Crowdfunding NASA? I’m skeptical

In an August 20 press release, an outfit called Conzortia Business Funding, Inc., announces that it’s initiated a “Crowdfund NASA” project.

“Amid budget cuts and program terminations, NASA’s future is in serious question,” Conzortia asserts, “and certainly the agency programs are in questionable financial disarray. Yet the current Mars Rover project is undoubtedly a success with its adoring public, who are holding up their thumbs crying, “Live. Live. Live.”, toward their government concerning the space program which currently has an uncertain future. And from deep within this crowd has arisen the optimistic promise of “Fund NASA” from thousands who have said that, given the opportunity, they would contribute to the future of this doomed space agency.”

Hence, “Crowdfund NASA.” The “FAQ” (frequently asked questions) page of the project’s web site contains only this brief statement: “Raising funds for NASA – We love NASA, its history & its mission. We are proud to be helping to keep our space station program alive & viable for the future.”

Conzortia offers two NASA crowdfunding projects – Crowdfund NASA and Save Our Space Station, both with a goal of raising $1 million in 91 days, both 0% funded as of today.

I’m skeptical for more than one reason.

First, I suspect that the aerospace industry may be behind this crowdfunding project. It wouldn’t be the first time that an effort described as a “grassroots” space advocacy initiative turns out to be “astroturf.” (See, for example, Citizens for Space Exploration, originally organized by Houston, Cocoa Beach, and Huntsville business interests and now allied with the aerospace industry’s Coalition for Space Exploration; and Future Space USA, backed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.)

Second, space exploration is expensive. Really expensive. What could NASA do with $1 million? Perhaps it could fund a feasibility study of crowdfunding for NASA projects.

Third, out of ignorance I have to ask, is it legal for a government agency to take donations from the private sector?

About Crowdfund NASA, Conzortia CEO Robert Dobyns says this: “It’s Americans doing what we do best. Taking the initiative. Rolling up our sleeves. Pitching in when the going gets tough. Making a difference in our nation and the world around us. And with CrowdfundNASA.com, a difference in our galaxy!”

Dobyns lives in the Houston area and says, “NASA has strong ties to our community. It’s only natural that we would want to help in any way possible to preserve” it.

According to its web site, Conzortia Business Funding “is a U.S. corporation with offices located in Cheyenne, Wyoming providing artists, business owners and startups with a forum to connect with funders through the medium known as crowdfunding.”

According to CEO Dobyns’s LinkedIn profile, “We have launched a suite of crowdfunding platforms, each targeting a different needs sector Our equity-based platform is at http://www.Conzortia.com (awaiting SEC approval)
Our rewards-based platform is at http://www.Conzortia.net
Our teen-focused platform is at http://www.CrowdfundingKids.com
Our platform for fulfilling personal wishes – http://www.FundMyWish.com
Our crowdfunding platform for honeymoons at www.HoneymoonPlanners.info

That’s my five cents worth. What do you think?

 

(PS – Having been a journalism teacher, I’m a stickler for correct punctuation, and so I’ll note that the bad punctuation inside quote marks above is in the original….)

This week’s annoyances

 

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m going to point out just a few items in space news that annoyed me this week. (Do NOT ask about the presidential campaign….)

The U.S. Air Force reported August 16 on the failure of its supersonic-combustion-ramjet (scramjet)-powered X-51A flight test, without calling it a “failure” or “failed.”

The experimental X-51A Waverider is an unmanned, autonomous supersonic combustion ramjet-powered hypersonic flight test demonstrator for the USAF.

The USAF’s news release, titled “X-51A flight ends prematurely,” stated that the Waverider “successfully launched from a B-52 Stratofortress over Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range…. The X-51A safely separated from the B-52,” and “the rocket booster fired as planned.” After that, nothing worked.

According to Reuters, the X-51A crashed just seconds into its test flight. Reuters noted that details of the X-51A program, whose goal is “to get missiles anywhere in an hour are classified and its cost is “undisclosed.”

“It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the scramjet engine,” said Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager for Air Force Research Laboratory.

According to the USAF, the cost of the X-51A is “unavailable.” According to Reuters, its cost is “undisclosed.” According to Newsday,The Pentagon said it has spent as much as $2 billion over the last 10 years on hypersonic technologies and supporting engineering. The Pentagon is funding six major hypersonic technology programs…. The [X-51A] program cost an estimated $140 million, according to Globalsecurity.org.”

Why can’t we call a failure a failure and move on? And why is the cost of this program classified?

(Sigh…)

Next up: results of the National Science Foundation’s astronomy portfolio review, “Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges,” released this month, including a recommendation to discontinue funding for the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) by FY 2017.

