around, just to look at junk in the factory.

  2. dilbert dogbert says

    Re: Junk Cost Estimates
    I remember coming into the Advanced Missions and Concepts division at Ames Research Center in 1971. The Aircraft Missions Branch had just completed a study of hypersonic transport aircraft and the Space Branch had just studied Shuttle missions. I remember the guys from the Space Branch joking in the halls about the insane cost numbers for lbs to orbit and number of launches per year that HQ was projecting.
    A coworker wanted early retirement so he published a NASA paper on hypersonic dirigibles. Got his wish. Fun times.

  3. inquire says

    Junk Cost Estimates Supplied to Augustine Committee Threaten to Sink NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program
    http://www.marssociety.org/portal/AugustineNumbers/

    This article details the vastly overblown cost estimates presented to, or adopted by, the Commission.

    The cost projections for all other systems are similarly bloated, or worse. A particularly nonsensical example can be seen in the Aerospace Corp’s cost estimates for future ground operations. As the charts correctly note, these today amount to about $300 million per year to support the flights of the highly complex Space Shuttle. Following retirement of the Shuttle, Aerospace’s cost estimates have ground operations cost triple to $900 million by 2012, and then continue to rise to $1.8 billion by 2022. This sixfold rise in ground operations cost would be difficult to explain in any case, but in the absurdity of this instance is outstanding since during the entire ten year 2012-2022 period in question, there are NO heavy lift flights at all for the ground operations to support. In other words, the Aerospace Corp’s estimates have NASA’s ground operations costs rising sixfold over Shuttle flight support requirements, spending $15 billion over ten years, in order to launch nothing.

    I would agree strongly with the premises of this article, that cost estimates are overblown and are perhaps still workable, but strongly disagree with their conclusion. I feel NASA should repudiate any Bush mandates, and retrench to servicing LEO and the ISS, and work towards a viable lunar base. Establishing a strong foothold in the earth-moon system first is more cost effective, technically feasible, and most likely to stimulate spin-off industry and human exploitation of space than a needless flag planting on Mars.

  4. Dr Leo Strauss says

    All good points Inquire, enjoy NASA TV as well. We also would prefer that an American presence in space continue to generate ancillary technologies, skills and employment. You hit it we think emphasizing the need for ‘restructuring’. Keeping the existing NASA bureaucracy and constituent industrial base really isn’t an option.

    NASA is in the worst of both worlds. It has a sizeable budget ($80 billion through 2020) but can’t do anything meaningful manned, As the Review Panel itself suggested, the $80 billlion budget might well be better distributed if NASA returned — at least in part — to its experimental, cutting edge prototype-validation roots (where economics and risks genuinely do preclude private sector participation) and cede missions and reward to the private sector.

    NASA resists re-imagining its mission and asserts that all of the benefits you rightly observe are derivative solely from NASA’s continued unfocused and staggeringly cost inefficient manned space flight program. Merely accepting what is as necessary for what will be.

    A manned Mars Mission is beyond NASA’s (and the U.S.’) means. So is a return to the Moon . $80 billion for leo missions — while useful — is an extravagance. Had the U.S. not squandered its budget surpluses on aggressively incompetent war, tax cuts to destroy the middle class via wealth transfer to the plutocratic rich, in other words — acted like a sane and rational Great Power, perhaps there would be more cash to indulge in interesting but largely symbolic manned flight expeditions.

    As it stands, the NASA missions and benefits you describe can only be paid for by the Chinese with interest. One can understand that others around the world would enjoy the information, data and visual spur to the imagination to continue. As it is now, NASA is a very expensive hobby for a bankrupt country.

  5. inquire says

    I am Canadian, so bear this in mind as I write.
    I love NASA. I imbibe a torrent of NASA-produced media, and NASA-oriented journalism almost daily. I am all over things space oriented. I have spent hours, carefully watching over the astronauts as they do the momentous – grapple and repair the Hubble, install the enormous Japanese Kibo lab on the ISS – and the mundane – performs routine maintenance with a 3 person crew – all live on NASA TV. It’s brilliance, it’s monotony, it’s riveting. I wish only that more people would share this passion.

    However! I do know there is a minority that is studious, well versed, and very attentive to all these actions – why else is the hubble still functioning? This collection of persons who congregate on the internet are hungry for spaceflight and space-science information, in fact were it not for the impassioned pleas of scientists and citizens alike from around the world the hubble would have been deobirted and forgotten by the hoipoloi in the US.

    But, perhaps that’s the problem – it’s likely citizens beyond your borders care more about your open, accessible, remarkable space program than your population and their representatives. ESA is great, but it remains a junior partner – for global space-oriented citizens the big show remains at Cape Canaveral and Houston.

    To reform NASA, yes. Certainly. Make it efficient, dynamic and responsive. Make it partner with amazing private ventures like Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceX and more. But kill it? Neuter it, deorbit its assets? That would be a catastrophic mistake. Basic research and technological achievement will be the incubators of any American recovery; and NASA (can) be capable of this in spades. Look at all NASA has been able to do on such an emaciated budget while suffering general political neglect, it’s quite exemplary for a government agency, and it’s for that reason that it inspires such enthusiasms.
    Not to mention it’s assets are of immense value. Naysayers be damned, it’s busy in space, and the ISS is the focal point of a lot of that activity. Currently the ISS has 13 persons aboard, for the second time in two months (the previous month, you had European, 2 Canadians, a Japanese and of course, plenty of Americans). There is an imminent launch of the HTV remote cargo vehicle on its maiden voygae from Japan to rendezvous with the station, followed by a new Soyuz launch shortly thereafter with a shuttle returning once again to install Node 3.

    NASA and its achievements are an enormous assets and building block that requires reform and responsible management certainly. But if it is preserved, that dedication will no doubt payoff not only for the nation but for the globe. We *need* civilians in space, lest the military land-grab in orbit heat up (as it surely will), and right now NASA is for the moment the leader in this arena.

    Further, it is doing its level best on its meager resources to acquire and train the domestic talent in junior and high school through to university internships. If the department of education is asleep at the switch, at least NASA with its population of working scientists, is greedily grasping at any American students it can entice to train up to replace them. If any programs avoid cuts and can even see an increase (hopefully at the expense of the military) NASA ought to be top of that list (after universal healthcare).

  6. Anon says

    I remember at Iridium we looking for places to launch 72 satellites in 1 year and finding out that Baikonur and China were the only ones capable of doing it. By then we knew US “space program” was just past glory.
    Still, the climate monitoring NASA did was very useful and was scrapped for the “Mars bitches” program.

  7. dilbert dogbert says

    Ah! Fond memories of the moon program. The lunar surface magnetometer is a piece of gear that I worked on in the late 60’s. It was a lot of fun because the design vib specs where so severe that we would blow the thing apart on the shake table. After the first Saturn launches the vib spec used real data and we could keep the thing together. I suggest that we help pay for universal health coverage by ending the manned space mission.
    I think that guy Spiritied Agnew was a big fan of the Mars mission. Ah! Fading memories.

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