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Moira Gunn

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Words, Words, Words ... NASA, NASA, NASA

Posted: 04/20/10 05:38 PM ET

"Words, words, words" - that's what the cartoon character Butthead used to mumble when adults were speaking to him, and it all sounded like one big blur. It leapt to mind again, when I was trying to grasp what President Obama was saying about the big, new plan for NASA, and why it was such a gosh, darn great idea. I know he means well, but it sounded like just so many words, words, words.

And why? Because the proposed annual budget for NASA is only $19 billion ... and do you know what we spend in Iraq every single day? $7 billion.

That's right. Three days from now, we will have spent on Iraq the entirety of next year's budget for NASA, and then some. Obama's proposal to increase the budget of NASA by $6 billion over the next five years, really says that in half-a-decade, NASA will receive one more day in Iraq. (Yes, try to contain your enthusiasm.)

Come to think of it, maybe that should be the new monetary unit in Congress. "I'll vote three-weeks-in-Iraq for the great state of Alabama, if you vote for two-days-in-Iraq for my pet project."

Before this editorial turns from words, words, words into numbers, numbers, numbers - it's the numbers that tell the tale on what is and is not commitment from the US government. And despite the rhetoric, this new NASA plan is basically no commitment at all.

Plenty of observers have already noticed that the Obama plan abandons the return to the moon and ostensibly redirecting funds to science and the goal of Mars. To do this, the big plan is "investing in ground-breaking research and innovative companies" ... OK, let's go back to Business 101 and The Role of Governments 102.

Business can surely attempt daring feats, but they need return on investment. The return has to happen within the life of the company (and its available funds) and that is all part of management of risk. When you're talking about propositions which require science yet to be discovered and technology not yet developed, that is big-time R-I-S-K, all in capital letters. And yet, our nation's space future - humanity's space future - is supposed to rely on the necessarily narrow reality of business propositions?

Now one small part of all this rings true. It's been time to retire the Space Shuttle fleet for some time, and we know how to build them now. If the numbers work out, and there's a market for getting to near-space, this has now become a previously-solved problem. It can and should be done by private companies. Yet if there is not sufficient business to be had - or for some other reason, the economics don't work - the government has to step in and fund it. Simply because society needs it. Kinda like the post office.

Which gets us to The Role of Governments 102.

When we as a society know that we need to go in a daring new direction, but the science is new or emergent, and the technology has never been built, that's when government needs to step in and spend money. And why? So that innovation can occur. So that the science can be corralled. So that at least one working engineering prototype can be built.

In fact, governments must support new directions with investments in cutting-edge science and technology in ways that enable many approaches by many people and groups simultaneously. This means the research money for science and technology must go - as it has always done - to universities and institutes, traditional aerospace companies and new "innovative companies", and heck, even to promising individuals. We don't know what will pay off. Or when. Or how. But experience shows us that it will.

Former President Kennedy's 1961 speech has been thrown around with great abandon in recent days, but his words can still lead us: "I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."

So, listen up. Develop a sense of urgency and a respect for the benefits we gain from going to space ... without knowing what those benefits will be. Even if he knew precisely what was going to happen, how far would JFK have gotten had he described to Congress a world of cell phones and laptops, YouTube and Google, wireless and texting - for the seeds of all that technology trace directly back to the communications tech required for the Apollo program.

Demanding usefulness as a precondition for any NASA budget is wrong-headed thinking; demanding cutting edge innovation, paradigm-shifting scientific, breakthrough technologies - that's the ticket! What will result will no doubt amaze and astound.

Let's invest three-weeks-in-Iraq every year for the next 50 in NASA -- the world as we know it will become a very tiny place in a very big universe.