Archive for the ‘Science policy’ category

NASA’s New Budget

February 1, 2010

The internet has been a whirlwind of wailing and gnashing of teeth, interspersed with the occasional optimistic or guarded response, as space advocates respond to Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA. In case you haven’t heard, the main points of the FY2011 budget are nicely summarized in this overview document:

Increase of $6.0 billion over 5-years (FY 2011-15) compared to the FY 2010 Budget, for a total of $100 billion over five years.

Significant and sustained investments in:

  • Transformative technology development and flagship technology demonstrations to pursue new approaches to space exploration
  • Robotic precursor missions to multiple destinations in the solar system
  • Research and development on heavy-lift and propulsion technologies
  • U.S. commercial spaceflight capabilities
  • Future launch capabilities, including work on modernizing Kennedy Space Center after the
    retirement of the Shuttle
  • Extension and increased utilization of the International Space Station
  • Cross-cutting technology development aimed at improving NASA, other government, and
    commercial space capabilities
  • Accelerating the next wave of Climate change research and observations spacecraft
  • NextGen and green aviation
  • Education, including focus on STEM

Cancellation of the Constellation program; and $600 million in FY 2011 to ensure the safe
retirement of the Space Shuttle upon completion of the current manifest.

It’s that last point that has many people upset. Constellation was the ongoing program to build the huge Ares 1 and Ares V rockets to replace the shuttle and return humans to the moon. The program was initiated by the previous administration, but then consistently underfunded. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel of aerospace experts – the “Augustine Commission” –  was called in to assess the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and they found that the Constellation program was “on an unsustainable trajectory” and that NASA was “pursuing goals that do not match the allocated resources”.

Given the Augustine Commission’s report, it’s not surprising that Constellation was canceled, but plenty of people are not happy about it. Unsurprisingly, particularly angry are those who were directly involved in the program and their representatives in congress. I don’t blame them for being upset, and they have every right to complain, but I think that the decision to cancel Constellation was probably the right one.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the Constellation program. The test-launch last year of the Ares-1X dummy rocket was spectacular, and when I was in NASA Academy in 2006, I got to see some of the early behind-the-scenes work being done. It would have been great to see towering NASA rockets sending our astronauts to the space station and back to the moon. But between the inevitable delays in such a massive project, and the funds falling short of those needed to stay on target, the program really was becoming unsustainable. And worse than that, the delays compounded a serious problem in public interest. It’s hard enough to get people interested in a program designed to repeat what was done 40 years ago with Apollo. Good luck maintaining interest if that program gets drawn out indefinitely due to delays.

The new budget places a strong emphasis on commercial spaceflight, relying on launch vehicles developed by private companies to send US astronauts to the space station. No doubt about it, this is a risky move. No private space company currently has a rocket or spacecraft capable of doing this. But they’re getting close. Space-X said today that they will be capable of sending astronauts to the ISS two to three years after receiving a NASA contract to do so, and for a price of ~$20 million per seat – significantly cheaper than the $50 million price tag of a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket.

The Space-X "Dragon" capsule could be how US astronauts get to the space station in the near future.

Even if these estimates are somewhat optimistic, it seems likely that commercial providers will be able to send astronauts to the ISS far sooner than Ares 1 would have been able to, and they’ll do it much cheaper. Yes, their cargo capacity will be much smaller, but cheaper launches could lead to more frequent launches, and that leads to a healthy commercial space industry. This change in the way of doing things, although painful for many right now, could have huge positive implications for the future of space exploration if commercial space “takes off”. Bigelow Aerospace and Space X have both mentioned lunar or even Mars missions on the horizon. Healthy commercial space (and therefore lower launch costs) could also lead to more-practical space-based solar power.

Some people have complained that the jobs created by commercial space companies would be nothing compared to those lost due to the cancellation of Constellation, but I think this is a case of short-term thinking. Yes, right now probably more people will lose jobs from constellation than will be able to gain jobs from space companies, but what we’re witnessing might well be the creation of a new industry. In the long run, the job growth could be huge.

Most of the discussion today has been about the Constellation cancellation, but the rest of the budget is extremely exciting. I’m very happy to see that more money will be spent on developing game-changing technologies, such as the VASIMR engine which could reduce the duration of a crewed mission to Mars from years to months. I’m also really excited about the proposed “precursor missions”. These would be missions similar to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter designed specifically to lead the way for human missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars or elsewhere. I was also excited to see the provision for production of new plutonium, which is crucial to power missions to the outer solar system. Whether or not you agree with the decisions regarding human spaceflight, there’s no denying that this budget is great for science.

