Saturday, April 26, 2014

Penny for NASA?

If you've been paying attention to the social media, you may have noticed that there's a lobbying group called "Penny for NASA" that is pushing the idea that we should double federal spending on NASA from it's current level of 1/2 of 1% of the federal budget to a full penny of each dollar spent by Uncle Sam. Back at the height of the moon program in the 1960's apparently NASA's budget had been as high as 4+% of the federal budget. Penny for Nasa web site.

Space exploration is exciting, and I suppose it is unsporting of me to point out that there are some awfully strong other contenders for priority in allocating the federal budget.

Their video makes mention of a "petroleum industry subsidy" that dwarfs NASA's budget. So this got me to wondering where exactly to find a line item for "petroleum industry subsidy". Doing a little digging, I find that apparently it is buried in the complexity of the federal income tax and comes in the form of taxes not levied on petroleum industry profits. e.g. See

A presumably harder to sell proposition is: Let's reform the income tax and raise the effective corporate tax rate and then spend more of the revenues on space exploration. If there was a net increase in federal revenues, there are many contenders for the money with deficit reduction at the top of the list. Even if the feds were persuaded to increase the spending on science and technology, I expect NASA would be in for some stiff competition for the money from folks who'd like to see more medical research or more work on alternative energy sources. The old "If we can send men to the moon, why can't we ...", for your favorite choice of "...".

So far, we have visited the moon and established a "permanent" space station in low earth orbit, and done some limited robotic exploration of Mars. Manned exploration of Mars is exciting to discuss, but difficult problems like fatal levels of radiation exposure while in-transit to Mars remain ahead without obvious solutions. Star Trek-ish "shields" and warp drive (to shorten the transit time) don't seem to be in the cards at present.

Perhaps a more do-able objective would be a permanent manned base on the moon to serve as a lower gravity launch platform for deeper space exploration. To be a "Good Idea" I think it would be dependent on showing the base could be built drawing on materials from the moon. Otherwise, maybe the better choice would be an even lower gravity high orbit space station. If nothing else, digging deep to put some of the mass of the moon into use as radiation shielding might make the moon more suitable than a Disney-inspired high orbit permanent space station.

If we're going to have folks be permanent citizens of the moon, it is probably time to re-read Heinlein's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress".

Or has Material Science gotten far enough that we should start by building a space elevator?

Certainly there's no shortage of places to spend money, if we have money for such discretionary expenses and the vision and political will for adventure. The politics of the discussion are likely to devolve into debate on the economic stimulus value of the proposed increase in federal spending. An argument for "Investing in the future" sort of demands the context of a long range plan for the future. Even JFK's "we will go to the moon" had more to it than just an intent to go to the moon.

Am I being too harsh in suggesting that there's much more to consider than just a blind doubling of NASA's budget? The social media would have us believe that the "Penny for NASA" efforts have grass-roots origins. But "Follow the money" is good advice when evaluating any grass-roots movement. If anything, I've over simplified the debate in my article here. e.g. see A Penny for NASA -- or For Congressional Pork