Politicians for Pluto

The launch of a typical NASA planetary mission doesn’t attract too much attention in Congress, but yesterday’s successful launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto did warrant a couple members to issue press releases. Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) congratulated NASA on mission, noting that “this mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and beyond will generate new knowledge about our solar system and its origins, while also serving as a powerful demonstration of U.S. leadership in space exploration.” Of course, Udall isn’t motivated solely by noble interest in planetary exploration: several companies and organizations involved in the mission are located in his district. “This program demonstrates how Colorado is home to one of the most innovative and robust space industries in the country and is a leader in America’s space program.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) also issued congratulations for the mission, emphasizing the effort she made to salvage the mission after NASA budget proposals a few years ago failed to include any funding for New Horizons: “When NASA tried to kill this program, I said no. I restored the funding for this mission because it was important for science, exploration and discovery – the very things that make our space program the best in the world. Discovery and innovation should be the hallmarks of our space program – not budget cuts and cancelled missions.” Like her House colleague, though, there were other motivations that led to her support: the spacecraft was built in Maryland at APL. “Maryland is the epicenter of NASA’s science programs. I fought for Hubble, I fought for Pluto and I will keep fighting for science, innovation and discovery. I will not let NASA back down from its commitment to science – it’s too important to Maryland, to America and to the world.”

10 comments to Politicians for Pluto

  • Bob

    Just remember Tip O’Neil’s famous saying — “all politics is local.” There is no better motivator for funding for space missions and research than the idea that Senator’s or Congressmen/women’s State’s or Districts will benefit from these expenditures in terms of jobs and infrastructure. This is the same reason that highway bills pass through the Congress year after year with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. The space program would be a hell of a lot better off if more members of Congress felt they could take pride — and credit — from accomplishments like the New Horizons mission. NASA and its supporters need to stay on top of efforts to spot where this money is being spent and alerting Members of Congress when that benefit falls within their State or District. Member’s of Congress who don’t have major NASA facilities in their may still benefit substantially due to contracts, subcontracts or research grants that have been awarded to companies or institutions in their State or District. NASA funds are spent almost entirely here in the US and, unlike most defense spending, its benefits are a multiplier to our economic and technological base making the country richer and more capable. Members of Congress need to be “reminded” of this periodically so that they know that the benefits of space go well beyond Tang and velcro.

  • Paul Dietz

    the benefits of space go well beyond Tang and velcro.

    Which, of course, are not benefits of space at all.

  • The space program would be better off if far fewer members of Congress could take credit for its in-district spending. They are ultimately taking credit for the costs of the program — contracts and payroll — rather than its benefits. The benefits go to the nation as a whole, or even to all of humanity.

    The National Science Foundation is more shielded from Congress in this respect. Congresspeople cannot take credit for ordinary NSF grants that are awarded by independent peer review. That is one reason that NSF gets more done with its money than NASA does, even though it has a smaller budget.

    (Which is not to say that NSF is by any means perfect or free of politics. It is at least better than many other agencies.)

  • Bob

    Greg: NSF, a fine science agency, is a completely different beast from NASA or any of the other main line Federal agencies. Its principal role is to fund univerity research. Important, but it has no real role in designing and executing major programs. You want to look for “big science” you have to look at agencies like DOE or NIH or NASA. But, even in this limited context, NSF works very hard to make sure Members of Congress know when research grants are funded in their states or districts. You can damn the environment, but you can’t deny it. Government programs can’t be “free of politics” any more than humans (live ones anyway) can be free of oxygen.

  • But I don’t want to look for big science! There is too much big science and not enough little science in America. To the extent that we need big science, it can equally well be funded by the same mechanisms: Peer review and university partnerships. For example, even NASA has JPL, which is managed by Caltech.

    I’m sure that NSF does remind members of Congress “when” grants are funded in their districts. Which is to say, all the time. If politicians can’t help but obsess over pork, then they should understand that peer review is a way to spread the lard. They should each be content with their share, instead of competing to get their hands on the biggest barrels.

    There is one constructive way to compete, though. Each state can try to build its own Caltech or its own Johns Hopkins that then has the prestige to win the grants.

  • The thing your missing, Greg, is that from many scientists’ point of view, almost all space science is “big science.” The New Horizon’s mission costs $700 million (so far). It may be “little” compared to the Space Station, but this mission by itself would be a significant percentage of the entire NSF budget. There are plenty of university based laboratory biologists, or field geologists, or archaeologists, et cetera, who view JPL as very big science indeed and would love for it to disappear and the funds “wasted” on Saturn be spent on their respective “small science” endeavors.

    Small science is in the eye of the beholder. If the nation is going to explore space in any way at all — automated or human — that needs to be funded separately from university based science and there should be no direct competition between the two for funding. I would make much the same argument for funding automated planetary reconnaissance and human exploration: the two should be viewed separately and not in direct competition for funds.

    Our nation funds lots of small science and not as much big science as it used to; and the fact is, relatively small science has not done badly in the last decade. We need both.

    — Donald

  • I am well aware that space science is more expensive than other science. From time to time I see an individual space science mission that has a bigger budget than all NSF funding for mathematics, and I wonder whether this one mission can possibly be more valuable than everything that American mathematicians do for the year. Then, when human spaceflight at NASA costs even more than the science missions, it doesn’t look to me like robbing Peter to pay Paul, it looks like robbing Soros to pay Buffett. It is a fair question whether even the space science missions are worth it.

    But let’s set these issues aside for the moment. Even if NASA science is kept separate from NSF, they would be wise to emulate NSF. They should stick to competitive peer review and keep the grubby paws of Congresspeople off of the individual grants. That is basically what Goldin did with the “Explorer” series, with very good results.

    And is it only science that benefits from this method of distributing federal money? Maybe competitive grant proposals are the right way to decide what cities deserve levees and bridges and so forth. Certainly begging to politicians directly is not a good way to do it.

  • David Davenport

    I would make much the same argument for funding automated planetary reconnaissance and human exploration: the two should be viewed separately and not in direct competition for funds.

    But they are and will remain in “direct” competition for funds … until the human stuff poops out completely.

  • Greg – the problem is that while divorcing politics from science funding might be a good idea in pricniple, for the moneys involved for space missions, and frankly, given the history of congress, they aren’t gonna let it happen. I mean, I hope this current push to eliminate earmarks is succesful, because thats what we are talking about – don’t hold your breath though.

  • “Maryland is the epicenter of NASA’s science programs.”

    Whatever happen to “center” or “source” or a good verb like “emanate”. The secondary definition of epicenter meaning “center” evokes for me the primary definition (especially in a science context), meaning the closest point on the surface to an earthquake’s center. Do the science programs emanate from well below Maryland and is Maryland only a superficial conduit?