Research into advanced technologies such as the VASIMR engine could pay off for future human missions.

My main complaint about this budget is that it is somewhat vague on the development of heavy-lift capabilites, and that it does not spell out what the new destinations for human spaceflight will be. It’s clear that the plans presented are based heavily upon the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine Commission, but I’d like to see a series of destinations spelled out if that is the case. It’s probably premature for that, but concrete goals and deadlines would make a lot of people more comfortable.

I was skeptical of this budget at first but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. And even if you don’t like it, what were the alternatives? It was clear that even with increased funding, Constellation would leave a huge gap in access to the space station. And with the current budget crisis, it would have been hard to justify $3 billion per year for a program that wouldn’t accomplish what we wanted very quickly. So the administration took a different approach, increasing NASA’s budget modestly and redirecting human spaceflight funds to commercial providers. This could provide cheaper access to space sooner than Constellation, and meanwhile NASA’s great engineers and scientists can focus on R&D for the next-generation technologies that will lead beyond low Earth orbit. Meanwhile, robotic science will be extremely strong under this new budget, teaching us amazing things about the solar system and the universe.

I’m not the only one who is optimistic about the budget. The Planetary Society has weighed in and they are thrilled with it. So is Buzz Aldrin. Norm Augustine is also supportive, and Phil Plait weighed in in favor of the budget and particularly its emphasis on science. Of course, the real question is what will happen in congress. As I said, many people involved in Constellation are furious about the decision, and their representatives in congress will put up one heck of a fight to keep things from changing.

In the end though, I suspect something very similar to the proposed budget will be passed, and despite the naysayers, I think that’s going to be a good thing for NASA and a great thing for science and space exploration.

Update: NASA administrator Charlie Bolden’s remarks from today are available here. He spells out the changes being made and makes a compelling case for them.


AGU 2009: Day 3 – Astrobiology and Society

December 20, 2009

Wednesday was full of particularly interesting stuff: in between the Venus and moon talks there was also the Sagan lecture and an afternoon session about astrobiology and its implications in society.

The Sagan lecture was given by Tori Hoehler, a scientist at NASA Ames. He discussed the fundamental thermodynamics behind life, and showed that even if alien life relies on completely different molecules, there are basic requirements, such as the availability of free energy, that should be universal because they are rooted in the way the universe works. To paraphrase, he said: Life must evade the decay into equilibrium by reproducing extremely low probability results. There is a lot of thermodynamics behind this, but everyone has common sense experience with it. The world tends toward entropy unless energy is applied. Just take a look at the nearest college dorm room.

The DNA molecule is an incredibly complicated "aperiodic crystal" that is highly unlikely to form spontaneously. Energy is needed to make unlikely things like DNA assembly happen.

Hoehler used real world examples showing that living systems, be they simple bacteria colonies or all the complex cells involved in a human being, tend to grow until they are using all of the free energy available. There is a certain minimum amount of energy required to add a new piece (such as a cell) to the system, so the system can’t grow unless that amount of energy is available.

Tori concluded with a quote from Carl Woese: “Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow.” Hoehler argued that when thinking about biosignatures, we need to look at the fundamental requirements of any life. Regardless of its specific chemistry: energy use is the ultimate biosignature.

Later in the afternoon on Wednesday there was a really thought-provoking section about the societal implications of astrobiology. One of the first talks that I saw in the session was by David Koch, discussing the Kepler telescope. Kepler is a mission designed to stare at a single large patch of the sky for years, monitoring the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars. Why? Well, occasionally a star will have planets that orbit in just the right configuration so that they “transit” – pass between their star and Kepler’s detector – blocking out a tiny fraction of the star’s light. Kepler was specifically designed so that it will be able to detect even the tiny dip in starlight caused by an earth-sized planet passing in front of a sun-like star. Koch showed an example of Kepler data, as compared with ground-based data of a star with a known transiting giant planet. The ground-based data was very noisy because of the turbulent atmosphere, but the Kepler data was so good that it looked like a solid line rather than a series of data points. The Kepler data was good enough that you could see the change in brightness as the planet went through phases like the moon. Koch also showed a tantalizing signal from a binary system that may have a planet orbiting both stars, much like everyone’s favorite binary-orbiting plant, Tatooine.

