Over the past few years, NASA has fallen out of favor with Washington. Since the decision to mothball the Shuttle fleet, the space agency has seen its budget shrink, and in 2014 will be the lowest since 2007. Adding insult to injury, the government labeled NASA a non-essential entity during last year's shutdown, which sent NASA workers home at significantly higher rates than other federal employees.
In recent months, however, the government seems to have reconsidered its stance. Bloomberg Businessweek reported today that Congress told NASA it must finish building a pricey rocket-testing facility in Mississippi, even though the agency will likely never use it, and The Los Angeles Times noted that President Obama has approved an extension of the ongoing International Space Station (ISS) orbital mission. Why is D.C. suddenly so interested in (spending money on) space? We have a few theories.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Jonathan D. Salant at Businessweek writes that Congress is likely only maintaining the $350-million rocket-testing tower at the Stennis Space Center open to prevent Mississippi's unemployment rate from rising even more. Roughly 7.6 percent of Mississippians are out of work, about 0.5 percent higher than the rest of the nation. Space policy scholar Rand Simberg told Salant that the only reason to keep the facility — which tests rockets that are no longer being made — would be to hold onto "jobs in the right states and districts.” This could also explain why Alabama's Space Launch System (SLS), which former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver recently said is outdated and should be shut down, remains open. Alabama's unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the south, and local officials must want to keep it that way.
Private missions to Mars
Though both the SLS and the Stennis Space Center are designed to test technology that is not particularly useful in serving NASA's goals — like looking for life on Europa or contracting "space taxis" so that U.S. astronauts no longer have to hitch a ride with Russia to get to the ISS — they are key to testing rockets that would be sent to Mars. NASA is considering another Mars rover mission in 2020 and private companies have expressed an interest in checking out the red planet as well. Mars One said it is planning on sending a rover to Mars in 2018, ahead of a supposed manned mission that will send a number of (lucky?) individuals to live out the rest of their lives on a world they can never leave. Tesla founder Elon Musk has also expressed interest in attempting to colonize Mars. Even though these seem like weirdly morbid pipe dreams to us, the government may want to piggy back on those plans (or co-opt them into American-flagged private-public joint mission.)
Congress loves space, even though it doesn't get it
Late last year, Congress held a surprisingly hopeful hearing on life in the universe, where usually skeptical representatives got excited about the possibility of aliens. For its part, NASA has been pretty good at showing us some spectacular images of space of late.
Maybe, in true congressional fashion, our representatives are finally interested in scientific research, but just flat out don't understand what they're funding. According to Garver, the SLS (which again, is a program doomed to irrelevance) is an example of a congressionally-mandated program that doesn't make any sense, at least not anymore: "It's $3 billion a year of NASA’s $17 billion. Is that how you would be investing in the space program? Where is it going to go? When will it even fly?” She added that even Mars ambitions wouldn't justify keeping the facility open: "Would you really go to Mars with technology that’s 50 years old?” Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, who led the charge to keep the Stennis Space Center open, issued a statement to Businessweek defending the rocket-testing site:
Stennis Space Center is the nation’s premier rocket engine testing facility... It is a magnet for public and private research investment because of infrastructure projects like the A-3 test stand. In 2010, I authored an amendment to require the completion of that particular project, ensuring the Stennis facility is prepared for ever-changing technologies and demands.
That year, incidentally, was the year Obama proposed shutting down George W. Bush's Constellation program, which built the facility in the first place. This means that the types of rockets that would be tested there have been irrelevant to NASA for four years, making Wicker's stance deceitful at best and ignorant at worst. He wants to support NASA, and wants his state to get its money, but hasn't put much thought into the best way to do that.
Keeping up with the Joneses
The Stennis Space Center was initially part of an effort to send another manned mission to the moon, a project that has since been abandoned and will likely remain so — unless the U.S. starts to feel outpaced by Russia and China. Russia's Soyuz mission recently took cosmonauts and astronauts (and the Olympic torch) to the ISS. China successfully soft-landed a probe on the moon's surface last month, and hopes to launch a lunar manned mission by 2020, and India is also heavily investing in its space program. According to the The Los Angeles Times, keeping the $100-billion ISS in orbit for four more years will send China a pointed message:
The announcement also has the potential of sending a signal to China, NASA's latest cosmic competitor.... By keeping the International Space Station operational, NASA can maintain its own symbol of technical advancement while limiting attempts by the Chinese to woo global partners for its outpost.
The United "We're Number One" States is not about to fall behind in an international space race, especially when private industry starts sniffing around.
We recently made a rigorous argument for Obama (possibly, maybe) unveiling the discovery of aliens as his second-term surprise. A alarming increase in NASA funding only supports our case.