Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Newsweek Fumbles the Truth about Obama NASA Initiatives

by Nomad

They used to teach children that "reading is fundamental." In a democracy, for the voting public to keep informed, reading might be more than fundamental- it could be a matter of life or death. Naturally this assumes that an interested citizen can find accurate, honest writing by reporters actually bothering to check the facts. As any Fox News critic could tell you, repeating inaccurate statements lends a sense of authenticity to them.

Newsweek's "Chicken Little" cover story last week about asteroids and the (yawn) threat they pose to Earth. It has everything the editors of a magazine in decline might think is catchy. An opportunity for some nifty graphics, loads colorful prose, and with that recent Russian meteor, timeliness masking as relevance. And nothing collects random eyeballs like fear-mongering. 

It's not that it can't happen. It's not that extinction by falling sky-rock isn't possible. Ask the dinosaurs. (Actually you can't ask them, which just goes to show you.) But that story just been done unto death and even a real-life example in Russia can't breathe new life into the subject. (Witnesses to the actual asteroid's pass-over seemed discerningly calm. We are all lucky it didn't set off a pesky nuclear war.)

When it comes to rehashing subjects like this, the general rule of thumb is: a subject is pronounced DOA whenever Hollywood has made two films about it. A television film? and it becomes a joke at the office. 
Despite that, the story caught my attention. But halfway through the article I was stunned by one line.
"President Obama, canceling the shuttle and the manned mission to the moon and Mars, left open the possibility of one day landing on an asteroid."
That clause buried in the middle of the matter-of fact statement caught my eye. Any writer worth his/her mettle should have double-checked it instead of repeating the conventional- but wrong-wisdom. Any editor should have caught the mistake. Beside telling writers that it's "'I' before "C" except after "E," editors are supposed to check things. (And I am not referring to the failure to capitalize "moon.")

As far as the readers, that sentence was probably never even questioned. It certainly gives a bad impression of Obama, with lots of space trekkers probably in tears. Their patience is already stretched to the breaking point. They've been ready to jump on the space elevator and fly directly to the Moon Base Alpha for decades now. They are tired of telling each president "make it so." 
And the easily-excitable readers surely had their end-of-the- world fears monged. 

From Science to History
The fact is, however, that Newsweek statement is wrong.

Even as the humble writer of a humble blog I was easily able to find a reliable reference to the facts in less than five minutes. So here goes: Listen up, Newsweek editors:

The Shuttle's retirement (not cancellation) was announced back in 2004 by President Bush. This source, taken directly from Bush's speech, leaves little doubt. 
The Shuttle's chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station. In 2010, the Space Shuttle -- after nearly 30 years of duty -- will be retired from service.
As far as cancelling the mission to the Moon and Mars. Newsweek got that only half right. President Obama did cancel Bush's proposed return to the Moon, The Constellation Program, but with very good reasons. 
Constellation was, in fact, proposed at the time as Bush announced the retirement of the shuttle.  As the BBC reported later:
The Moon project was initiated by President George W Bush in the wake of the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident, which saw seven astronauts lose their lives when their vehicle broke up on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.

The idea was to retire the spaceplane and replace it with a new ship and new rockets capable of sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Actually, as an article in Popular Mechanics noted,  the funding of Moon program was dependent on the retirement of the 2010 shuttle retirement (as well as the decommissioning of Space Station in 2016.)
As we all know, 2004 was a time before balanced budgets were so important to Republicans. Two blank-check wars, unsustainable tax cuts, prescription drug plans, TAARP: it was anything goes. And everything did indeed go, and damned fast. So buying a free trip to the Moon, well, just fit in with all of the other things Washington was throwing money at. Wasn't it fun while it lasted? 

However things were very different when Obama took office. By that time, there was a mandate against wasteful spending by NASA and Obama set up a committee to review the matter of the manned Moon mission.

