IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
President Obama rolled out his proposed budget for the new fiscal year, and despite his pledge to freeze domestic discretionary spending, science seemed to largely avoid the chopping block, at least for now. There is proposed increases for the NIH, the NSF and the Department of Energy. NASA gets a boost, too, but minus its mission to the moon. We'll talk more about NASA later.
And for the first part of this hour, we're going to look at who might win some and who might lose some when it comes to science spending, and will Congress go along with what the president has in mind, or does Congress, as usual, have a mind of its own?
Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us. Our tweet is @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and you can join the crowd in Second Life.
Let me introduce my guests. Tom Kalil is deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Thanks for being with us today, Tom.
Mr.�TOM KALIL (Deputy Director for Policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy): Happy to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Jeffrey Mervis is deputy news editor for Science Magazine, and he joins us from our studios in Washington. Hi, Jeff.
Mr.�JEFFREY MERVIS (Deputy News Editor, Science Magazine): Hi, Ira, thanks for having me.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Dan Kammen is back. He's professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory there. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dan.
Professor�DAN KAMMEN (Professor of Energy, University of California Berkeley): Thanks, great to be with you again.
FLATOW: Jeff, let me begin with you. An article in Science starts with the line: What's not to like? What is not to like, Jeff, about what's going on in the budget?
Mr.�MERVIS: Well, as you said, the major science agencies do get an increase: NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science for the Department of Energy. And while the budget is important, it's not just the numbers that are important. It also is important because of what it says about the capacity to do science.
Last year, the scientific community got a $20 billion increase in that capacity. It's as if the government said we're building a wing onto the science infrastructure, but this year, there isn't enough money to furnish that wing. Researchers are being told they need to find the money to furnish it, and a lot of the community is concerned that they won't be able to do that. They use the term continuing the momentum, and that's the big question for a lot of scientists looking at this budget.
FLATOW: Do you think Congress is going to be happy about the numbers it sees?
Mr.�MERVIS: I think Congress is supportive. Science is a bipartisan issue. In fact, the doubling of the three major agencies that you just mentioned began under the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has continue to support that.
It extended it by a year, which is about a billion dollars or so for the National Science Foundation, for example. Congress likes that, but Congress has a lot of other things that it likes and that it needs to fund and starting with jobs being number one and then going through health care, financial reform, climate change, energy, terrorism, immigration, education. Research is far down that list, and that's always the problem.
FLATOW: Tom Kalil, but the budget does give money to stimulate science. That might create jobs there.
Mr.�KALIL: Yeah, that's right. I mean, one of the reasons that President Obama made a decision to support increases in public and private investment in research and development is that it's a critical element of his overall national innovation strategy. And he believes that if we invest in R&D, that helps create the foundation for the industries and jobs of the future.
So for example, past investments by the government in R&D have led to breakthroughs like the Internet and GPS and the entire biotechnology industry.
FLATOW: The administration has singled out autism and cancer research specifically to get more money. Why those two?
Mr.�KALIL: Well, I think obviously because of the huge burden of disease associated with both cancer and autism, but also he is increasing support for biomedical research across the board. And under the leadership of our NIH director, Francis Collins, we're also emphasizing areas like genomics, translational research, the support that research can provide for health care reform and global health and also just more broadly reinvigorating the biomedical research community.
FLATOW: But according to Dr.�Collins, who, as you say, is the head of NIH, he says that he expects the success rate, the chances that a submitted application for any individual investigator, is going to go down now because of the NIH funding.
Mr.�KALIL: Well, the budget does provide an additional billion dollars, and we believe that is a very healthy increase in an environment in which overall domestic discretionary spending is being frozen.
It is true that during the Recovery Act, Congress provided an additional $10 billon in biomedical research, and that is going to lead to somewhat of a cliff in terms of funding.
FLATOW: Mervis, Jeff Mervis, how do you feel about that?
Mr.�MERVIS: It's the cliff that really is the concern for the community, as Tom said. If the number of new investigators goes down, then that increased capacity to do research won't be satisfied because scientists will submit their proposals to NIH, and with a success rate of 10 percent or less, most of them will not get funded, and academic research lives on federal funding. Universities only provide a small portion, and industry provides only about seven percent. That's why the administration would like industry to step up, and I think scientists would like that, too. But so far, it hasn't happened, and you can understand why because this is the kind of basic research that may take 20 years or more to pay off.
