“Mars mission” survives in the House

NASA’s budget easily survived three attempts to either transfer funds from it or prevent it from being spent on its intended projects during floor debate on the HR 5672 appropriations bill Wednesday:

  • Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), introduced an amendment that would transfer $783M from “various accounts” within NASA to NOAA. Gilchrest brought forward the amendment primarily, it seems, to draw attention to his concern that NOAA is not getting enough money, and withdrew the amendment after a brief floor debate. (He would go on to vote against two later amendments that sought to transfer or restrict NASA funding.)
  • A widely-anticipated amendment was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to “prohibit funds from being used for a manned space mission to Mars.” Most of the debate that followed focused on the vague nature of the resolution: what exactly did the amendment cover? NASA isn’t actively working on a manned Mars mission, but since that is a distant goal of the overall exploration program, at least one member argued that it could prohibit NASA from supporting the entire exploration program. The amendment failed on a voice vote and a later roll call vote, 145-274.
  • Wednesday evening Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Jim Ramstad (R-MN) introduced a resolution that would transfer $476 million from NASA’s Mars exploration program and use it to fund the Community Oriented Policing Services program, the AP reported. I missed the debate on this amendment, but it was defeated on a voice vote and on a roll call vote, 185-236.

One amendment that did pass was one proposed by Rep. Chris Chocola (R-IN) that would prohibit NASA from spending money on “travel policies and practices in contravention of Office of Management and Budget Circular No. A-126.” This was associated with NASA’s use of its aircraft to transport staff, a policy that was sharply criticized in a GAO report last year; NASA officials had said the agency was changing its policy on this. The amendment passed on a voice vote. Debate on the overall appropriations bill wasn’t completed last night, so it will continue, and likely conclude, today.

Update 1pm: The House did approve the spending bill, without (to the best of my knowledge) any additional changes that affected NASA.

16 comments to “Mars mission” survives in the House

  • Mark R. Whittington

    One of the things that jump out about the vote breakdown is that Rep Pence voting against both attempts to gut exploration funding. Pence is a leader of the House Study Committee, the conservative group that proposed a budget that would have ended the Vision for Space Exploration? Inconsistancy? Or a change of heart?

  • Jeff Foust

    That’s an interesting point, Mark, and I can offer only uninformed speculation. Recall that the purpose of the RSC budget proposals was to limit spending and thus reduce budget deficits: NASA was just one of many targets of the RSC. However, neither of the amendments that went to a roll call vote would have resulted in a net decrease in spending in the overall bill. The Weiner amendment would have transferred money from NASA to another program, while the Frank amendment would not have taken any money from NASA, but instead simply force it to spend the money on other programs. Those reasons might not have been compelling enough to cause Pence to vote in favor of the amendments.

    What would have been more interesting, though, is if someone had proposed cutting NASA spending without transferring the money elswhere. In fact, that’s what happened this morning, when Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO) offered an amendment that would have cut the overall appropriations bill by $590M (1%); presumably this would be across-the-board but I didn’t see the details of the debate. The amendment was soundly defeated, 94-316, but Pence was one of the 94 who voted in favor of it.

  • Inconsistancy?

    You misspelled the word, Mark. The correct spelling is I-N-S-I-N-C-E-R-I-T-Y.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    Jeff – Good point. I had missed the nuance.

  • A bit off-topic, but I think of interest:

    Chris Farantetta of Space Adventures apparently told a British Interplanetary Society symposium on space tourism in November 2005 that five potential clients had expressed interest in the $100 million lunar swingby proposal.

    — Donald

  • There is an 800-pound “nuance” that a lot of people seem to regularly miss in this topic. Namely, the so-called Republican Study Committee is very interested in strategies to restrain government spending — as long as they don’t actually work.

    The proven method to restrain spending is “pay-go”, which means that tax cuts have to be matched with spending cuts. For a variety of reasons, the Republicans don’t have the will power to do it right now. They are more interested in tax postponement than actual limited government. They implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, promise the voters that they can have spending without taxes.

    One familiar defense of this greedy mentality is the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps argument: tax postponement will make the nation so rich that when the bills come due, they will be easy to pay. Most serious economists do not believe this argument. Some of them believe in mantras that sound sort-of the same (such as Keynesianism or limited government) that sound sort-of the same, but are actually quite different.

    But economists can rarely keep politicians honest. Wealthy businessmen have a lot more influence in this direction. However, if tax postponement is designed to appease the businessmen themselves as much as possible, then their concern for the economy can be outweighed by the extra money in their own pockets.

