As I finished watching President Barack Obama's speech at Cape Kennedy today, I shook my head in astonishment. I am quite sure many found his words compelling (even former Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin appears to have taken the kool aid.......errr, signed on) but call me a skeptic. Though Mr. Obama made much of "private companies" competing in the new era to assist humans to reach the Moon, Mars and beyond, I don't buy it.
None of the fledgling space tech companies, including Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. -or SpaceX- launched by Paypal founder Elon Musk, or Orbital Sciences Corp (currently a mid-level NASA supplier) has the ballast or resources to sustain and support a manned space effort on the scale of say, the Apollo program. All we are looking at here, at most, is maybe near Earth orbit ferrying to the space station - and I would be amazed if that commenced before 2016. (Neither SpaceX or Orbital Sciences, up to now, has even managed to sustain a 15 minute, sub-orbital flight, analogous to Alan Shepherd's on May 5, 1961)
SpaceX, for example, has barely 50 employees. Neither small company is going to be able to "compete" - other than for ferrying (taxi) jobs to the space station. To think either or both comprise a credible alternative to the NASA Constellation program (to get men back to the Moon) is to be numbered among the most pie-eyed dreamers and fantasists.
As intelligent as Obama is, and I'm convinced his IQ is probably at least in the Intertel (top 1%) class, like mine, I can't believe he is dumb enough to regard this as a serious alternative for space missions, for this country. Remember, this is the same president who, barely a year earlier, recognized that NO private enterprise entity would be able to muster the financial muscle to extricate us from the threat of massive credit seizures and another Great Depression. Hence, given no demand side balance to the supply side, he engineered a needed $787 billion stimulus- representing this quantum of transfer FROM the federal government's purse strings.
And yet, in the sphere of space, he thinks nothing of invoking private, pipsqueak companies (which together don't have one hundredth of the heft, experience or resources of the financial companies, banks) to carry the load that a massive government tax commons and resources have borne for over 5 decades. Wake up, Barack! You're in dream land!
I would argue here that the challenge of sending humans to Mars (beginning with a viable lunar base) is at least on the same level and will cost about as much as the stimulus -minus maybe the pork! (Unlike some, I am a realist enough to know humans will not colonize space based on the current pittance funding NASA is now getting. It will require truly gargantuan sums on the order of what was spent on Apollo, in those dollars! For this reason it's never been the case that the Constellation was "over budget" - it simply was never adequately funded!)
That Obama actually had the nerve to brag about "increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years" is almost an insult- but maybe closer to a laugh. Especially given the U.S. government pisses that much away each month in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hell, just to repack all the military materiel in Iraq and send it back to the U.S. is estimated to cost $150 BILLION!
Where I get cranked up, is at people - presidents or no - who cavalierly toss a few scraps (pennies?) at the space program, yet plow hundreds of BILLIONS into two stupid, asinine, unjustified military occupations - with the idiotic Afghan "surge" still going on. (And this is after the Korengal pullout, where U.S. troops have simply packed up and high tailed it from a 0.5 mile by 6 miles strip of Afghanistan after five years, because they realized they "were just irritating the people" and "had blundered into a blood feud between clannish villagers", cf. The Denver Post, today, p. 9A))
It drives my blood pressure up when I think or read about this wasteful crap, yet our space program - the most noble pursuit we as a nation have- is allowed to wither because of lack of funding. Which make no mistake - has been the underlying reason for all the major mishaps, all the way back to Challenger in 1986.. In truth, the NASA budget has been anemic since the end of Apollo. $19 billion a year is an insult and leaves essentially nothing other than to maybe launch a few robot missions to the planets or asteroids. The NASA budget ought to be at least as much as we pissed away in Iraq the past year ($100 billion) and this needs to be interjected each year.
$100 billion a year, put toward a mammoth engineering project like the Constellation, rather than dispatching thousands of troops to take strongholds in Afghanistan then abandon them after five years- is a vastly more worthy effort. With such resources, it means we can perhaps or could perhaps, reach Mars by 2020.
But as it is, with Barack Obama's tepid plan, the end of the Shuttle program this year will mean Americans will be reduced to begging to buy taxi service (at $94 mllion a pop) on Russian or Chinese vehicles to get to the space station. A total humiliating and ugly insult! Meanwhile, the Chinese - according to an article in today's WSJ ('China Sets Ambitious Space Goals', p. A4) is "putting the pieces into place for manned deep space missions". This likely will include "assembling spacecraft in orbit", likely for manned missions to the Moon, near asteroids and Mars.
The ultimate sting? Seeing the Chinese plant their communist flag on Mars while Americans sit stupefied in front of their TVs, before they turn to the next nation (Iran?) Americans invade and occupy for no really good reason, and at great cost.
A nation cannot be both an invader and an explorer. It appears our leaders have been lured into the invasion niche, as they abandon exploration of space. But what can you expect when the country is in debt up to its collective ears by so much committment to Pax Americana and Empire building?
Sadly, it appears we will now be spectators as the other nations, China, Russia, European Union, pursue space goals - and maybe allow us to hitch a ride every now and then. Sad, compared to JFK's Rice University (1961) speech of reaching the Moon by the "end of the decade".
To even compare Obama's speech today to that serious challenge, as some of the nattering nabobs have done, is to totally disclose you don't know what the hell you are talking about....or the depth of descent and disengagement Obama proposes either.
Lastly, one only hopes Obama isn't making the worst political miscalculation of his tenure. If, as some analysts fear, a sense of betrayal sets in amongst space workers around Florida, he may well lose that state in the 2012 elections. His $40 million sop to "assist NASA workers find new jobs" - again is too little and too late.
I hope those workers have lots of luck, and good fortune, at Burger King!