When the Augustine Commission, a blue ribbon panel of experts chaired by Norm Augustine, submitted their report to the president it came to conclusion the Moon program was entirely unworkable. Like so many programs in the Bush years, it amounted to throwing bags of  money down a rat hole and not waiting around to hear how far it fell. 

In particular the commission found the program was not being completed "to support schedules and milestones", while continuing the drain funds from other possible NASA programs. The panel found:
that Constellation key milestones were slipping, that the program would not return humans back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost, and that far more funding was needed to successfully implement the Constellation program.
In concurrence with the commission's finding, the president canceled the program much to the displeasure of Congress. (That's pretty odd when you think about it.) Had the program been allowed to continue it would have cost around $150 billion for Constellation to reach its objective. And given its history of scheduling failures, even that was probably not going to happen. 
(Incidentally each year the Bush tax cuts have reportedly deprived the US treasury of reportedly twice that much $360 billion dollars in federal revenue. That's every year. )

In this age of cutbacks when every social program risks falling under the blade of the Congressional axe, the President said of the Constellation program "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation." Accordingly, 2011 United States federal budget included no funding for the mission to the Moon. 
Had Obama been a Republican president (that's a touch of sci-fi, right there) Fox News would have been regaling the decision instead of decrying the "big hole where funding for NASA's Constellation program used to be." (I am sure the original text used "black" instead of "big.)

One more point to add: even after cutting funding for the Moon mission, Obama was still in favor of salvaging some of the work already done for the mission. He supported "a scaled-down version of Constellation's Orion crew capsule for use as a space station emergency escape vehicle and possible technology test bed." 
At least the program wouldn't have been a total loss. 
President Obama thought when it came to some space programs, the government had done more than enough and it was time for a private sector solution. 
"Nasa will accelerate and enhance its support for the commercial spaceflight industry to make travel to low-Earth orbit and beyond more accessible and more affordable," said Nasa chief Charlie Bolden.
Why, that little Kenyan socialist!

Fly Me to the Moon.. or Mars
Additionally, that Newsweek article makes the claim that Obama canceled the mission to Mars. This is a complete misstatement. In fact the president cancelled the Constellation moon mission in order to concentrate on the manned mission to Mars. 
Here what CBSNews wrote back in 2010, when the president was to announce his new strategy for NASA.
The president will discuss his new strategy for NASA during a conference at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, outlining a series of robotic and eventual manned deep-space missions that will build in an evolutionary, step-by-step approach to eventual flights to Mars, the official said....
The Obama administration's change of course for NASA will not restore the lost shuttle jobs, but the additional spending will more than make up for the expected Constellation losses, the official said. Along with a shift to commercial launch services, the administration plans a $2 billion upgrade to the Kennedy Space Center's launch infrastructure.
And in the near term, the administration will spend $40 million to fund an "economic development action plan" to help the local workforce make the transition. 
Taken together, the new initiatives mark a "more ambitious space strategy" than Constellation offered, the official said, adding that critics who have charged the president's approach represents an end to government-sponsored manned spaceflight "are just flat wrong."
The phrase "flat wrong" provides a perfect return to the Newsweek article. Was the sentence only another example of the general incompetence of mainstream and why it is held in such low regard? Or was it intentional? Dropping it into the middle of the non-political, stated like a well-established fact could easily slip by the less discriminating reader. It's insidious with an order of subversive on the side.You'd think that Newsweek would aim a little higher than just being another error replication device. Whether intended or not, it's careless reporting that needed to be called out. 

So, um, consider it called.

There may be many things that critics can disagree with when it comes to Obama and his policies. Gitmo still open? Shame on you, Mr. President. His mishandling of the Bradley Manning, and murders by drone, both very disappointing. So I too have my list of complaints. I am no Obama sycophant. (Though I do think he is one of the better presidents we've had.)

And few people support the president (or any president) 100%. 

Fair enough. 

But, as Gene Roddenberry wrote:
If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are.