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Funding Science, Gifts from Defense to NASA, and our Defense Budget

Well, it is June 6th and that means the new version of Internet addressing rolls out today — IPv6 — but no worries as our old system continues to run side by side – we just will not run out of addresses anytime soon.

Of course the new Internet development is a reminder of the Internet development history from simple computer to computer connecting/talking in the 60’s, to “email/chat” messaging in the early 70’s, to DARPA (Defense Department) research funds in the mid to late 70’s/early 80s making university to university connections on ARPANET, to Al Gore getting Federal Funds to move the Internet out of DARPA and into an expanded private world-wide system. The key thing along this path was Defense Department seed money. Which brings us to NASA funding.

It has been a standard part of Boston Science Lectures in the Lowell Series since the 80’s to note that the Hubble mirror had a secret brother that in theory was crated and stored as a back-up but which everyone knew was being used in a spy satellite. Hubble needed Defense support to get off the ground.

And that factoid brings us to the US Department of Defense’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO – one of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies) and its surprise gift of two better-than-Hubble-class space telescopes worth $250 million (a somewhat low number – but now you knew funding for other things were in the overstated Hubble cost given the public – of course you did). The NRO’s Telescope One and Telescope Two have secondary mirrors to improve focusing of the 7.9 foot mirror (same size as Hubble) that are better than the secondary mirrors put on Hubble and give 100 times the field of view, all with a newer, much lighter mirror and much better structure technology.

So what did the NASA really get? Congress these days is cutting the NASA budget to get money to fund tax cuts for the rich and corporate these days and Obama is selling “grand bargain” cuts to Social Security so as to keep 90% to 100% of the Bush tax cuts for the rich afloat. Will Obama really cut Social Security and increase the NASA budget to get even one of the new telescopes off the ground before 2024? How will NASA get the cash for two launch vehicles for each Hubble-sized space telescope – can they convince the Tea Party of the importance of the study of dark energy, and any other force that has a hand in the universe’s expansion? Indeed the NRO telescopes are being given “bare-bones” style – the advanced NRO instruments to actually get data are not included and likely they would not get the star data even if they were. So NASA needs yet more money to get the instruments such as cameras, sensors, spectrograph, etc. And the NASA budget will need to request still more money for staff to plan and man any missions for which they might be used. All this as the new infrared-light-collecting James Webb space telescope which is currently scheduled to launch in 2018 barely survives each budget review and has cost overruns that are causing problems in the NASA budget.

Seems this is just a burden to NASA and NASA should charge the military a disposal fee – assuming the military is not going to step up and offer some of its budget money for the required NASA budget increase. Without a budget to use these instruments all we have is the NRO switching its new spy satellite ability from the Hubble days objective of reading digits on a license plate from space – but with a tiny field of view that was like looking down through a very thin straw, to having surveillance satellites that have a broader field of view – more like looking through the garden hose. So the NRO is helping its budget by sending this now unneeded hardware to NASA, but the NASA folks are just a dumping ground for those former NRO costs unless the military step up and offer funds from their budget. After all the United States spends more money on military and intelligence space operations than on civilian space efforts. We could redistribute a bit of money.

Meanwhile for those that remember the GOP backlash during the Carter years about moving basic manufacturing and science research to the metric system, the recent NASA’s footage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch to the ISS, at 1:10 in the posted video, must be a funny ironic moment as the mission control operative’s voice tells us: “Altitude 5.3 kilometers, velocity 225 meters per second, and downrange distance of six-tenths of a kilometer.”

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