FLATOW: And do you think scientists are happy about when the president singles out specific areas of research like he did for autism and cancer, or do they want to be told where they should be spending their money in basic research?
Mr.�KALIL: They would prefer to be given a free reign, but they realize that they are using taxpayer money, and so the president and Congress certainly has every right to tell them.
There is flexibility, however, if I can use the DOE budget, the Department of Energy. The Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu, decided to place a large bet on a new agency called Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy that's supposed to hit homeruns. In doing so, he actually gave that agency, which has no budget right now, more money than a $5 billion Office of Science program, which has existed for 40 years and supports all the national labs. He's betting that a small, nimble agency can produce better and more important research than a large, conservative organization. So even within a flat budget, you can move money around and hope to have an impact.
FLATOW: Dan Kammen, the president, as Jeff was talking about, is giving $300 million to something called ARPA-E, which was described by the president's science advisor as sort of a DARPA for energy research. Is that a good idea?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, I certainly think it is. I mean, the idea here is to give an agency the mandate not to do conservative steps and, you know, the goal is to really go for swing for the fences, to go for programs that really could change things to bring the cost of solar dramatically down, to make energy storage ubiquitous and cheap, to find ways to integrate energy technology and information technology in very new ways.
And certainly at a time when so much is changing on the international competitiveness front we talk a lot about what's going on in China having this sort of group really makes a lot of sense. And so I think it is it's certainly a good bet.
It is a tricky one, though, in the sense that you know from the outset that you are not going to get to see lots and lots of short-term successes. That's not its mission. And so I think it's a bold and important move, but it's one that needs to be supported and nurtured.
If you ramp up the money for something like ARPA-E for a little bit, and then it goes away, you don't get there. And so really, I see this as part of a longer-term commitment that the president's making to ramping up our science and innovation capacity to address all the issues, from climate change to international competitiveness, to energy security. So I think it's right - it's right where you'd like to see bold efforts.
FLATOW: Tom Kalil, the White House was pointing to the DARPA Find This Balloon contest, which we ran a lot with here on SCIENCE FRIDAY, as an example of the kinds of outside the thinking box outside-the-box thinking that might work. Is that the kind of projects were thinking of here?
Mr.�KALIL: Yeah, no, absolutely. So the president has asked agencies to increase their use of prizes as a tool for stimulating technological innovation because we have growing evidence that establishing a prize, setting an ambitious goal and then letting lots of teams have at it is an incredibly cost-effective way to stimulate innovation.
Obviously, it's not a substitute for the support for long-term, university-based research, but we're really seeing with the X Prize, with the DARPA Grand Challenge for Unmanned Ground Vehicles and this fascinating Red Balloon challenge, which was really all about how you crowd-source solutions for generating real-time information, we're seeing the powers of prizes and challenges.
FLATOW: Leslie(ph) in West Bloomfield, Michigan, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
LESLIE (Caller): Hi, got a question for your panel. It's my first time on SCIENCE FRIDAY.
LESLIE: Thank you. Now that science, for lack of a better word, has been made sexy on TV with such shows as "CSI" and "NCIS" and "Numbers," what about science education?
I mean, the president specifically mentioned that in his State of the Union address, and at a time when budgets are being slashed, where is the federal government going to step in with some money for science education?
FLATOW: All right, let's ask Tom Kalil.
Mr.�KALIL: Yes, absolutely. In fact, in the president's FY11 budget, he provides a 40 percent increase for STEM education. That's science, technology, engineering and math, in his at the K through 12 level. And also, he is leading an initiative called Education to Innovate, in which he's saying that there's a lot the federal government can do, but we also have to get companies involved, foundations, nonprofits, grass-roots volunteers. And he's launched a series of initiatives starting in November, continuing in January.
One example is called National Lab Day, that listeners can check out at nationallabday.org. This allows teachers to post a hands-on project that they're excited about and then have scientists, engineers and other volunteers sign up to help them with that.
