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If the next Presidential election is true to form to previous ones, the candidates will pay little attention to the question of NASA’s budget. (credit: J. Foust)

Selling space exploration in uncertain times

I’ve noticed that members of Congress with a NASA installation or a major aerospace contractor in their home district tend to be the strongest supporters of space expenditures. Critics of NASA spending tend to have districts like those in my home state of Wisconsin that receive little or no direct financial benefit; the late Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire comes to mind. When I make observations like this my friends tell me that I have a brilliant grasp of the obvious. With the upcoming retirements of Sherwood Boehlert and Tom DeLay, and the next change of administration, the question as to how this bodes for the future of government spending for NASA becomes particularly important.

For this publication I tried to contact Senator Russ Feingold’s office to see if it would be possible to get an interview with the senator to discuss his views on how decisions on federal R&D programs, including NASA, should be made. Considering that he seems to be planning to run for President, his views should be of great interest to those in the aerospace and science communities. I’ve tried letters, emails, and phone calls. I get automated responses to emails and no responses to my letters, although I haven’t as of yet called enough to give up on that approach. I’m suspecting that an interview for this publication doesn’t yet have the appeal that the Senator’s frequent appearances on the Sunday morning network talk shows must have.

When George Bush mentioned his initiative for significantly increasing spending on basic scientific research over the next few years in his State of the Union speech it was met only with reserved applause. The concept and its importance to the future of our nation’s economic competitiveness didn’t seem to register with Congress. I’m not too sure many members of Congress understand how applied R&D builds upon discoveries in basic scientific research and leads to new products and services. On Senator Feingold’s website he has positions on many major issues, but no mention of his positions on any type of federal R&D spending.

I’m not too sure many members of Congress understand how applied R&D builds upon discoveries in basic scientific research and leads to new products and services.

Considering all of the issues facing members of Congress or a President, spending on NASA, DOE, NOAA, NSF, and other R&D agencies, by all the evidence from their speeches, is not a high priority for many of them. The work of these agencies has had a major impact on our country, including the strength of the economy and our place in the world. The agency budgets and what they are spending them on have, in many cases, been an afterthought or of interest to only a few. The DOE budget rose under the Carter Administration after the energy shocks of that era as research on alternate energy sources like oil shale was trendy. Cheap gas prices pushed the DOE budget down until the current surge in oil prices and increased instability in the Middle East. A few years of stable gas prices (fat chance) would probably shrink energy research budgets considerably again. NASA for years had the similar problem of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” during the Clinton Administration.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science posts on their website a chart that shows the history of federal R&D spending in all major agencies in constant inflation-adjusted dollars. The chart shows clearly what the priorities were under each administration and Congress. Swings like these for NASA could easily happen under the next administration and with the leadership changes in Congress.

I live in the congressional district of Representative James Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. I have never seen a word in his newsletters about NASA or any R&D agency other than the Department of Defense, despite his having previously served as the chairman of the House Science Committee. In 2004 he stopped into my office when he was door-to-door campaigning. Unfortunately I was at a customer that day and did not get a chance to ask him any questions.

As NASA’s manned programs have struggled with the Columbia accident and during the design and construction of the ISS, the unmanned exploration program has flourished. It has gone through an unparalleled period of success across the solar system. Whether it’s roving across Mars, colliding with a comet, or photographing the ice fountains of Enceladus, it has been a reason to crow. The current budget contraction to a growth of only one percent has been called an “evisceration” by The Planetary Society. If you look at the federal budget history on the AAAS website, you’ll see that continuous steady real growth of any agency R&D budget over the last 30 years is the aberration rather than the rule.

Total growth in federal R&D spending since the Bush Administration has come into office has been around thirty percent in real terms with three quarters of the growth in the Department of Defense. This has still left noticeable growth in other agencies that for the most part barely held steady or fell under the eight years of the Clinton Administration. If you count the growth rate of the economy and the population from 1992 to 2000 federal R&D spending fell noticeably as a percent of our GDP. NASA was not an exception.

Considering all the varying opinions and interests within the space community, there will never be a total consensus of how the piece of the federal pie reserved for NASA should be allocated, especially between manned and unmanned programs. There should be a consensus that the slice of the federal pie reserved for NASA, the one that these two camps argue over, needs to be protected. Unless something radical changes, federal R&D spending, including NASA’s budget, will rarely get a mention in the upcoming congressional and presidential campaigns. Yet changes of just a few members of Congress could result in major changes of direction for NASA and other science programs.

I suspect politicians don’t like to talk about issues like R&D spending because for most of them there is no personal gain or interest in the topic. In the long run these issues may decide the fate of the country, but in cases where there is very little federal spending in their districts, they don’t care. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Tom DeLay on any other issues, he was in a position to deliver for NASA. In Washington’s game of vote trading, he could get people to vote for his bills in exchange for promoting bills of other members of Congress on issues that probably had little meaning for him.

I suspect politicians don’t like to talk about issues like R&D spending because for most of them there is no personal gain or interest in the topic.

To sell continuation of the VSE or simply to maintain the current levels of funding for the unmanned programs, there has to be an understanding of how the game is played. Playing off the threat to American dominance by the space programs of China, India, Europe, and Russia is one tool that works regardless of how strong or near term the competition really is. It’s a method used to sell programs for the Department of Defense quite effectively. Pointing out how NASA accomplishments can inspire students to pursue careers in science and engineering is definitely another possible method. Publicizing the results of current missions and the possibilities of future missions is definitely a way to appeal to those with an interest in science, engineering, and exploration. Selling the spinoffs that benefit our economy and daily lives doesn’t hurt either.

I encourage everyone with an interest in space exploration to go talk to people running for Congress when you get a chance. Ask them what their positions are. If they give a pat meaningless answer, don’t be shy: push them for more specifics. Even if it isn’t an issue that will make you vote one way or the other, ask the questions so that whoever wins a particular race, they will know that space exploration is important to a least some of their constituents. I will continue to pursue an interview with Senator Feingold, and hopefully I’ll have an article at some point to report on how he’ll address these issues.


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