The GBT and the VLBA are facilities of the NSF’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO – which is a collection of facilities, not a place). The NRAO is operated by Associated Universities Inc. (AUI) under cooperative agreement. (Please do not ask me to explain the complicated arrangement.) The NRAO and AUI immediately criticized the review committee’s recommendation: “optimizing the United States’ astronomy portfolio should involve considerations beyond just the question of what can be cut from a particular funding agency’s budget to make room for something new in that same agency’s budget.”

The NSF review committee notes in its report, “Every field of research has ambitions beyond its current means, but [astronomy] faces particularly difficult choices in charting a course toward the science goals of NWNH [New Worlds, New Horizons, the National Academy of Sciences’ latest decadal review of astronomy and astrophysics] and V&V [Visions and Voyages, the Academy’s latest decadal review of planetary exploration] within the budgets expected this decade.”

Readers may recall that Visions and Voyages recommended NASA’s top priority planetary exploration in the next decade should be a Mars sample return (MSR) mission. NASA’s response to this recommendation was to say that MSR was unaffordable and not an option.

Back to the NSF’s astronomy review – I offer this long quote because it’s well stated:

“This Portfolio Review Committee was convened to recommend [NSF astronomy] portfolios best suited to achieving the decadal survey goals under two budget scenarios: (A) [the NSF astronomy division’s] purchasing power drops to 90% of FY11 levels, then rises to 106% of FY11 by FY22, and (B) [its] purchasing power drops to 80% of FY11 levels by mid-decade, and remains flat through FY22. By FY22, the projected AST budget is only 65% in Scenario A and 50% in Scenario B of the budget NWNH assumed in recommending an AST portfolio. Indeed the AST budget is already $45M short of NWNH projections for FY12. This presents a considerable challenge in implementing the strong NWNH recommendations for both new facilities and for maintaining the strength of the grants programs. AST must find the proper balance between current facilities and new endeavors, between large projects and small grants, and between risk and reward. It must continue to invest in the training of a highly skilled and creative workforce. Our recommendations are based on the science goals and program recommendations of NWNH and V&V.”

It seems that, even if scientists can see that aspirations for space science and exploration exceed available government funding now and in the foreseeable future, they tend to go blind when it comes to their own projects.

Finally – may I ask why the aerospace-industrial complex (still) insists on calling its air-and-space-ships “she”s? The whole archetypal female-as-vessel (thus, vessel as “she”) thing bugs me. It’s waaay archaic.

This month, while the media spotlight has been shining on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team (not all, but predominantly, male), I heard several men – some of whom are decades younger than I am – talk about MSL/Curiosity as a “she” or a “her.” In a message to NASA employees this week, Associate Administrator for Space Science John Grunsfeld followed the custom: “On her tortuous journey to Mars, the Curiosity rover had to withstand the rigors of flight….  Now that she is safely on the surface, our attention turns to our next mission….”

Yuck. This affectation makes the super-duper-highest-of-high-tech planetary rover sound like a fluffy puppy.

According to the Naval Historical Center, “It has always been customary to personify certain inanimate objects and attribute to them characteristics peculiar to living creatures. Thus, things without life are often spoken of as having a sex. Some objects are regarded as masculine. The sun, winter, and death are often personified in this way. Others are regarded as feminine, especially those things that are dear to us. The earth as mother Earth is regarded as the common maternal parent of all life. In languages that use gender for common nouns, boats, ships, and other vehicles almost invariably use a feminine form. Likewise, early seafarers spoke of their ships in the feminine gender for the close dependence they had on their ships for life and sustenance.”

Is this custom something we want to be perpetuating? Not I.

Let me be clear: I am NOT recommending that we think about spacecraft as “he”s. Contrary to the questionable assessment of the Supreme Court, corporations are not people. And of course machines – ships, aircraft and spacecraft, and planetary rovers – are not people. These “things” don’t have sexes or genders. Let’s get with the 21st century program….

Pop quiz: why do we need a space program?

 

Think about the socioeconomic environment we live in for a moment, and consider the place of a national space program in it.

Americans are being told that their educational system is second rate. Universities are bloated and marred by declining standards. Science and engineering are less popular, while students and the public embrace superstition and hedonism. Americans are told there is a dangerous shortage of scientists and engineers. Thousands are unemployed. The U.S. balance of payments is in crisis….

This is the world we live in today.

Right?

Well, no….