Mr. MERVIS: Ira, can I...?
FLATOW: Well, hang on, because we have to take a break, okay? And then we'll get right back to this. I don't want to give you 10 seconds and see the music it's in there and then it sounds bad. You'll like it better later. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break, and we'll talk more with Tom Kalil, Jeff Mervis and Dan Kammen. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and hang out there with all those folks in the cool costumes at Second Life. So we'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, and we're talking about the science budget, the upcoming budget, which you know is really like a year away. It doesn't happen this - the end of this year. The fiscal year started, you don't want to know, it's 2011, with Tom Kalil, he's deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Jeff Mervis, who is deputy news editor for Science Magazine; and Dan Kammen, who is professor of energy at the University of California Berkeley.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255, and S-C-I-F-R-I, @scifri. A listener had asked a question about science education, and Jeff, you wanted to jump in there.
Mr.�MERVIS: Yeah, I just wanted to say that was an excellent question. The picture is a little bit more complicated than Tom may have indicated. The overall federal budget for science, math and engineering education is actually flat because that includes higher education, and that raises a real dilemma.
Universities are being asked to train more students. The president has said we need to be number one again in the number of college graduates we have. Everyone applauds that. But just yesterday, Yale University announced it was cutting its graduate class by 15 percent, and the reason is it doesn't have enough money to afford them.
So there's definitely a problem out there. The federal government is not a major player in science and math education. That's up to the states and the local governments, and they just don't have the money in the current recession.
FLATOW: I've always wondered how that is. You're absolutely right because all the school budgets, local school budgets, come from your taxes and things like that, and there's hundreds of billions, who knows, maybe trillions of dollars involved in these things. And I've always wondered how the federal government can play some role with the what seems to even a few billion bucks if it is to be just a drop in the bucket for a total education budget that's really local. Tom, how does that work?
Mr.�KALIL: Sure. Let me give you one example. Secretary Duncan, our Education secretary, has launched an initiative called Race to the Top, in which he is providing $4 billion, which is being made on a competitive basis as opposed to going out on a formula basis. And that's really encouraging states to embrace bold education reforms around improving teacher quality, for example, turning around failing schools, making sure that they're embracing common standards that are benchmarked with international standards.
And as part of that, the Department of Education and the president have said that we're going to provide extra points for states that put STEM at the center of their education reform efforts.
FLATOW: Because there are some states, like California, that are totally wiping out science, because of their budgetary problems in the state, from their curriculum.
Mr.�KALIL: Sad, but true.
FLATOW: Let me go to you, Dan. Being in California, let's talk about something that got a real big boost, and that's nuclear power.
Prof. KAMMEN: That's right. Nuclear got you know, the most high-profile thing is it received about a factor of three increase in the loan guarantees available, and this is, you know, going to be a very interesting statement. There was already lots of discussion about it. One is that, of course, loan guarantees can be a quote-unquote "great deal" because if you provide them, and you don't have to cash in on them, it can be a really cost-effective way to spur new development. On the other hand, it does put the government on the hook for a huge amount of money if they default, and nuclear's track record has been tricky.
The other feature that's gotten a lot of attention and discussion, of course, is that we're pushing forward on new nuclear in the country, and the president two weeks ago announced a blue ribbon commission to review and evaluate our nuclear fuel our waste-fuel storage options. And so we don't have an answer on that yet. It's probably not critical because that group will come back within - with its recommendations within the next year and a half or so, and plants take quite a while to be built. But it does set up this sort of interesting dichotomy, that pushing ahead on new nuclear generation but not yet having the plan in place, the waste-management storage site.
FLATOW: By that you mean Yucca Mountain is gone as an option.
Prof. KAMMEN: That's right. Yucca Mountain is not the only thing, but it is certainly central to what this panel is going to be examining.
FLATOW: Why does the nuclear industry needs subsidies, stimulation? I mean, if it's going to be competitive, if you want it to be competitive with other alternative green energies, why does it have to be subsidized? Why don't you subsidize, you know, windmills and solar power and everything to the way you would be subsidizing nuclear energy?
