Gregg Easterbrook

Get over the moon. We need NASA to save the Earth

Apr 15, 2010 05:01 UTC

Gregg Easterbrook is a Reuters columnist. Any views expressed are his own.

Space policy is a small fraction of the U.S. federal budget – around one percent, when NASA and Air Force spending are combined – and much less important than topics such as health care, defense or debt. But if government can’t get minor policy right, how can it be trusted with major issues? That is the underlying question of President Barack Obama’s appearance at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida today. Cable-news commentary may focus on the political fight: who gets the biggest handouts. More important is whether Obama can change NASA from an example of what’s wrong with government (wasteful projects that serve only political favorites) to an example of what can be right (an agency that provides tangible benefits to taxpayers).

Yes, the Apollo moon landings were significant and memorable, but the last one occurred 38 years ago. In recent decades, NASA’s record has been spotty. The agency’s space science program – probes of the outer planets, telescopes that scan the far heavens – is successful and cost-effective. But for decades manned space flight, which receives the bulk of NASA funds, has accomplished: um, what? More money than was spent for the Apollo moon missions has been invested in the International Space Station, whose primary function is to give the space shuttle a destination. The shuttle, in turn, exists mainly to fly to the space station. The space station has no notable scientific achievements: it is such a white elephant that already NASA is studying the best way to “deorbit” the whole 380-ton structure, meaning allow it to burn in the upper atmosphere. This may happen as soon as 2016.

While spending freely on the space station and the shuttle, NASA has avoided research into new launch strategies that might cut the cost of access to orbit. Lower cost isn’t wanted – the whole point is to make the manned program expensive! And NASA has done just shy of nothing to plan for protecting the Earth from an asteroid strike: more on that in a moment.

Looking ahead to the inevitable demise of the space station, in 2004, NASA and the George W. Bush White House cooked up a plan to return astronauts to the Moon. That didn’t make much sense – because the Apollo landings found nothing of pressing scientific interest, NASA had gone 25 years without so much as launching an automated probe to the Moon. But sustaining spending, not finding a valid objective, was the goal.

To make a return-to-the-Moon seem like something more than a warmed-over reenactment, Bush declared that a Moon base would be a steppingstone to Mars. Physicists and engineers winced. There is no possibility a Mars mission would stop at the Moon; all proposed Mars missions involve departure directly from low-Earth orbit to the Red Planet. Landing first at the Moon, then blasting off again, would use up nearly all the mission’s fuel to accomplish, um, what?

A magnificent day

Apr 8, 2010 05:01 UTC

Today, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev meet in Prague to sign an agreement that will eliminate more than 1,000 large nuclear bombs from the Earth. Ho-hum! Commentators are carping that this development is not splashy or dramatic enough. Quite the contrary: it is magnificent news for our world.

When historians look back on the present generation, they will say that there were three trends of historic import – and none involve the effluvial trivia that dominate most contemporary discourse.

One trend of historic import is the spread of democracy, a sanguine development which seemed impossible as recently as the 1980s. The second is the rapid decline of global poverty – an improvement barely remarked upon in the West, because it isn’t happening there, and violates the chic-pessimism script preferred by tastemakers. China has moved 220 million people, nearly the population of the United States, out of poverty in a single generation. This production-and-output achievement is every bit the equal of America’s production-and-output achievement to win World War II. Poverty is declining in many though of course not all other developing nations.

Global news roundup

Apr 1, 2010 05:01 UTC

Gregg Easterbrook writes a weekly column for Reuters.com. The views expressed are his own.

Speaking at the White House today, President Barack Obama said, “The federal budget has become an accounting swindle little different from Enron. We are showering money on interest groups while passing unconscionable levels of debt to future generations. I apologize for my role in this: I have talked fiscal responsibility while borrowing to spend without restraint. Social Security benefits simply are going to have to be cut – it’s the only way out of the mess both parties have made of Washington. The time has come to state this honestly.”

Speaking on Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader John Boehner apologized for his fist-shaking speech calling the health care bill a “disgrace” that represents “the last straw for the American people.” Boehner said, “My behavior has been petty partisanship at its worst. The country cannot move forward when lawmakers like me act like spoiled children. I’ve been encouraging destructive politics and I was wrong.”