Sunset on a world orbiting binary stars. However, the planet detected by Kepler is likely a gas giant, not a rocky world like Tatooine. Image copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

Next, Jacob Haqq-Misra, author of the new book “Planetary Messenger”, talked about how life and climate are intertwined. One example of this was the early climate, when the only life was methane-producing bateria. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and so the global climate would warm rapidly with a world full of methane-making critters, but methane also undergoes chemical reactions when exposed to UV light and forms a thick haze. Just take a look at present-day Titan for proof of this! The haze would eventually get thick enough to cool the planet’s surface, balancing out the warming due to methane and preventing the planet from overheating.

Of course, then along came oxygen-producing life, which destroyed the methane and organic haze and poisoned most ofther forms of life, relegating them to dark anaerobic places like the stomachs of cows. Haqq-Misra also pointed out that the modern climate is pretty unusual: we have ice caps. Models suggest that Earth typically is quite warm, with no ice caps even at the poles, or it enters a “snowball” phase, where everything freezes up and ice extends down to the equator. In either case, live persists, and it may be the action of life that nudges the Earth out of these extremes. Haqq-Misra’s bottom line was that life is extremely resilient and can have a powerful effect on climate. Modern-day climate change could have serious consequences for humans, but life in general will adapt in the long run. “We’re not saving the world, but ourselves,” he said. It’s not quite that simple, since many species other than humans are threatened by climate change, but his basic point still is valid.

The Earth likely oscillates between a “snowball” and “hothouse” climate, with life-driven cycles, particularly the CO2 cycle, playing a major role.

The last few talks in the session strayed from science into social science and philosophy. Linda Billings spoke about the relationship between astrobiology and culture. She pointed out that astrobiology has gained credibility from large agencies like the National Research Council, and has always been popular with the public, but that the public and scientific perception is somewhat different. The public tends to assume ET life is common and like us, while science focuses more on extremophiles and the origin of life. One thing that I wish she had addressed a bit more was whether the public perception of ET life is necessarily a bad thing. Yes, there are powerful misconceptions to work against, but the public’s interest in astrobiology makes it a perfect “entry point” into all sorts of science!

The last few talks in the session considered the interplay between astrobiology and religion. Richard Randolph, presenting for Ted Peters who couldn’t make it, showed the results of a survey asking the question “Could the confirmation of another civilization in the universe cause a religious crisis?” The findings were not that surprising: Religious people did not think it would cause them to lose their faith, but were somewhat more likely to think that other people might lose faith. Non-religious people were almost all sure that such a discovery would cause religious people to have a crisis of faith. I would like to see the results of the survey if the word “crisis” was removed from the questions. I suspect more people would be willing to admit that discovering ET would make them think hard about their religion, but that they wouldn’t consider that a “crisis” of faith.

Next, Connie Bertka talked about astrobiology and evolution. She said that we really can’t avoid discussing science versus religion because, to paraphrase, “nature and creation are no longer purely in the theological domain”. Thus, she said that astrobiologists should encourage dialog with religious people. I think it’s a fine line to walk. We don’t want to give people like creationists legitimacy by engaging them on equal ground, but we equally can’t just avoid the interface between religion and science.

Finally, Richard Randolph discusses the Christian ethical implications of astrobiology. He asked two primary questions: What ethical obligations would Christians owe non-intelligent extraterrestrial life? and Is there a Christian obligation to spread life in the universe?

Based on his reading of Genesis, Randolph extended the common interpretation of humans as “stewards” or “god’s authority on earth” to extraterrestrial life. I was disappointed that he so obviously avoided talking about the elephant in the room for this issue though. Sure, the bible gives us stewardship over extra-terrstrial microbes. He even said that predation, in moderation, is “acceptable” just as it is for life here on earth. That’s all well and good. But what happens when we find aliens who are as smart or smarter than us? Does the bible give us stewardship over them? Permission for “predation in moderation”? Why would a creator make mere humans stewards over equally intelligent or possibly much more advanced species?

Ok, we are stewards over alien microbes, but what if we meet these guys?