Prof. KAMMEN: so, there's a couple aspects to that. One, of course, is that we subsidize essentially almost all the energy technologies. Right now, wind and solar receive subsidies. There's a production tax credit, investment tax credits. So they are receiving subsidies, and their proponents argue that they're needed to bring them into cost competitive on a landscape that's tilted towards the incumbents, and I share that view myself.
At the same time, while nuclear has been around for a while, we haven't built a new plant in over three decades now, and the issue is that nuclear plants are, as they're built today, extraordinarily expensive in the up-front costs. They can be $10 billion or more in so-called overnight in the construction costs. It's not overnight, it takes a long time to build. But what that does mean is that without some certainty and some support there, both that the market will be there and also a way to overcome that really huge price tag, it's a tricky venture to get into the process of building new plants. And starting in the 2007 energy budget, there have been new monies put on the table. The estimates are that there are probably enough monies in the budgets to build a small fraction of the 25 to 29 new proposed plants that are out there.
And so, it's a jumpstart but also a buildup of a new industry, and watching some plants that are being built around the world right now - there's a very high-profile case of a French plant being built in Finland, and the cost overruns on this plant that were it was designed to be a very lean operation, have been staggering. And so we clearly need to learn a lot more about building these plants properly if we're going to go ahead in terms of the logistics, the licensing, the cost of actually doing it if it's going to be competitive, and when thinking about the long-term mission, which is this low-carbon, energy-secure economy, it does appear that we really need this, and we don't know how to do it as of yet.
FLATOW: They also talked about the president was saying he wanted to have clean coal, if that's not an oxymoron.
Prof. KAMMEN: Right, and there's quite a bit of money now put in for clean-coal work, and there's a couple aspects. One is, of course, we get almost half our electricity from coal. So if we can capture those emissions and store them safely, there's a big plus, but there's a big international piece of that, too.
While we get 49 percent of our energy from coal, China is in the 66-or-more range. And if we really do want to partner with China, as has been discussed quite a bit in terms of how we're going to move ahead on the climate side, having joint programs, having technologies to share, this is certainly a big area. And so there's a real logic to putting it in here.
There are real questions, though, as to whether carbon capture and storage, CCS, as it's called, is, A, going to come in at a reasonable cost when we try to do it at a commercial scale, and when it will be ready. There is an issue that we really need to get on with the decarbonizing of the economy, and it's hard to envision that this technology that exists only now in some very small pilot plants is going to be ready for primetime all that soon, and that's a real concern. You might get it right, but you might get it right too late for the party.
FLATOW: Yeah, Tom, let me ask you about that. How is work going on in carbon sequestration? We had a program not too long ago about Lamont-Doherty at Columbia University here finding a way to sequester all this carbon at the bottom of the oceans here on the East Coast, where all of the basalt deposits are way underwater when you pump down CO2 into the basalt down there, it actually turns into calcium carbonate. It turns into limestone and it stays there forever. Are people looking at things like that in the White House?
Mr.�KALIL: Yeah, no, absolutely. And that's one of the areas that ARPA-E is looking at, as well: Are there some new approaches to being able to sequester carbon that would be a lot less expensive than the current approaches. But we also have to support some of these demonstration projects so that we can have some real-world experience with this.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, John(ph) in St.�Louis. Hi, John.
JOHN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm wondering about my step-son told me about a current project, sort of a very large laser array project, that's got (unintelligible) where they're finally generating - maybe a military, perhaps maybe civilian energy - but they're finally generating a net gain.
FLATOW: Oh, the nuclear fusion.
JOHN: It's a fusion reaction, yes.
FLATOW: Dan, you want to talk about that?
Prof. KAMMEN: Sure, so this is very exciting. I mean, the idea here is it's actually a project taking place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and this is essentially to use lasers, very powerful lasers, focused on very small targets so they actually look like little, tiny gold capsules, actually, to ignite fusion. And right now they are at a very exciting point. They are getting these very, very short-term-but-net-positive energy issues.
The issue, of course, is that this is a huge facility. It's a massive building and project, and it is the kind of thing that, funded well for a short time, doesn't get you there. It needs to be funded well for a longer term. If we can get fusion out of the sort of the joke category, where everyone likes to say it's been 50 years away for 50 years.
FLATOW: It's always 30 - that was my line. It's always 30 years away.
