The View From Here

Fear and Loathing in Washington — The Remix

Written by: developer

Two years ago, November 2011, I wrote about the creation of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (aka the "Super Committee"), which had been tasked to find deficit reductions in just a few short weeks that had eluded the Congress and the White House for a dozen years.

"The worst-case scenario," I wrote, would be "a failed committee and a Congress and administration that cannot agree on a sane, balanced, structured way out of the debt crisis."

What seemed unthinkably insane at the time has, in fact, come to pass. The first round of mindless, autopilot budget cuts known as sequestration took effect last year. Last month, we witnessed a meltdown of the U.S. government that had an incalculable negative impact on our economy, even as it eroded international confidence in the United States to laughable depths.

After a nail-biting game of brinksmanship between two political parties with no apparent interest in governing or finding common ground, we gained a brief reprieve. Congress now has until January to reach a budget deal and until February to set a new debt limit. There are some signs that Democrat Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin may be finding a tentative way forward.

Let's hope that, with elections looming in 2014, a great bargain can be made. The first round of sequestration was hugely damaging, but also took place under the radar of most voters and the media.  Last month's government shut down began to give people a taste of what might lie in store if we suffer another round of sequestration.

(An excellent example of the difference in public awareness between the first sequestration and the government shut down can be found in our National Park system. In the former case, it was not unusual, for example, to find a World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor Survivor stranded ashore and unable to visit the Arizona Memorial as the NPS scheduled rolling days of no shuttle boat service to implement the first round of sequestration. But a couple of stranded Pearl Harbor survivors don't make the news. During the shutdown, however, media were present en masse to gobble up the circus of WWII veterans forcing their way past barricades to visit the WWII monument on the National Mall. If allowed to transpire, the impacts of a second round of sequestration are going to be more of the latter ilk, and are likely to result in significant voter reactions and repercussions at the ballot box.)

This is not just about space programs, of course. But, all you have to look at is the list of agencies most hard hit by the shut down, and you will see NASA at the top of that list. USAF space programs have already been pared to the bone; a second round of sequestration is just barely survivable, and a third round would grievously damage our national security space capabilities.

It is our duty to shout loud and strong to our elected officials: no more partisan dysfunction. Pass a realistic budget. Plan for realistic budgets going forward. We cannot budget-cut our way out of the current morass -- we need to reinvest in the United States to build a better future. That reinvestment MUST include healthy investments in NASA, NOAA, the FAA and our national security space capability. And we must finally move ITAR reforms across the finish line to free our companies to compete globally. (Herein lies another story for another time. While the "almost there" ITAR reforms would finally correct vast injustices inflicted upon the satellite manufacturing industrial base, they would still do nothing to fix the inequities faced by space companies in the propulsion and systems engineering sectors.)

In writing that "Fear and Loathing In Washington" column two years ago, I called out 10 American space programs that were key investments to protect. Here is that "Top 10" list, and an update.

#10 The Space Industrial Base - 
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 UPDATE: The U.S. space industrial base is further consolidated and more desperate for business to sustain it than ever before. In the face of failing funding for U.S. programs, many primes and major subcontractors are looking overseas. Globally, space employment is flat, but that is only because employment gains overseas are masking the loss of jobs in the United States.

#9 Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB - 
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."

THE UPDATE: NASA Kenndy Space Center has successfully offloaded some of its infrastructure to commercial and entrepreneurial users, thereby reducing some carrying costs. Since the end of the shuttle program, the KSC work force has degraded and eroded to its lowest levels in history.

#8 The NASA Space Grant System
 - 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."

THE UPDATE: Funding for the Space Grant program has been choked and throttled, and the ability of the program to function has been hard hit by travel restrictions. The impact is felt both in reduced university space research, and in reduced NASA support for STEM education programs critical to the nation's next generation of space and high technology programs.

#7 Kepler Space Telescope Program - 
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."

THE UPDATE: Kepler suffered failure of its control moment gyros, ending the utility of the space telescope, but not ending its contributions to science. The data from Kepler will be sifted for years. As a result, we are actually beginning to get our first visual depictions of Kepler-discovered exoplanets.

#6 International Space Station - 
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."

THE UPDATE: Sound decisions were taken to extend the life of the ISS program to 2020. Research utilization is increasing and more avenues of putting research on station are being developed. However, we are already at an inflection point where additional decisions must be taken if the station is to continue, as proposed, to 2028. A flat, sequester-threatened NASA budget makes it impossible to "plus-up" or "surge" other programs, resulting in unnecessary "either-or" decisions vis a vis other NASA programs.

#5 National Security Space 
- 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 congressperson'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. "

THE UPDATE: Our men and women in uniform know how to salute their civilian leaders, and we've cut our national security space programs, especially the acquisition programs, to the bare bones. Absent more responsible action on the federal budget, our military space capabilities are in peril.

#4 Weather Satellites - 
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. According to an Associated Press Report, circa 2005:

Although estimates of Hurricane Katrina's staggering toll on the treasury are highly imprecise . . . the final accounting could approach the more than $300 billion spent in four years to fight (two wars) in Afghanistan and Iraq.

THE UPDATE: The Space Foundation published a white paper on this topic recently, and held informational events on Capitol Hill. While we believe that the seriousness of the current situation is beginning to draw attention, the government shut down clearly took everyone's eye off this ball.

#3 JWST - 
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. Our White Paper on the JWST can be read by clicking here. 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 UPDATE: This magnificent research spacecraft is finally approaching launch.  However, like all programs that are delayed or "stretched out," it remains subject to criticism because of the costs of delays.  Like Hubble before it, we believe that once it is on station and returning science, we will be so awestruck with the results that we won't remember what all the fuss was about.

#2 Haleakala - 
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. Let me say that again. Each and every space program in the world relies upon the data developed inside Haleakala -- from huge spacecraft in low Earth orbit, including the ISS, to very small spacecraft in LEO, to networked constellations in MEO and gigantic, high value telecommunications spacecraft in the geostationary orbital band. 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. We absolutely, positively cannot leave AMOS vulnerable. Every space program we have -- NASA, Department of Defense, NOAA, commercial, you name it -- is at risk if we allow Haleakala to be at risk."

THE UPDATE: With construction of Advanced Technology Solar Telescope now under way, there is cautious optimism that the importance of Haleakala has not been forgotten, and the mounting national and international concern over SSA and space debris adds a compelling constituency.

#1 GPS - 
Without question the #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. GPS was named in a 2011 Space Foundation survey as the most important "cannot live without" space technology ever.

THE UPDATE: As dumbfounding as this is to contemplate, the mindless, across-the-board cuts prescribed by sequestration prevent the Air Force from taking financial or program management measures to protect this, the most important space system in the world.  Instead, the USAF will be forced to keep antiquated, non-combat relevant aircraft in inventory -- preserving non-value added and non-combat relevant jobs in certain Congressional districts, at the expense of assured GPS capabilities for the future.

We are clearly living the early stages of the worst-case scenario. While these Congressionally inflicted wounds are not yet fatal, we cannot continue putting the gun to our brainpan and pulling the trigger.

The View From Here is that, our collective and temporary sigh of relief notwithstanding, we cannot go on this way. Another failure by our elected officials to pass a budget and establish a long-term flight plan would be catastrophic -- not just for the space industry, but for the nation and the world.

This article is part of Space Watch: November 2013 (Volume: 12, Issue: 11).