As for the obligation to extend life in the universe, Randolph said that, since the bible repeated describes creation of life as “good” then by extension, spreading that life elsewhere qould also be good. Thus he said that there was “qualified affirmation” of the assertion that we are obliged to extend life elsewhere. Again he dodged a big question: do we extend terrestrial life at the expense of possible more primitive extra-terrestrial life? (a.k.a. when is it morally justified to terraform Mars?) What if spreading terrestrial life is at the expense of more advanced ET life?

It was refreshing to have these more philosophical talks after so much science. I may not have agreed with much of what Randolph said, but it definitely made me think, and it was a good reminder that science does not operate in a cultural vacuum.

Ares-1X Test Launch Successful!

October 28, 2009

In case you missed it, this morning NASA launched the Ares-1X test rocket from Cape Canaveral. It was originally supposed to launch yesterday morning, but was delayed due to: a stuck cable, a boat that got within the danger zone where the rocket was expected to splashdown, and my new favorite vocabulary word “triboelectrification”. Triboelectrification is the build-up of charge due to friction, and there was apparently some concern that clouds could cause enough charge to build up to mess up communications with the rocket.

Finally, today a cloud-free patch opened up and the rocket launched beautifully. Now the question is whether NASA will continue with the Ares rocket or choose a different launch architecture, based on the results of the Augustine commission’s report.

NASA Human Spaceflight Review Final Report

October 22, 2009


Today, the “Augustine commission”, a group of aerospace and space exploration leaders tasked by president Obama to review NASA’s human spaceflight efforts, released their final report. It is available here, and I encourage you to read it. The set of recommendations in the report will form the foundation upon which the future of space exploration is built.

I have not read the whole thing yet, but here is the concluding paragraph:

NASA is the most accomplished space organization in the
world. Its human spaceflight activities are nonetheless at
a tipping point, primarily due to a mismatch of goals and
resources. Either additional funds need to be made available
or a far more modest program involving little or no
exploration needs to be adopted. Various options can be
identified that offer exciting and worthwhile opportunities
for the human exploration of space if appropriate funds can
be made available. Such funds can be considerably leveraged
by having NASA attack its overhead costs and change
some of its traditional ways of conducting its affairs—and
by giving its management the authority to bring about such
changes. The American public can take pride in NASA’s
past accomplishments; the opportunity now exists to provide
for the future human spaceflight program worthy of a
great nation.

How to get Mars funding

June 1, 2009

On a related note, my fellowship, which involves vaporizing rocks with a high-powered laser, was renewed last month. (Click for the full comic)


We live in the future

May 4, 2009

I often say (or at least think to myself) that we live in the future. Especially when I’m traveling. It’s constantly amazing to me that I can get anywhere in the world in less than a day. I can make a routine trip out to California for a conference, when 150 years ago that would be the journey of a lifetime, and would involve diseases and caulking wagons to cross rivers and probably hunting excessive amounts of buffalo (ok, so I played a lot of Oregon Trail as a kid). That’s why I love this video clip of comedian Louis CK ranting about how people take for granted all the amazing technology all around them:

I came across this clip in a recent post on Cocktail Party Physics about Obama’s speech on Science, the role it plays in our lives and the extensive history of scientific discoveries that go into making something like the iPhone possible. Well worth a read.

Science to be Cut from Stimulus?

February 6, 2009

I just heard some disturbing news: in an attempt to cut unnecessary spending from the stimulus package, Senators Ben Nelson and Susan Collins have put forward a proposal that would cut much of the money directed to agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy. Here’s a breakdown of the reductions in stimulus money:

NASA exploration $750,000,000 = 50%
NSF $1,402,000,000 = 100%
NOAA $427,000,000 = 34.94%
NIST $218,000,000 = 37.91%
DOE energy efficiency & renewable energy $1,000,000,000 = 38%
DOE office of science $100,000,000 = 100%

Notice especially that the NSF and DOE office of science would lose all of their stimulus money. News flash: basic research helps the economy. More than half of the US economic growth in the last 50 years has been due to science and technology. If you’re trying to stimulate the economy, it makes no sense to cut money that would go towards the sort of high-tech innovation that drives it.

Significant amounts would also be cut from education. To take a look at the proposed stimulus cuts, look here.

I encourage you to contact your senators and tell them that you strongly favor keeping funding for basic science in the stimulus package.