With thanks and apologies to the author, this is the U.S. socioeconomic landscape of the 1960s as political scientist Walter McDougall described it in …the Heavens and the Earth (1985), his Pulitzer Prize-winning “political history of the Space Age.” Aside from rewriting McDougall’s description in the present tense, I’ve made no alterations. Here’s the exact quote (p. 422 in the hardcover): “Americans were told that their educational system was second rate…. Universities were bloated and marred by declining standards and indiscipline. Science and engineering became less popular…while students and the public embraced astrology, superstition and hedonism…. Americans were told there was a dangerous shortage of scientists and engineers…. Thousands were unemployed…. The U.S. balance of payments was in crisis.”

More than 40 years later, do conditions remain the same? Or is it the political rhetoric that is unchanged?

Think about it.

Communications 101 for OSTP

 

Message to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from your friendly neighborhood communication advisor: If you invite people to participate in a telecon, please make sure that everyone you’ve invited is able to connect to it before you begin your discussion.

PS: This step is especially important if you are holding the telecon to deliver an important message and asking participants to help you spread it.

On August 6, OSTP tweeted, “Join POTUS Science Advisor in conference call to discuss sequestration effects on science, technology, and innovation.” I received an email announcement about the call as well, and I registered online to participate. I received two email confirmations of the call. Nonetheless, when I called in at 2 pm, ATT’s conference call system could not connect me to the call. I redialed repeatedly and got cut off repeatedly. By the time I connect to the call, it was 2:15 and OSTP director John Holdren had finished his spiel.

For reasons I don’t understand, OSTP deemed the call “off the record.” Why would a White House intent on delivering and spreading a message deem a discussion about it off the record? Especially a White House dedicated to advancing transparency, openness, and participation in government? Thoughts?

In any case, you might be able to guess what OSTP’s message was, even without the benefit of having heard Holdren state it:

Sequestration bad. Sequestration bad for science, technology, and innovation.

And speaking of federal spending for science, astute science blogger Phil Plait (@Badastronomy), responded to President Obama’s congratulatory statement on the Mars Science Laboratory landing by tweeting, “So can we have that $300 million back now, please?” He was referring to the $300 million that the White House cut from NASA’s most recent budget request for its Mars Exploration Program.

There’s no getting it back, of course. When dollars are cut from a budget request, it means that the dollars aren’t there. The situation is not akin to a parent stashing a child’s favorite toy until the child decides to behave. The $300 million cut from the budget request was not stowed away in some special Mars piggybank. This persistent sense of entitlement in the space science community (see my February 29 post) is not especially useful in the current political environment. The U.S. government spends $18 billion a year on its civilian space program. Given the steady socioeconomic devolution of the middle and working classes, not to mention other major socioeconomic problems facing the nation due to eight years of reckless spending preceding Obama’s election, this seems enough to me….

Friday’s food for thought: it’s all about politics

I’ve been flipping through a pile of books this week in doing research for some writing projects and want to share a few thoughts I’ve gleaned from them.

For a book chapter about the space shuttle, I looked at Thomas P. Hughes’s American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (1989), and came across this passage (p. 460-461 in the paperback) that I find relevant to my analysis:

“Large technological systems represent powerful vested interests…. Numerous persons develop specialized skills and acquire specialized knowledge appropriate for the system of which they are a part. A major change in the characteristics of the system or its demise would de-skill these people. The machines, devices, and processes in the system are [system-specific] capital…. Changes in the system…make hardware capital obsolete. Faced with these eventualities, the people and the investors in technological systems construct a bulwark of organizational structures, ideological commitments, and political power to protect themselves and the systems.”

Right on….

In the NASA History Division volume Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight (2006), I found this observation by John Logsdon (pp. 270-271):

“The lack of a clear ‘mandate’ for human spaceflight over the past 35 years has meant that the U.S. human spaceflight program, and indeed the NASA program overall, has been sustained by a complex coalition of narrow interests, not by a clearly articulated national goal and a stable political consensus in support of achieving that goal.”

Though it’s theoretically possible, in the current political environment I see no hints of hope for political stability in the foreseeable future….

Finally, I’ll cite cultural studies scholar Henry A. Giroux, who wrote in Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth (1996, p. 184) that debating over the value of “political correctness” in U.S. academia “does more than misrepresent the alleged tyranny of a handful of progressive educators”:

“It also reveals the fear that radical democracy inspires in the orthodox guardians of traditional culture…. Maybe the lesson here is that in a democracy that matters, youth are not feared, education becomes a vehicle of critical learning, the economy is not left to the whims of the market and its greed, and social justice is invoked to eliminate bigotry rather than sanction it by labeling its opponents as politically correct.”