    Another comment is, basically, that the politicians are just being stupid. As Donald Robertson put it, maybe Bush lacks Quicken skills. That is equally far-fetched — few of the people at the top mismanage their own money this badly. What is true is that few of the voters analyze the federal budget with Quicken. So it is easy to argue for bad fiscal policies.

    Anyway, in the end the RSC will accede to the real reason that CEV exists, as a placeholder for NASA jobs as the discredited shuttle program shrinks. That is the way it will be until 2009 at the earliest.

  • Greg, a couple of thoughts, and despite what this will sound like it is not intended as a personal attack, but a quite serious argument.

    First, I agree with pretty much everything you state above — except, of course, the last paragraph. And, there’s the rub. In my opinion, if we are going to cut government spending in the sciences (broadly defined), “ivory tower” academic mathematics would be near the top of my list. Rightly or wrongly, I see them as far less practical, useful, and of long-term promise, than, say, exploring Earth’s moon and Mars with astronauts.

    I would in fact oppose cutting “ivory tower” science — but any benefits are just as theoretical and far into the future as the projects you choose to oppose.

    — Donald

  • Greg, a couple of thoughts, and despite what this will sound like it is not intended as a personal attack, but a quite serious argument.

    I can certainly accept that it’s not a personal attack. I’m also not going to argue that mathematics funding is sacred or demand any increase in funding, because frankly I don’t like the idea of ever begging for public money.

    On the other hand, even if your argument isn’t personal, it certainly is ignorant, and therefore unserious for a different reason. The sum total of mathematics funding across all government agencies, both pure and applied mathematics, is just shy of $400 million in the FY 2007 request. Applied mathematics certainly isn’t long-term or purely theoretical. It is crucial for all of science and engineering, including your pet holy grail of human spaceflight. For example, no computer can predict any trajectory, in spaceflight or any other kind of flight, without Runge-Kutta methods. What cannot be predicted cannot be controlled. No rocket would ever have reached any orbit without this particular applied mathematics.

    As for pure mathematics, which I might estimate gets about 1/4 of federal funding, or maybe $100 million a year, I can quote Louis Pasteur: “No, a thousand times no, there does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are science and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit to the tree that bears it.” In other words, in order to apply mathematics, you have to have mathematics to apply. You never know what mathematics might turn out to be useful, not only in your lifetime, but within the next year.

    For example, the mathematician G.H. Hardy explained in his apologia, A mathematician’s apology, that he was outright glad that his area of research, related to prime numbers, wasn’t useful. Boy did he turn out to be wrong. Number theory is now just as important for communication security — for the everyday exercise of sending a credit card number to a web site — as Runge-Kutta methods are to launching rockets.

    Again, I’m not saying this to beg for money. I don’t whether mathematics research is underfunded. What I do know is that $400 million per year for all mathematics research together is a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 billion or so that goes to all of the engineering and science agencies. It is so small that even if you wanted to eliminate it, you wouldn’t succeed, because funding would diffuse into mathematics from other research. In fact, half of the $400 million is already other-agency funding that comes into mathematics by diffusion; only half comes directly from the NSF.

    Beyond that, federal funding is only part of public support for pure mathematics in the United States. The freedom to do pure research is also an enticement for teaching mathematics. It is one of the ways that mathematicians want to be paid for their teaching. An ignorant Congress would have to outright ban research in pure mathematics in order to stop its implicit public funding. In fact Congress is extremely ignorant on these points; too ignorant, thankfully, to be hostile.

  • One other thing, Donald: Whether the CEV really is only a placeholder for jobs is a matter of interpretation. But I think that it is beyond debate at this point that the shuttle program is shrinking and all but discredited, and that the CEV does function as an employment buffer at NASA, whatever else it was intended to be.

  • Greg, again, you don’t say anything I really disagree with. However:

    The apparently smallness of a budget is not a measure of its value. Thus, just because we “only” spend $400 million on something does not mean that it has lessor, greater, or equal value to something we spend $100 billion on. If its wasted, it is still wasted, no matter how small or big it is.

    Secondly, in spite of what I may sound like, I never consider knowledge about anything a waste. Thus, I in no way oppose spending money on mathematics, pure, applied, practical, lemon-colored, or otherwise.

    What I do argue is that there is immense value in spending people to the planets — not least the long-term survival of our species and (especially if the rest of the Solar System proves to be sterile) spreading life in general — and some of that value is scientific. I maintain that you are dead wrong when you argue that it is “impractical” or not worth the relatively small amounts of money we spend on it. Just because, like mathematics, that value is not readily apparent to a lay person (in this case, you) or immediately available does not mean it does not exist. For example, mining the asteroids is likely to prove of immense value to humanity — at least as valuable, in a different way, as the practical applications of your mathematics — but we are not likely to see much of it in the next couple of decades or longer.

