If Hunter S. Thompson were still alive (bless his cannon-scattered ashes), he’d surely describe the atmosphere in our nation’s capitol as Fear and Loathing in Washington, D.C. In all my years of travel there, never — not even after the September 11 attacks — have I seen such dread in the halls of power.
The creation of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (aka the “Super Committee”), which is tasked to find deficit reductions in just a few short weeks that have eluded Congress and the White House for a dozen years, has the whole town gnashing its teeth. The Fear and Loathing is well placed; if the committee fails and the Congress (yet again) fails to act, draconian budget cuts (euphemistically called “sequestration”) that could send us into the worst economic tailspin in history, could ensue. Yes, you read that correctly — the worst economic tailspin in our history.
The worst-case scenario, a failed committee and a Congress and administration that cannot agree on a sane, balanced, structured way out of the debt crisis, is straight out of Ghostbusters:
Ray Stantz: “What he means, sir, is Old Testament situations. Real Wrath-of-God-type stuff! Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies … Rivers and seas boiling …”
Egon Spengler: “Forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes …”
Winston Zeddemore: “The dead rising from the grave!”
Peter Venkman: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”
On the other hand, having painted our elected officials into a corner, the Super-Committee crisis may prove the catalyst for members of Congress to work to right the ship before it capsizes. At least one member I met with recently felt that this doomsday budget scenario plus the real possibility of Super-Committee failure would compel members to work together and devise solutions before the committee’s self-destruct sequence can be initiated.
In the fervent hopes that the finances of the republic can be salvaged with precision surgery, averting the looming chain saw massacre, here are 10 key national investments in space that we must protect, no matter how wildly the budget battle rages:
If we’re paying any kind of attention at all, it cannot have escaped us that in the half-century from 1950 to 2000 the U.S. aerospace industry accounted for more than 50 percent of the wealth created in this country. Yet, today, this powerful economic engine is teetering near collapse, the product of sometimes benign, sometimes deliberate and almost universally politicized neglect. Our current ITAR regime must be overhauled; NASA must have a no-kidding long term plan and multi-year funding authority; and the department of defense must be allowed to take actions to stabilize our industrial base — while we still have one.
The easiest thing to defer when money is tight is maintenance. You don’t replace that roof, you stretch out the time between oil changes, you let that leaky pipe continue to drip — with predictable, catastrophic consequences. The temptation to defer maintenance at our nation’s launch sites could have similarly catastrophic consequences down the road. It is bad enough that we have surrendered our status as a space-faring nation and left the human spaceflight playing field to Russia and China; beyond human spaceflight our nation is at grave peril if our ability to launch national security space payloads, remote sensing spacecraft and telecommunications satellites is left to rot.
As long as we collectively accept the notion that NASA’s budget in real dollars must continue to decline indefinitely, low-visibility (no smoke and fire) programs within the bureaucracy will be subject to agency infanticide. Investments like the Space Grant system must be protected. Space Grant colleges and universities account for 83 percent of the aerospace engineering degrees earned in the United States; if the significance of the Space Grant System eludes you, please see item 10, above.
Since human beings first appeared on the planet, we have looked to the heavens and asked one all-important question: Are we alone in the Universe? No research program, of any kind, anywhere, has done as much to answer that question as the Kepler Space Telescope Program. As Wikipedia reports, citing NASA:
On Feb. 2, 2011, the Kepler team released a list of 1,235 extrasolar planet candidates, including 54 that may be in the “habitable zone.” There were previously only two planets thought to be in the “habitable zone,” so these new findings represent an enormous expansion of the potential number of “Goldilocks planets.” Based on the latest Kepler findings, astronomer Seth Shostak estimates that “within a thousand light-years of Earth,” there are “at least 30,000” habitable planets. Also based on the findings, the Kepler team has estimated that there are “at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way,” of which “at least 500 million” are in the habitable zone.
The Kepler team has done more to answer humanity’s most existential question than any other scientific inquiry in human history. Its work must not be curtailed.
Only the U.S. government could spend $100 billion dollars on something and then walk away from it. With the abandonment of our sovereign national means to access the International Space Station (ISS), we are already well on our way toward ceding the benefits of ISS research and in-orbit operations experience to other nations. Perhaps because these nations are our partners and minority co-investors, we have no problem with that. If so, we’ve failed Business 101, Politics 101 and Common Sense 101. The purpose of that $100 billion investment was a 7 to 10X return on investment in the form of new discoveries, fueling new innovations, fueling new jobs and industries. The investment has been made, and it is time not to abandon our stock, but to insist on dividends.