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, but this is one of the two most-promising approaches, and again, the sort of positive energy that they are getting out of it highlights its potential. We have to sustain it, though, and that's actually why I think this budget's so interesting.
Even though we don't yet have a climate plan in the country, if you look at the budget, it does have a plan emerging. There is new money for basic research from solar and wind, these projects, but there's also a lot of money in the deployment and demonstration. There's efforts that would send money to the states for their energy programs. There are, again, these loan guarantees. There's new money for the Office of Science, and there's a great deal of money for energy efficiency and weatherization. So this administration has taken seriously what research has been saying for a long time, and that efficiency is your first and best approach, and needs that long-term support.
FLATOW: How do we - how is Congress - and you can jump in here, Jeff, because maybe you followed - how is Congress going to play with all of this money? Are they going to see the same priorities?
Mr. MERVIS: Well, I think that's a good question. Just to follow on what Dan said, the other major fusion project is an international collaboration in France called ITER, it's a fusion reactor, and this budget includes a considerable cut in funding for that project. And the reason why is that they've had technical problems. The joke about fusion is, unfortunately, still real enough to have an effect. They have extended the schedule to the point where Steve Chu decided they don't need the amount of money that the U.S. promised. So instead of $135 million, they're only going to give $80 million. Of course, if other countries do that, then ITER will never get built and fusion will remain in the distant future.
But more broadly, Congress isn't going to go for all of these things. Congress, as you'll talk about later with NASA, is not going to be happy with that reallocation and savings. And the reason that's important to the rest of the science budget is because NASA is funded by the same committee that funds the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce, which has NOAA and NIST. And so if they have a fixed amount of money, the more they give to one agency, the less there is for everybody else. So sometimes Congress makes decisions not because they're opposed to research, but because they have other higher priorities.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Tom Kalil, how do the - I'm trying to see the process by which these things are chosen and the other things eliminated. Were there surveys taken? Did you all sit around in a room and look at all the budgets and see what needs the highest priorities? How did this happen?
Mr. KALIL: Sure. Well, the reason that the president decided to provide more money for research and development even in a flat budget is - as I mentioned earlier, that his belief that R&D helps to create the foundation for the industries and jobs of the future. And second, that R&D can help us meet a wide range of key national goals, whether it's developing clean sources of energy that reduce our dependence on foreign oil or allowing Americans to lead longer, healthier lives. Third, that by investing in R&D, particular in our nation's universities, we're helping to prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, the young boys and girls who are going to come up with the idea for the next Google or Genentech. And then, finally, advancing the frontiers of humanologists and in itself.
So a lot of research is motivated by what we still don't know. So we don't know how human consciousness emerges from 100 billion neurons. We don't know why the universe is expanding in an accelerating rate.
FLATOW: All right. Let me remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Dan, in a couple of minutes we have left, what would you like to see in the budget or move money around in energy that is not there?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, I think that in my particular area, everyone is kind of focused on their own, is that solar gets a pretty substantial increase, about a 30 percent increase right now. I am most concerned on both opening of new frontiers and really competing on the global stage, that there is a suite of renewables: solar, wind, energy storage. These are critical areas, and I like the increases Ive seen. I also like the fact that a number of these got profiled in the ARPA budget.
We need to build out the markets, and these increases would really need to continue for a while. But we're going to have to really get that energy bill and that climate change issues back on the national stage to make sure that we build out markets. And those two things will go together and the president has a tough job on the climate change bill after what happened in Copenhagen. But that really is the other part of the story. Spending on R&D is excellent. This is the first time we've taken it really seriously since President Carter. But we need to have those markets and that...
FLATOW: And with China building everything now - they're building the wind turbines, they're building the biggest world - the biggest solar panels now -how do we bring those jobs here to this country?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, there's two parts of it. One is that the U.S. though is still in a very important - you can argue who's number one or two but - I mean, very much in the lead position on innovation and innovation drives these industries. These industries, we and others have shown, are very large jobs creators. So I'm not worried about China's ramped up production. (Unintelligible) the more China gets engaged in being a leader on this process, the more there really can be a clean energy dialogue between two nations. And we're seeing parts of that now despite some of those sort of high level battling going on. That's critical. What we arguably have (unintelligible) the U.S. is a really good R&D shop, and our markets need to catch up. China is mainly focused on the manufacturing side. That's not a bad back and forth, but we've got to build all of pieces of that here in this country.
