Star Crossed

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

With the announcement of the new budget, the Constellation program’s loss is many other agencies' gain. Meanwhile, Iran sends some critters into orbit.

Illustration: Mike Pick

Last week, as part of his first State of the Union address, President Obama talked the talk regarding his plans for funding science in the coming year, now he is walking the walk with a proposed budget.

While all of the figures must still pass muster with congress, things are looking pretty good for science funding this year.

Fast Company has a roundup of budget visualizations, but you’ll likely want to skip to their top pick (and mine), courtesy of the New York Times. Their interactive graphic draws each area and sub-area of the budget like a little plot of farmland. Fertile spots are colored an increasingly rich green, while those lying fallow or drying up are dusty pink or red.

Of course, seeing the science budget in the context of the rest of our expenditures does put things in context. Once you squint at (or zoom in on) the relatively tiny slice on the lower right labeled “general science”, however, you’ll find it mostly rendered in a pleasing shade of mint.

But that’s not all; traveling to the even smaller patches to the east, you’ll find budget increases for energy and environmental research, and you’ll have to head north to find the biggest beneficiary, the National Institutes of Health, which is slated to get an extra billion dollars next year. For an executive summary, Wired Science’s Alexis Madrigal provides a breakdown of the major funding organization’s net changes.

And because climate change was one area that Obama specifically referred to in his address, it’s worth checking out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new budget, which looks to be a big beneficiary in this increase.

David Roberts of Grist breaks the green budget down even further. Roberts was initially miffed that Obama lumped in coal and nuclear options with truly renewable energy alternatives, such as wind and solar. But now that the numbers on the table, the renewables do have an edge for the time being, getting half a billion in subsidies while nuclear and coal lose out on them.

It wasn’t all on the positive side of the ledger, however; one of the bigger stories to come out of the new budget was a major funding cut.

As I mentioned last week, while Obama was talking about pushing American innovation forward through a redoubled investment in science, the elephant in the room was the fate of the nation’s most visible science project: our space program.

The previous week was filled of dire prediction of the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program and the kyboshing of any plans to return to the moon. Those fears were confirmed, though it wasn’t all bad news. Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait goes into the details on why mourning Constellation, and the next moon shot, may be premature.

The upshot is that investing in commercial space ventures can pave a path that NASA will eventually roll along—whether it is back to the moon to stay, or somewhere a little more exotic, say the Martian moon Phobos. But whether that path has the same cachet as a national spacecraft when it comes to inspiring a new generation of science enthusiasts is unclear; that’s been the narrative of much of the news coverage of Constellation’s cancellation.

And though there’s a pork barrel angle to this budget item—with $9 billion already in the tank for Constellation, it’s unsurprising—the Space Race storyline might have a bit more traction, with Iran launching its third space mission on Wednesday. Previous launches have attempted to ferry satellites to orbit (only the second succeeded), but this one had a live payload of a mouse, two turtles and several worms, all of which reportedly made it back to Earth alive.

The parallels between this and beginning of the Russian space program are strong, even a half-century removed. Both Russia and Iran began with a basic communication satellites—Omid and Sputnik—which were followed up with live animal passengers (though the Iranian mouse, Helmz 1, apparently faired better than Laika, the Russian mutt that perished on Sputnik 2). And all of these launches were accompanied by some saber rattling as well as skepticism on the home front whether the scientific missions they entailed were not merely a front for military tests.

As much as everyone thinks we need another moon shot to reinvigorate American science, it’s clear we’re not racing Iran any time soon. That’s OK. This new budget will fund plenty of cool space projects—and the innovations that will undergird them—until we do.

But even though I want to believe that taking a picture of a ball of ice two thousand miles wide from about three billion miles away is enough to get young peoples’ scientific juices flowing, nothing really compares to launching a team of humans on a column of holy fire to an airless rock, having them run around and play golf on its surface, then getting them all home safely. Just ask Michael Bay.   

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published February 5, 2010

Tags policy public perception space technology

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