As we “declare victory” in places like Iraq and continue to bring our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coasties home from hostile lands, the temptation to find a “peace dividend” will be great. Unfortunately, our military has been on war footing since Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and this unprecedented 20-Years War has left our military worn out and ragged, with an almost desperate need to replace equipment, and people, that have been pushed far beyond what was ever intended. Our national security space systems are absolutely crucial to everything we do militarily, and there is not a man or woman in uniform who goes to war without them. Yet, satellites are not stationed in any congress person’s district, and there are no senators with depot maintenance facilities for our many crucial national security space systems. It is easy to relate to tanks and guns and ships and airplanes, but the absolute dependence of all national security systems upon national security space systems is not exactly in everyone’s face. Any further erosion of our national security space capabilities will constitute a dereliction of our constitutional mandate to provide for the common defense. How a constitutional requirement such as this has become “discretionary” while entitlement programs our founding fathers never envisioned have become untouchable is a travesty of history that is beyond me.
As utterly incomprehensible as it might seem, America’s long-term plan for the continued development and operation of weather satellites is already in jeopardy — and has been since before there was a Super-Committee. A combination of government mismanagement of weather satellite programs (NPOESS) and appalling staff ignorance (“Why do we need to buy more weather satellites? If I need to know the weather, I can just turn on the Weather Channel!”) has left the nation reliant on aging weather satellite systems that degrade in capability daily. Ignoring the national need for weather satellites, or making budget decisions that delay the deployment of these satellites, places the nation in harm’s way and plays a fool’s game of natural disaster Russian Roulette. The cost of not having weather satellites could be billions of times higher than the cost of having them.
The importance of the fundamental quest for knowledge embodied in the James Webb Space Telescope program is something that the Space Foundation has expressed very, very strong views about. The JWST is the National Science Foundation’s top space science priority. It is arguably the most important pure science program that our nation has on the books. Yet the cost of the program is a small amount more than what is currently planned for road and rail works around the nation’s capitol — or, about one-third of what the nation spends on pet food in a single year. And, as ludicrous as it sounds, JWST is already a target for budget cutters who don’t understand the first thing about the value of science.
The U.S. national investment in an amazing array of scientific instruments at the Air Force Maui Optical Station (AMOS) not only boggles the mind, it also provides the nation with the most capable and robust installation of Space Situational Awareness capabilities in the world. This is no small matter. Our ability to observe the near-Earth space environment and provide an accurate and up-to-date catalog of space objects and space debris is critical to the success of each and every space program in the world. New data from instruments such as the PAN-STARS observatory are changing our most fundamental understanding of orbital space. Because the unique scientific facilities inside Haleakala represent a variety of owners, operators, tenants and investigators, funding for AMOS has been equally as diverse and there is no single champion to wave the AMOS banner during the deficit wars currently being waged.
Without question the No. 1 most important space investment we must protect at all cost is the GPS satellite constellation. There is no way to accurately state how essential GPS has become to life on Earth as we know it. Even a brief outage of the GPS fleet, say 12 hours, could result in billions of dollars in economic losses. Any longer-term degradation of the system would bring the U.S., and much of the free world, to its knees. All network communications, including cell phones, banking transactions, commercial logistics and inventory management, precision telemedicine, ATM and point-of-purchase financial transactions — the list is virtually endless — rely upon the critical precision timing infrastructure provided by GPS. Any threat to GPS, whether by greedy, would-be broadband operators or by short-sighted budget negotiators, should be regarded as a hostile threat against the national security of the republic.
I’ve used a fair amount of alarmist language in this column — even for me! But with good reason, given what is at stake, and the turbulent airspace we’re flying through. There is no question that navigating the skies ahead is going to take a light and deft touch on the controls, and a sharp weather eye on the horizon. We’ll need steely-eyed pilots and navigators at the helm, who know the difference between critical flight equipment and excess weight that can be jettisoned.
The view from here is that failure is not an option, and that walking away from key space investments could be far more damaging and costly than any of us realize. We must not be overcome by our current Fear and Loathing. We must protect our key investments in space.
Pulham is the Executive Director of the Space Foundation.