FLATOW: Jeff, what happens now here in Congress?
Mr. MERVIS: Well, there will be hearings and there will be committees that will take up the bills. And as I said, even though they support individual agencies, they will have to be mindful that issue arise whether there are new terrorist attacks or immigration or other issues that will take precedence. I think what the academic research community would really like to see is stability. They would like to be given a long range promise about how to furnish that additional wing that they've been given. But unfortunately, Congress goes year to year in budget appropriations, and so that's why they don't get that kind of consistency.
FLATOW: And any...
Mr. KALIL: And the administration is trying to provide that stability by pledging to complete the doubling of three key science agencies: the Department of Energys Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, which is the only agency that has the responsibility of supporting all areas of science and engineering and the social and behavioral sciences as well, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today, and good luck to you.
Mr. KALIL: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Prof. KAMMEN: Thank you.
FLATOW: Tom Kalil is deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Jeffrey Mervis, deputy news editor for Science Magazine - that's published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dan Kammen is distinguished professor of energy at the University of California and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. He's founding director of the renewable and the appropriate energy laboratory there.
We're going take a short break and continue to talk about a very controversial part of President Obama's budget, and that is what happens to NASA. What happens to space exploration, with the president saying we're going to nix that plan to go to the moon, we're not going to build those space boosters that we've already spent billions of dollars developing. Where do we go from here?
We'll have Andrew Chaikin, a noted author, will be with us; and Marcia Smith whos been following space for as long as I have known her, which is got to be decades. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
Up next, NASA. NASA gets a new direction and it's not towards the moon. The space agency got a boost in the president's budget. NASA's overall budget would be increased by $6 billion over the next five years, but one thing that's not going to stay on that balance sheet much longer: the Constellation program. That's the multibillion-dollar program for sending astronauts back to the moon. President Bush said that that's where he wanted to go and set us on that direction.
But citing a review panel called the Constellation program's - a review panel that called the Constellation program's goals unexecutable, the administration - the Obama administration - has axed it, at least for now. Congress may feel differently. We'll see what happens when that budget gets there.
And speculating and talking about the budget with me are my guests, Andrew Chaikin, author of "A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts." He joins us from Vermont. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Andrew.
Mr. ANDREW CHAIKIN (Author, "A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts"): Thank you, Ira, it's nice to be with you.
FLATOW: Thank you. Marcia Smith is founder and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com. She's also the president of Space and Technology Policy Group. She joins us from Arlington, Virginia. Welcome back, Marcia. Good to have you back.
Ms. MARCIA SMITH (Space and Technology Policy Group): Delighted to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
FLATOW: Well, what is your reaction to this? Is this a radically - a radical change in NASA policy?
Ms. SMITH: Yes. This is a radical change in NASA policy. There's - you can look at it different ways, of course, and I think that the position that NASA is taking is that they are not walking away from human exploration, and they're not walking away from the moon and Mars and going to asteroids.
It's just that they are walking away from the Constellation program, which was - or is the current approach to accomplishing that, because they say that - it is not executable. But it was not executable primarily because of money. It wasn't that the program was badly managed. It just didn't get as much money as it was supposed to. So some people are wondering, well, why don't you just put more money in the Constellation to make it executable.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the answer to that?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I think that remains to be seen. I think that's what's going to be debated in Congress over the next several months because theres been $9 billion spent on Constellation already, and NASA is requesting $2.5 billion more to cancel it. That's all their termination liability because of the contracts they signed.
So people are saying, what is this compelling reason that makes NASA want to change courses in midstream, having invested what will be a total of $11.5 billion in this program. And NASA's answer is basically that they want to move away from NASA being the agency - the government being the entity that launches people into space. They want to turn that over to the private sector.
Ms. SMITH: And NASA's role will be to invest in technologies. And so NASA would be getting out of the human space flight business, but not the United States.
