[FPSPACE] Where's the beef?

Robert G Kennedy III robot@ultimax.com
Wed, 14 Jan 2004 17:33:31 -0500


Dear Colleagues,

This burger is all bun and no filling, except for the pickle NASA will find
itself in when it tries to implement this thing. In fact (to continue the
metaphor) the nugget of greasy gristle that is between the buns contains a
nasty surprise, just like the prions in those "downers" several weeks ago.

For a legacy (if indeed that's what this White House was seeking) this
proposal is remarkably Clintonian - hifalutin' verbiage with plenty of
grease but no meat. Slick. (This Administration won't appreciate the
comparison, I'm sure.) I also recall now that Mr. Bush's predecessor made
some bad strategic choices (forcing the Mideast negotiators where they
weren't ready to go) in a desperate grasp for a legacy, which didn't work
out, neither for him nor the country.

One wonders if the original Seitzen & Cowing piece carried by UPI last week
was in fact a leak, and if some Administration apparatchik has been
twiddling the dials downward ever since, based on the public commentary.
This White House is easily sophisticated enough to do that. The rest of the
press, to its discredit, appears to have foregone fact-checking the
original UPI piece in favor of the immediate clever pounce. So a possibly
great idea has been shot down before it ever got off the ground. Such are
the policy choices forced on us by the modern news cycle.

A flat increment of $200 million per annum as reported by Vartabedian in
the /LATimes/ yesterday (not compounded as the Cowing piece explicitly
stated) does not even keep up with inflation. The Producer Price Index has
been slightly lower than the Consumer Price Index for the last decade. Say,
PPI = 2.75%. Applied to a $15.5 base, NASA's constant-value increment
should have been:
FY05: +$426 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$226 million
FY06: +$438 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$238 million
FY07: +$450 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$250 million
FY08: +$462 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$262 million
FY09: +$475 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$275 million

*Each* of these annual variances is enough to pay for a complete robotic
mission to deep space (Discovery or Explorer class, I forget which). That's
quite a opportunity cost to science.

But it's worse.

Now compare the announced figure to the bandied growth rate of 5%. Applied
to a $15.5 base, NASA's Moon/Mars growth increment should have been:
FY05: +$775 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$575 million
FY06: +$814 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$614 million
FY07: +$854 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$654 million
FY08: +$897 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$697 million
FY09: +$942 million  vs.  +$200 million actual,  variance = -$742 million

Each of *these* annual variances is enough to pay for a complete
*planetary* mission, such as the MER double shot, the Pluto-Kuiper express,
a Mercury orbiter+lander, a Europa orbiter, etc. That is one helluva
opportunity cost, not only to science, but to public pride and the spirit
of discovery.

I have no idea how NASA is going to reprogram money to achieve the manned
space goals set out this afternoon within a sub-fixed budget, but I fear
for planetary science (currently robotic).

Let me remind you that the recent triumphs have been brought to you by robots.

The recent tragedies involved flesh-and-blood people, may they rest in peace.

If I were NASA's Administrator forced to play this less-than-zero-sum game,
I'd go with the robots, and ditch spaceflight.

The president's announcement today is a downer, in every sense of the word.

--
Robert Kennedy, PE
http://www.ultimax.com