NASA Budget Highlights

Last Monday NASA held a conference call to go over their budget for the 2013 fiscal year. The conference call, attended by members of the press and prominent Twitter users, inadvertently managed to highlight just how much trouble NASA is in.

In the midst of trying to put a positive spin on recent budget cuts and unrealistic Congressional mandates NASA officials awkwardly tried to engage with social media (the communications director opened the program by Tweeting a grainy photo of the attendees) and paint a rosy picture of what is going on with the federal agency; all the while managing to perfectly illustrate what is wrong with the American space program today. 

From the beginning of the call it was clear NASA was trying to curry favor with the public; they took special care to hype American jobs in the space program, going so far as to use the strange term "insourcing" when talking about the value NASA purportedly brings to the United States economy. What makes this opening vignette so surreal is that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is actually in the process of firing employees, presumably the same ones they so bravely insourced to begin with.

NASA CFO Dr. Beth Robinson even found herself mauling the English language in a doomed attempt to avoid drawing attention to lay offs. What is, at best, a painful necessity became part of a wondrous plan to "work with our workforce and realign it as our programmatic needs have changed." In NASA's new Orwellian fugue state hundred million dollar workforce reductions somehow manage to build the American economy while simultaneously empowering the proletariat. Karl Marx would certainly be proud.  

NASA's plans for manned space flight going forward was almost as difficult to articulate as their plans for NASA employees; the agency did little to quell concerns about their ability to return Americans to space in time and on budget. The current road map calls for spacecraft to lift astronauts into orbit by 2017. Evidence for how tenuous that road map really is can be found in the budget itself, money has been set aside to pay for Russian rides into space if the current program runs late. 

Officials were not, however, uncertain about longer term plans for manned space flight. NASA directors frequently brought up plans to have an astronaut on Mars before the year 2040. Linguistic antics aside, this was  the was the single most disturbing part of the entire call. Most of NASA's immediate problems are understandable, even forgivable. The economy is bad and American legislators demand the impossible. NASA has faltered, but it is justified to assume it is not NASA's fault.

But NASA directors are not focused on correcting the deficiencies of the present. Instead, they spend their time crafting grandiose plans for a far away future. What this effectively does is place them beyond accountability. Their actions, no matter how moronic, can be painted in a positive light simply by saying they serve the higher purpose of placing humanity on another planet. NASA's glacial pace can be hidden behind a false veneer of progress towards a distant goal. This is a beautiful political con that should terrify scholars of modern government and sadden fans of space exploration.

If this presentation was representative of how NASA operates and thinks, the United States space agency is destined to fade into the fabric of history with no mire triumphs to call it's own. That is sad. But what is more sad is that NASA has traditionally pushed into space harder than any other organization. If they have stopped doing that, and it looks like they have, it will take years for space exploration to recover. 

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