FLATOW: Andrew, the history of space flight has always been to find your mission and then build the hardware. Here it seems to be, lets build the hardware and see what we want to do with it.
Mr. CHAIKIN: Well, I'm going to differ with you on that, Ira, because the only time - actually, if you go back and you look at all of our space programs, the only time when NASA was handed a mission and their job was to design hardware to accomplish that mission was Apollo. Actually, Mercury was created before Apollo just to see if we could put people in space. But after that, it really became something different, and I think you can't talk about this history without looking at the political background.
You know, NASA has been trying to relive Apollo in many ways or had been trying before Constellation, not realizing that Apollo was a fluke. It was a proxy for a shooting war, and that's why it was funded the way it was. When they tried to do the shuttle, you know, Congress and the Nixon administration wasn't really going to go to that funding level so they said, well, we'll give you a fraction of what you asked for and you can take it or do nothing.
So same thing, in a way, happened with the Bush administration and Constellation. The Bush call to put people back on the moon and send them to Mars eventually sounded great to all of us people who are passionate about exploration. But when it came right down to it, the money was not there to do all those things, not especially when NASA had to keep flying the shuttle for a while, then find a replacement and keep the station going.
So I think you have to realize what we're talking about here. We're not talking about canceling a moon program. There was no moon program. NASA was working valiantly, and my hat's off to everybody who's been doing such amazing work trying to make it happen for less money than they needed. But the fact was we were not going back to the moon.
FLATOW: You mean, now with a budget like that, if you really wanted to go the moon, you're saying, you would have really fully funded it.
Mr. CHAIKIN: Well, it isn't just about the current rocket that they're building, the Ares I, which, by the way, I take Marcia at her word that it was a well-managed program, but I have to say that there's been an awful lot of discussion in the space community about perceived technical flaws with Ares. I'm not sure that Ares was such a great way to replace the shuttle, but be that as it may, that was a vehicle that was just designed to get humans up into Low Earth Orbit. And yet, it was not going to be ready until 2017 at the earliest, based on the funding they had.
And even then, you weren't going to go beyond Low Earth Orbit without another program, an expensive program, which I think is worthwhile, to build a heavy-lift vehicle to send people and landers and all kinds of other gear to the surface of the moon or to beyond, you know? So really, we're only talking about, how do you replace the shuttle for getting people to and from the station?
And that's a test that we tackled 30 40-something years ago with Project Gemini. I mean, I'm not talking about it in terms of size, obviously, Constellation Orion was going to carry seven people, Gemini carried two. But I just want to point out that NASA started the Gemini Program in '62 and flew the first mission in '65. So this is not, you know, something that we...
Mr. CHAIKIN: ...we haven't done before. We ought to be able to figure out how to do it the way the Russians do. They've been flying their Soyuz booster since basically 1957 with a few modifications along the way. They charge $25 million for a seat, and yet the projected cost for every Ares I launch was something like a billion dollars a launch, which is (unintelligible)...
FLATOW: Now, let me break - Marcia, why not just take some of the hardware that we have and some of the rockets that we've been using for 30 or 40 years, strap them together with the parts that we know that work and just use those as the launch vehicles for going to the Space Station?
Ms. SMITH: Well, first let me answer the question about Constellation being well-managed. I there's been a lot of talk about this Augustine committee that looked into options for the future of the human space flight program, and they looked at Constellation and their conclusion was that Constellation was a well-managed program and that it was well thought out. Its only problem was that it didn't get the funding that it needed. So that was really their judgment, not my own, because I'm not really qualified to judge how well-managed it was.
But there was a debate, of course, before they started Constellation, as to whether or not they could do this using existing rockets, the Atlas and the Delta. And for a variety of reasons, NASA went through this exercise called ESES and they came up with the conclusion that the way to go was with Constellation. And so, the question is, do you want to go back and revisit all of that, or that decision having been made and $9 billion having been spent on it, do you want to walk away from that sunk investment go on...
Mr. CHAIKIN: But Marcia...
Ms. SMITH: ...looking at Atlas and Delta or some of the entrepreneurial things like the Falcon.