This passage reminds me of a front-page story I read in the Washington Post this morning, headlined “Special interests win in Senate panel’s attempt at tax reform.”  Post reporter Lori Montgomery writes that “as lawmakers tackled a list of 75 special-interest tax breaks, the special interests repeatedly won.” Tax breaks that remain available include “an accelerated write-off for owners of NASCAR tracks…an economic development credit for a StarKist tuna cannery in American Samoa…a rum-tax rebate for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands worth millions of dollars a year to one of the world’s largest distillers…[and] a $2,500 credit for electric motorcycles and other low-speed vehicles. Tax breaks eliminated include “a $5,000 credit for first-time home buyers in the District [of Columbia] and a cash-incentive program for ­wind-energy projects.”

We’re still far from justice, fairness, and equality in our great United States, and it’s a shame.

My five cents worth on space news this week

While my NASA colleagues are absorbed in preparations for the Mars Science Laboratory landing, I’ve been reviewing space news of the week. I’ll comment on a few items that have caught my eye.

First, a commentary by space scientist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for atmospheric and Space Physics LASP), published in Nature, prompts me to quibble a bit.

Baker argues that NASA should abandon multi-billion-dollar, NASA-led “flagship” space science missions and instead invest its science budget in missions led by what he claims are “more efficient and effective” academic principal investigators (PIs). He cites the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), funded by NASA and led by Bruce Jakoski of LASP, as an example of an academic-PI-led mission that is “on budget, on schedule and promises compelling science.”

My five cents worth? Flagship missions may be inherently more prone to cost and schedule overruns due to their size and complexity. Nonetheless, smaller-scale PI-led missions are not immune to these and other problems. (Rising academic overhead charges are worth a mention, too.) The National Academy of Sciences, in its latest decadal survey of research and mission priorities in planetary science, identified a flagship-scale Mars sample return mission as a top priority, followed by another flagship-scale mission to Europa if NASA’s budget could accommodate it. (Turns out that, at least for now, NASA can afford neither.)The survey also identified top priorities for smaller-scale Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions ($425 million or less, and ca. $700 million, respectively).

Second, claims made about the market potential for commercial suborbital space flight at a congressional hearing yesterday have raised my skeptical hackles (again). Carissa Christensen of The Tauri Group, reporting on a suborbital reusable vehicle (SRV) market study conducted by her firm and funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Space Florida, told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee at an August 1 hearing that “demand for SRV flights at current prices is genuine, sustained, and appears sufficient to support multiple providers…. The largest market by far is commercial human spaceflight for individuals…more than 80 percent of the total.”

The Tauri Group’s analysis predicts “a total of $600 million in demand over 10 years in the baseline case,” $1.6 billion in a “growth scenario,” and $300 million in a “constrained scenario.”

(Both The Tauri Group and Space Florida put out press releases about this market analysis today. You can find them here and here.)

According to the hearing charter, the FAA estimates “total investment in suborbital ventures [at] $500 million. The primary source of funding for the development of commercial SRVs has come from company founders and individual investors” – for example John Carmack, Armadillo Aerospace, $2 million; Paul Allen, SpaceShipTwo, $20 million; Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, $100 million…. SRV companies have also received government funding from NASA, the Department of Defense, and the FAA. NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program has allocated $10 million over two years for SRV flights and DoD small business contracts have provided about $2 million in funding for technology development at three SRV companies. On July 2nd, NASA announced the selection of 14 technologies for development and suborbital flight demonstrations under the Flight Opportunities Program…. NASA is planning to spend nearly $3.5 million on the payloads….”

My thoughts? For one, if so many rich people really do have so much mad money to spend that they can afford prices ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a brief (measured in minutes) joy ride to suborbital space and back, then it’s a testament the size of the gap between rich and poor that’s been widening ever since the Reagan years. For another, I’ll believe it when I see it (a profitable market for SRVs).

Third, while I’m not a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, today I did read about some things he’s said with which I heartily agree. In a Time magazine “Techland” interview, Tyson was asked, “With the success of SpaceX, some people are questioning the need to fund a government space program. Why do we still need NASA?” Tyson replied: “The people who say that all we need is private space travel are simply delusional…. Space enthusiasts are the most susceptible demographic to delusion that I have ever seen. Private enterprise can never lead a space frontier. It’s not possible because a space frontier is expensive, it has unknown risks and it has unquantified risks.”

Right on, Neil! These are pretty much my sentiments on the subject, after 30 years of following the dialogue. Hard-core “commercial space” advocates are, and long have been, deeply enamored of the ideologies of libertarianism and economic liberalism. These belief systems have been widely critiqued, and for good reason.

That’s it for today!