If you blinked, you may have missed it. On Oct. 23rd at 7:26 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, NASA’s newest Mars probe, Odyssey, slipped safely into orbit around the red planet with little fanfare. Scientists breathed a sigh of relief.
The media has paid little attention to the effort.
The News-Press wedged a tiny Associated Press article in the corner of their third page. CNN jammed a small, nondescript note in their scrolling ticker, which plowed along beneath talking heads discussing anthrax symptoms.
NASA is feeling the heat in many respects. Politicians who cut NASA’s budget look good to the public because they are “cutting pork barrel spending.” Never mind that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration makes up less than three percent of the national budget. And where money is concerned, it’s going, going, gone.
For the last 10 years, NASA has had its budget cut by the national government nearly every year. Projects have been cut back and scrapped one after the other. At one point last year, the agency was nearly forced to close three of its major space flight centers.
As projects shrink from billion to million-dollar budgets, the agency has attempted grace under fire, with its new mantra, “Faster, Cheaper, Better.”
The only problem is, cheaper satellites are rarely better. In fact, it’s hard to get them to work at all. At every stage, NASA’s new stripped down satellites are forced to rely on the riskiest maneuvers and the cheapest alternatives. As a result, NASA’s latest attempts on Mars have been faster, cheaper failures.
Of course this doesn’t stop the media, which ignores NASA successes, from crucifying the agency for its failures. The two downed space probes were all over the news. According to the media, NASA was engaging in an inexcusable and irresponsible waste of taxpayer money. Never mind the fact that the two probes cost the taxpayers less than two dollars apiece.
Of course the media pressure opened another window for politicians to grandstand. Congress assembled a committee to investigate whether or not NASA was wasting the money it didn’t have. This year, NASA was placed on a list of the top ten mismanaged government agencies.
Tired of the fight, NASA’s esteemed administrator Dan Goldin, so popular he served under three presidents, is stepping down.
The bottom line: NASA doesn’t have the money to put together effective projects, so their existing projects fail, so their budget gets cut, so they don’t have money, so their projects fail…
You get the picture. One solution to this problem has been for NASA to partner with other space agencies. This way, their budget is larger, and if the spit hits the fan, it spreads out evenly.
The most notable such attempt has been the International Space Station (ISS). The space station began as Space Station Freedom, a NASA project. When its budget got cut, NASA looked for international partners to share the expenditures.
So far, cost overruns have been huge — billions of dollars. NASA’s main U.S. contractor, Boeing Aerospace, underestimated the cost of production and is currently eating a large portion of the overrun. The main problem, however, has been with the Russian space agency. Whatever sort of a bind NASA is in, Russia is only worse.
Often, the Russians cannot afford to launch their own rockets for space-station assembly and the U.S. bails them out. Their only other help has come from corporate sponsorship. Pizza Hut paid for several Russian launches last year. Dennis Tito also gave the Russians a handsome sum for his sojourn into space.
Despite NASA’s many budget cuts, ISS has made it through Congress unscathed, most likely because of its international overtones. That is, until now.
Last Friday, NASA announced that due to cost overruns, it will not have the funds to support a seven-person ISS crew, rendering the space station useless for science missions.
NASA needs, more than anything, to be politically popular. To that end, it recently hired its own PR company, called Dreamtime. Their working relationship became a bit shaky, when unbeknownst to NASA officials, Dreamtime brokered a deal with a major TV network for a reality TV show in space. NASA was forced to announce to the national media that any such contract was null and void.
NASA continues to work with Dreamtime, although the company is now on a much shorter leash.
We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, if you’re feeling patriotic, tell people to worry less about anthrax and support their local space agency. Write to:
Rep. Lois Capps
Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Sen. Barbara Boxer
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science and technology editor. His columns run on Mondays.