    It is worth noting that mathematics is a human endeavor that has spanned thousands of years, and that decades and even centuries of work have gone into creating the practical applications of mathematics. Yet, in planetary exploration, anything that does not produce instant results you consider a waste of money.

    Just like mathematics, the human expansion into the Solar System will take centuries, at best, and more likely thousands of years. The Greeks did not wait for your Runge-Kutta methods to start figuring out how the universe worked. Likewise, we should not wait until human spaceflight is “practical” (as you put it) to start figuring out how to do some of the things we will need to do to send human beings to the planets.

    You say the Space Station is useless. Read the article in the May Spaceflight about learning to successfully grow planets to maturity in space. The project was started by a country that no longer exists, extending from early experiments on the Salyuts, until full success was achieved in cooperation with a different country in early Space Station experiments. Growing multiple generations of planets in space is a clear prerequisit to people living there, it proved to be much harder to do than anyone really expected, but we did learn how to do it — albeit over decades and at great expense.

    This is an example of what the Space Station is giving us. (I don’t debate that the Space Station was badly managed and that it cost many times what it should have and that we should not have used the Space Shuttle to build it — but that is not at all the same as saying that it is useless or “impractical.”) It is no more “useless” than your mathematics to anyone who cares to actually look at the experiments that are being done there.

    — Donald

  • Oops, that should be growing plants to maturity, above, not planets.

    — Donald

  • The Greeks did not wait for your Runge-Kutta methods to start figuring out how the universe worked.

    They were not in a position to wait for Runge-Kutta methods, or not to wait for them. On the other hand, if they had developed mathematics that far, they would have understood the universe vastly better than they actually did. They also might have defeated the Romans, I suppose.

    It is no more “useless” than your mathematics to anyone who cares to actually look at the experiments that are being done there.

    First, you said that it wasn’t personal, but you keep attaching “your” to “mathematics”. You are having trouble keeping your word on that point. This is not about my mathematics, it’s about mathematics in general. And my point is: you can have mathematics without space travel, but you can’t have space travel without mathematics. If you don’t realize that mathematics is as much yours as it is mine, then that’s exactly the ignorance that I criticized.

    Second, your statement that the space station science doesn’t seem useless to anyone who cares to look at it is simply not true. You would at least be on safer ground to argue directly that it is useful, than to claim that every informed person thinks it is.

  • Greg: If you read a little more carefully, I did say that it is useful to at least some sciences and even included an example. (Or do you count neither agriculture nor plant physiology and biology as sciences?) What I was criticizing was your saying it’s not useful when you haven’t even bothered to look.

    — Donald

  • Doug Lassiter

    Does anyone have an understanding of why Mars was Barney Frank’s target? I mean, OK, he’s no friend of the entire manned space program, but in debate on the floor he made it very clear that this was not about returning to the Moon. There naturally followed reasonable words by others about how efforts to return to the Moon could nevertheless be interpreted as supporting an eventual journey to Mars, and Frank’s amendment was defeated at least as much because of confusion about what he was talking about as much as from support for human space flight.

    Now perhaps Frank did, in fact, consider chopping off the Mars leg as a backhanded way to destabilize the whole human space flight effort, but his offering more than implicit support to lunar travel makes that unlikely.

    I don’t want to overanalyze what is probably just his reflexive opposition to this stuff, but it does seem a bit funny.

    In fact, Mars travel is now regarded as such a distant proposition at NASA that his amendment could have been seen by the agency as just clearing the air.

  • Does anyone have an understanding of why Mars was Barney Frank’s target?

    Because it has also been Bush’s “target”. All along the VSE has carried a pretense of human spaceflight to Mars, even though, as Dwayne Day has huffily argued, the actual plans don’t take Mars very seriously. For example, the President’s commission was called “Moon, Mars, and Beyond”.

    Barney Frank was simply responding to the propagandistic description of the VSE rather than to NASA’s actual work. This is just how politicians operate. It can be interpreted as just clearing the air, which would be a good thing. Or it can be interpreted as trying to embarrass Bush with his own propaganda. That would also be a good thing, because that’s what propagandists deserve. Or maybe Frank doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the distinction between NASA’s actual plans and the propaganda surrounding them. That would be a bad thing.

  • Doug Lassiter

    That strikes me as a sensible analysis. As Mars recedes into the strategic background, Frank twists the knife a bit by telling Congress the administration shouldn’t be doing what they said they were going to do, subtly reminding everyone that they really aren’t.