NASA and Mission to Planet Earth

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I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on authorization of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mission to Planet Earth. I recommend that the program not be reauthorized. I offer three reasons for this recommendation.

First, Mission to Planet Earth is part of NASA’s pattern over the past 25 years of running costly, politically popular projects that are supported by powerful clients that receive taxpayer largess. NASA’s original mission was space science and exploration. The space program and NASA were born of the Cold War wish to wipe out the embarrassment of early Soviet space successes. While the government has a legitimate defense role in space, commercial ventures, and scientific research and exploratory ventures ideally should be carried out by the private sector. But in the late 1950s many Americans believed that only governments could undertake such endeavors.

The lunar landings forever will be celebrated among mankind’s great human and technological achievements. Yet today NASA is wasteful and ineffective, squandering the public’s good will, enthusiasm and tens of billions of dollars.

In the early 1970s, as NASA saw Moon landings curtailed and Moon bases ruled out, it sought to preserve its big budgets and staffs with another big project: the Space Shuttle. Sold to policymakers as a reusable and thus cheaper way to put payloads in orbit than expendable launch vehicles, in effect, NASA’s mission went from science and exploration to freight hauling.

But rather than proving a way to make space flight as common and inexpensive as air flight, the costs of putting payloads into space with the Shuttle have skyrocketed. It is difficult to get good numbers from impenetrable NASA accounting. David Gump in his book Space Enterprise estimates the cost in constant dollars went from $3,800 per pound under Apollo to $6,000 with the Shuttle. Alex Roland of Duke University estimates that the cost of a Shuttle flight, including development and capital costs, is not the $350 million claimed by NASA but closer to $2 billion, which works out to about $35,000 per pound.

As it became apparent in the early 1980s that the Shuttle was a costly white elephant, NASA needed a mission to justify the Shuttle’s continued existence. Aside from any purported commercial or scientific benefits, an orbiting space station seemed to serve this purpose. But the cost of the station went from a promised $8 billion to nearly $40 billion before the current stripped down $30 billion model was redesigned in 1993. (This number certainly underestimates real station development, construction and maintenance costs.)

All along NASA public relations efforts continued to charm the taxpayer with the wonders of space. School children were and are encouraged to think up experiments that can go on the station. And the first teacher was to go into space on the ill‐​fated Challenger flight. I do not deny the excitement of space exploration. I bemoan the sad spectacle of space enthusiasts defending programs that make space activities more costly and less feasible against critics who denigrate the importance of space science and exploration.

These programs needless to say enjoyed the strong support from the contractors that benefited from them. Indeed, the Station’s survival has been a testimony to the practice of giving out corporate pork and the influence the recipients have exercised over policymakers.

NASA in recent years has seen environmental projects as potential cash cows. Mission to Planet Earth is the epitome of such an enterprise. NASA in the late 1980s had to fight turf battles with other agencies for jurisdiction over satellites to monitor the environment. After all, if the Environmental Protection Agency needs data to fulfill its mission, that should be none of NASA’s business. NASA in effect muscled in on the territory of EPA and other government agencies. The mindset at NASA still seems to be that any activities that take place in space should be under its jurisdiction and supervision.

Typical of NASA’s political tactics, in February, 1992 it made screaming headlines with its announcement that a huge ozone hole could be in the process of opening over the Northern hemisphere. In fine print the data were skimpy at best. Still, the agency got the politically correct headlines as its funding was being debated. There were few headlines months later when no ozone hole developed.

A second reason for not reauthorizing Mission to Planet Earth is that this program continues to cement NASA and the government in exactly the mode of operation that discourages private sector development of space infrastructure, and that in part accounts for the fact that we do not have space stations and Moon bases at this time. If a government agency, say, EPA, needs data, it should purchase the data, not the hardware, from the private sector. Government agencies should not be in the business of launching remote sensing satellites into space nor owning those satellites. There are private sector providers that could collect the data, based on bids submitted to the agency wishing the information. This approach would help in the development of for profit, private sector alternatives to government functions.

Again, consider NASA’s history of protecting its budgets by freezing out true private sector alternatives. In the 1970s and early 1980s, has private launch companies were developing and offering creative and innovative services, federal agencies were prohibited from contracting with these enterprises. If in those years NASA had begun to contract out for services, to get out of the freight hauling business and back to science, we likely would have a vibrant private launch sector offering services for much less than NASA’s cost for such efforts. In the 1980s Space Industries of Houston offered to launch a mini‐​station for $750 million that could take government and other payloads a decade before the planned NASA station. The government would not contract with this private supplier.

Mission to Planet Earth is a project that continues this pattern of bypassing private sector providers, in this case, for remote sensing information.

The third reason for not reauthorizing Mission to Planet Earth is that its mission itself is of questionable value, based on political considerations rather than real science. It seems aimed more at selectively acquiring data to push politically correct agendas than to collect information that is urgently needed by policymakers but cannot be acquired by other, less costly means.

Fear of global warming was the major impetus behind Mission to Planet Earth. But each year reveals exactly what junk science this mission is based on. Rather than rehearse in detail the reasons why the global warming ideology is highly suspect and certainly does not deserve its own multi‐​billion dollar federal program, I will call your attention to the work and statements by Prof. Patrick J Michaels of the University of Virginia who has testified before this body on this issue at various times.

I would note that the computer models used in the mid‐​1980s to make the original global warming predictions also would have predicted, based on the data, that the atmosphere should have warmed up by 2.0° over the past 100 years. In fact, the real amount of warming seems to be about half a degree.

I also note that using ground‐​based data we find that much of this warming took place before World War II. Yet only about one‐​third of the greenhouse gas enhancement that supposedly causes global warming took place before the War. Two‐​thirds occurred after. You cannot have an effect, the warming, before the cause.

I note in addition that an article in the New York Times of March 18, 1997 on the influence of ocean currents on global climate suggests that oscillating temperatures are not due to manmade greenhouse gases.

NASA and the contractors working on Mission to Planet Earth want to keep the project going. This is hardly surprising. But thisu program is another example of the federal government’s misplaced priorities, an example of a program that never should have been started but possibly will continue on, sucking up taxpayers’ dollars. I hope you use this opportunity to reevaluate the mission before it becomes yet another unneeded government activity that policymakers are unable to kill because of the industrial and ideological clients it supports and who, in turn, support the policymakers.

Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
Committee on Science
United States House of Representatives