Is NASA Screwed?"It's easy to say, 'let's just cancel it and move on' but we've poured over a billion-and-half dollars into this." So said NASA's associate administrator for science, Ed Weiler, last Friday as he unveiled budget overruns on the Mars Exploration Project. While the space jockeys tried to spin the story as their Mars project still being on schedule, the real issue is the pricetag, and it's one the next president will take a hard look at. What would a President Obama mean for our country's space mission?While space isn't likely to become an issue in the waning days of the presidential campaign, Obama has repeatedly vowed to revisit the federal budget "line-by-line." Obama would prefer the money go elsewhere: He would delay NASA’s controversial moon-to-Mars program five years in order to fund education initiatives. The Obama Plan for Science and Innovation has a conspicuous omission: Is NASA Screwed? Did I miss the word Mars in there somewhere? Most of NASA's mission, in this appraisal, seems to be focused on the ground, not the sky. In light of the economy, the debate is also about the price tag. Coming in on schedule means the program will go from costing $300 million in 2006 to topping $1.9 billion in NASA's latest public estimate. It's not an easy choice, but you need a healthy understanding of what can be accomplished scientifically before you make that decision. For those on the inside like Ed Weiler, the goal of the program isn't as abstract as it might be for a congressman. "The science is critical. It's a flagship mission in the Mars program and as long as we think we have a good technical chance to make it we are going to do what we have to do," he told the press. Weiler sounds like most politicos lately, and he'll have to deal on Obama's terms by throwing in the word hyperdrive every now and then, as the Senator detailed at a Wyoming event:
"I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier.... NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration. I don’t think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t even pass for news anymore."
What if NASA abandons its mission to explore the galaxies and focuses on new technologies and applications on Earth? Not that those two things don't have a lot in common to begin with, but wouldn't that make NASA just another government bureaucracy? Since that would be precisely what Obama says he doesn't want, NASA administrators might have to get used to sad press conferences. What Direction Now For the U.S. Space Program [New Scientist]