The Space Shuttle, the Space Cadet and the Debt Ceiling

I feel less isolated, suddenly. Here is what Prof. L. Krauss, a physicist, says about the end of the shuttle program in the WSJ of July 23-24 2011:

The lion’s share of costs associated with humans into space is devoted, as it should be, to making sure they survive the voyage. No other significant science has emerged from a generation’s worth of round trips in near-earth orbits.”

I couldn’t have said it better. I did not say it better because I was not sufficiently well informed. My instincts were right on the mark, however. I have grown tired of my intelligent radio programs being interrupted by an announcement that the shuttle launch had been postponed, one more time, because of weather.

I was always open to the idea that the space program had produced tangentially a lot of useful discoveries. But, when challenged, supporters mainly named Tang, the syrupy, disgusting, artificially colored orange juice substitute. Moreover, I never heard anyone in the program’s thirty years address the opportunity cost of public spending on the shuttle. If the federal government had spread the $50 billion it cost in the past ten year among one hundred research universities, would the scientific harvest have been superior or inferior? Even better: If the federal government had organized a scientific grant lottery of $5 billion each year open to anyone with modest scientific credentials, how would the results have compared? Don’t be quick to chuckle; don’t assume the answer is obvious.

Once, just once in my life, I got a glimpse of NASA’s work. (NASA’s main facility is practically in the backyard of the university where I taught.) One day, I made an un-reflexive disparaging comment in class about NASA. An MBA student, a man in his early thirties, a NASA researcher tried to lash out at me. Well I told him, perhaps I am prejudiced; take a few minutes to enlighten me, and probably some of your fellow-students as well, on scientific and other advances we owe to NASA. (Just because I am the instructor does not guarantee I am also the most ignorant person in the classroom, after all.) The student proceeded to describe the robot on which his team and he had been working for several years. It sounded very interesting. I would have like to see a documentary on the near-creature. Apparently, no one had thought of documenting this exciting project for the general public of unwashed taxpayers.

The shuttle program and, probably, all of NASA should have been cut off public funds long ago for its public relations failure alone. I am glad it’s over. The termination of this government endeavor may yet make room for leaner, more efficient, commercial ventures. Those will be ventures that will have to convince me that I should give them my money. Meanwhile any closing of a large federal program is a step in the direction of solving the underlying problem of the federal d.

The debt ceiling melodrama continues. It’s too complicated for normal people with a job and/or children to follow every melodramatic development. Newsbabes of all sexes are increasingly confused. Some speak of “saving the economy.” Wait a minute, it’s the federal government ‘s debt we are talking about. Some of us cherish the thought that if the federal government tanked durably, the national economy would improve!

In the meantime, many Americans are not getting excited because they are just as smart as I am. They are guessing that the last chance is not really the last chance. Suppose the Democrats and the Republicans don’t agree to a tangible deal that raises the debt ceiling enough to satisfy the ones while cutting federal expenses enough -and with enough certainty – to satisfy the others. The rating agencies will probably respond by downgrading US federal debt. If such a measure held, it would mean that the federal government would have to pay more interest on the next dollar it borrows. That might not be a bad thing in itself. It would provide another reason for exercising borrowing restraint.

In fact, however, this is not a likely scenario. Instead, having bluffed each other to the edge and beyond, the two parties can change their minds the next day. From no agreement on August 2nd to a short-term agreement on August 10 is eight days. If the parties agreed to a new debt ceiling on August 10th with a large and well guaranteed cut in federal spending, the rating agencies would turn on a dime. The US federal government would have existed for eight days with something less than its traditional triple A rating. No big deal, I think. In fact, I doubt that the rating agencies or any of the big banks have contingency plans to print anything reflecting such a lowered rating on August 3rd. In fact, I would bet good money no one does.

The least useful actor in this melodrama has been the President. His grandiloquent manner with respect to things over which he has little influence is beginning to get to some on the left of the center. I think he does not understand the issues at all. I think he does not understand much of what’s in his bailiwick. His best credentialed advisers are gone. There is hardly anyone left around him to guide him. It’s kind of pathetic, really. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. I have been telling you all along, even since the campaign: He is not Hitler; he is not Stalin; he is not even Mussolini; he is not even Peron. He is just not competent enough for the position and not flexible enough to get help.

I read Peggy Noonan faithfully although some of her analyses befuddle me. The thing, is, you can always count on Peggy for good formulas. She is a mistress of the “two for one” bitchiness. She did it again in the WSJ (July 23-34 2011). Describing President Obama’s oral performance regarding the debt ceiling negotiations, she says:

He’s like a walking headache. He’s probably triggering Michele Bachmann’s migraines.”

I wish I had thought about it. It’s good at my advanced age to still feel intellectual envy.

Visit  the “Generation Y”  blog by activating the link on my homepage. You will be astounded and impressed by a display of raw intellectual courage. The author is a young woman writing from Havana, Cuba. The Communist authorities in Cuba don’t dare close her down because tens of thousands worldwide are watching.

If you read Spanish, you can accede her blog in the original by activating the “Generacion Y” link on my front page. (I don’t know how to from accents on this blog support; sorry,)

About jacquesdelacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Current Events. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Space Shuttle, the Space Cadet and the Debt Ceiling

  1. Martin Anding says:

    Too many topics in one post!I heard recently that that is a considerable waiting list for people to use the Hubble Telescope – lots of ideas to test, competition. The Shuttle was instrumental years ago getting the Hubble working. But that’s the only positive thing I can say about it. On the other hand one of the shuttle’s main goals was to get stuff and people to and from the space station. The space station has also been a bit of a bust bringing up experiments designed by high school students – not exactly a bunch of PhDs fighting for time.
    What’s really weird is that it looks like the new NASA/space exploration budget is LARGER than the old – thousands laid off, plans canceled, fuzzy goals and it still needs more money.

  2. Bruce says:

    Here’s a summary of what we got for our $50 Billion;

    1. A sports bra made from a material also used in shuttle spacesuits helps to reduce “mammary bounce”.
    2. A type of synthetic netting used in shuttles has also been used in the decks of racing catamarans.
    3. A composite material developed by Babcock & Wilcox for use in certain kinds of tubing on the space shuttle was later also used for “improving golf clubs” by providing “maximum distance”.

    The manned space program was the perfect government program. Spend an “astronomical” amount of tax money to create lots of high-paying government jobs with little or no accountability for producing anything except blasting people into space and bringing them back the same number of times. Even this did not always happen.
    After the politics of putting a man in space to keep up with the Soviet Union, and the bragging rights of being the first to put a man on the moon, the rest was mostly a waste. I don’t doubt that they will continue to spend tons of money, even though no more shuttles will launch, it’s such a hard habit to break. My guess is that they will find continued employment elsewhere in government for the displaced workers, especially if they’re protected union employees. Maybe Obama could hook up the rest with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for training as “community organizers”. If they don’t meet the “requirements” for that gig, maybe they could teach high school math and science.

  3. David says:

    “1. A sports bra made from a material also used in shuttle spacesuits helps to reduce “mammary bounce”.”

    Talk about a complete waste of money…there’s no need to reduce that…

  4. Martin Anding says:

    Facts matter. After posting that the NASA budget was increasing I checked the facts. The budget is actually decreasing a couple of percent.
    http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/04/15/congress-approves-1845-billion-nasa/

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