This NASA budget review stuff -- searching for meaning

Unless you're an employee in some capacity of the aerospace industry, you've probably completely missed last weeks flurry of activity by "inside people" over NASA's release of their budget request. The industry is full of technical jargon and more or less exists in it's own little sub culture. Subculture is fine, it promotes community.

But for the rest of us, it's a community we don't belong to.  We do pay for what they are talking about so it seems prudent to at least know what's going on.

Let's review where NASA is right now:

  • The Space Shuttle is winding down.  This is a good thing.  We learned some stuff, it's time to move on.  Atlantis took off yesterday with the Shuttle Discovery on the other launch pad "just in case a rescue mission is needed".  The cost of this solution is appalling, we need to let the shuttle fleet go.
  • The International Space Station isn't done yet and needs some way for us to finish and maintain it.  There are 8 Space Shuttle flights left in the next 18 months (that's a lot), that are largely focused on completing the station.  Since the Shuttle replacement system wont be completed until 2015, there will be a gap where the United States will not have the capability to send humans into space on it's own.  The current thinking is to rely on the Russian space systems in the interim.  They are relatively cheap and reliable systems, and with someone paying to build them they should continue to service the International Space Station nicely.
  • In 2004, President Bush created a plan for America to return to the moon by 2020, and look to mars after that.  This spawned a new spacecraft system, Constellation, comprised of the Aries I and V rockets (boosters if you speak Space Nerd jargon), and several units that would ride on top of those rockets such as the Orion crew module.  This design makes sense from a high level.  It allows the same 2 rockets to do as many things as you can design to fit on top of them.
  • There are a number of other programs that will keep their funding.  Many of these- the Hubble Space Telescope, robotic probes, science experiments- have proved to be very flexible, cost effective and well worth the time and effort.

The part that got all the buzz was that the White House has ordered a review of the Constellation program over the next few months. NASA has already spent $6.9 billion on its plan to return to the moon, and this is probably a good time to make sure that what we develop now will get us where we want to go in the future.

The interesting question that no one seems to be talking about is: Where do we want to go and who will we send?

  • The moon?  Set up a base to serve as a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system?
  • Straight to Mars?  Just skip the moon and go straight to our close neighbor.  Bold and interesting for sure.

A few weeks ago President Obama, on the Tonight Show, said

"We need young people, instead of -- a smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide if they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher..."

Okay Mr President.  You're about to review the future of the US Government's space program for the next 20-40 years and pour a huge amount of money into these programs.

Where are we going and why?

Tell the smart kids coming out of school why they want to be engineers in the space program.

Say something like this and the American engineers WILL rise to the often remembered battlecry:

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

Mr President, please, please say something like this.

I double dog dare you to challenge us like this.  Hell, I triple dog dare you