Mr. CHAIKIN: Can I ask - Marcia, can I just ask you something, because I know you're very insightful about these things. Was the choice of Ares, do you think purely a technical one or was it driven by a desire to keep as many of the shuttle workforce employed as possible without switching gears from that hardware?
Ms. SMITH: I wouldn't be surprised if there was an element to it of trying to have some heritage back to the shuttle program, but I really think it was driven by the ability of Ares I to feed into Ares V...
Ms. SMITH: ...which was going to be the vehicle that actually got us back to the moon and on to Mars.
FLATOW: Okay. Let me we're running out of time because I want to get to a couple of other issues, and that and specifically then, if we're not going to the moon with the Obama administration, I mean, specifically, what are we going to do with the astronaut corps? What happens to the astronauts now? Do they vanish? Do we...
Mr. CHAIKIN: Well, they ride Soyuz for a while.
Ms. SMITH: They're going to be going up to the Space Station.
Mr. CHAIKIN: They ride Soyuz for a while. And then, if people like Elon Musk can deliver - which is not a sure thing, but I don't think we should jump the gun and say it's unlikely - if they deliver with their Dragon capsule, then they ride that.
FLATOW: He didn't get any of the money the president gave out the other day.
Mr. CHAIKIN: Well, he's been using his own money. And if he he's also been awarded a contract by NASA to keep working on providing those services of getting to and from the Space Station, which by the way, you know, there are no pain-free choices here. The Space Station costs a tremendous amount of money that sapped other exploration programs, but it's up there. And it seemed insane to abandon it and not have NASA using it after 2015 or whatever it was. So, one thing the Obama budget does is extends that to 2020. So that's what the astronauts will be doing as far as we can see.
Ms. SMITH: We say on the one hand, people are saying, you've sunk all this money into the Space Station so you should keep using it. But they're not saying, you've sunk all this money into Constellation so you should finish what you started. And I think that one of the risks that NASA is taking with this new strategy is this decision I'm calling it, whiplash, because we've all been through it so any times is that this is just yet another program that NASA is stopping after having started it.
After the Space Station decision, you know, which was made back in 1984, then they were going to do the National Aerospace Plane. That didn't work out. It got cancelled. Then they had the Space Exploration Initiative. That didn't work out. It got cancelled. Then they had X-33, didn't work out, got cancelled. The Space Launch Initiative, the Orbital Space Plane and now Constellation - and you look back over the history of the past 20 years, and you just ask yourself, how much money have we spent on changing horses in mid-stream?
And can you believe in this program anymore than one should have believed in all the others that came before it and ended up being cancelled? At some point, you just have to pick a program and see it through, which is what they did with the Space Station, which was way over cost and took way longer than anybody expected to get it built, but at least they stayed the course with it. So at what point is NASA going to do that for the next round of human space flight?
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And of course, they've been successful with their unmanned space flights. Look at Hubble, look at all the Mars probes, things like that.
Ms. SMITH: Well, they've had their failures along the way as well. And people get upset about them when they happen and then they forget about them. But they did loss those two Mars probes in 1999, for example, and Hubble didn't work for the first three years that it was up.
Mr. CHAIKIN: You know, there are going to be failures and it's going to be interesting to see, if we do start going with commercial companies to launch our astronauts, whether the public and Congress are tolerant of failures in that setup just as we have witnessed the reaction to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
Now, my feeling is we are still trying to achieve what NASA said they wanted to achieve with Shuttle, back in 1972 when they started that program. Remove this $10,000-a-pound barrier to simply getting up into orbit so you can do all the cool things you want to do. Thats the big cost. Its like, you know, you want to get in to New York City but theyre charging you a $5,000 toll just to get over the bridge, so you cant do all the cool stuff you want to do without paying a lot of money.
And I the Soviets have the Russians have figured out how to do that. We should try as hard as we can, use our best minds. And I like the emphasis on innovation in the new budget. We should try and finally skin that cat.
FLATOW: All right, we have to take a break and say good-bye to our guests. Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Marcia Smith, founder and editor of SpacePolicyOnline. Shes also president of Space and Technology Policy Group.
Thank you both for taking time to be with us.
Ms. SMITH: Thank you, Ira.
Mr. CHAIKIN: Thank you.
FLATOW: Youre welcome. Im Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.