Author Topic: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency  (Read 18424 times)

Offline Proponent

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #100 on: 11/09/2017 03:32 am »
You could also look at the budget, but that is much more diverse than science.

Exactly what I was thinking.  Please find attached a breakdown of the major categories of NASA's FY 2017 appropriation, along with the relevant appropriation itself.

For each of the major categories (science, aeronautics, space technology, etc.), the spreadsheet shows both the appropriated amount and my own guess as to the percentage of spending in the category which constitutes science.  I don't expect everybody will agree with my guesses, but perhaps this breakdown will give us a clearer idea of what we disagree about.

I ignore appropriations for support functions, such as the OIG.  I presume that these support NASA's science and non-science functions in approximately the same proportions for which NASA has explicit budgets and therefore have little impact on the balance between science and non-science.

I would guess, in particular, that there will be howls of protest at my suggestion that only one-sixth of each of exploration and space operations counts as science.  For the latter, my rationale is that, as I understand it, most members of the ISS crew are fully preoccupied with simply maintaining ISS.  If you're lucky, one member is doing more or less full-time scientific research.  I then assume a similar percentage would apply to the exploration category.

With my own assumptions as to the percentage of each budget category corresponding to science (you can enter your own percentages), about 45% of NASA's expenditures turn out to be on science (higher than I would have guessed).  I would say that unless the science percentage is at least two-thirds, it would be misleading to describe NASA as a science agency.  That's not to say, though, NASA doesn't do a lot of phenomenal research.

P.S.  I don't think the discussion of JFK's views on NASA's function are very relevant.  In the sixties, NASA was largely about the non-scientific goal of beating the Soviets to the moon, but today's NASA is a different organization.
« Last Edit: 11/09/2017 03:42 am by Proponent »

Offline Coastal Ron

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #101 on: 11/09/2017 05:00 am »
I wonder if that is true. It seems that everything that NASA does for BLEO exploration is a lot more than it actually needs. The architecture proposed by Golden Spike or by SpaceX seems more reasonable and could fit within the current budget.

I think it's important to remember that NASA's budget is partially based on artificial factors, and that there are no constitutional limits as to how much NASA gets overall.

Some programs within NASA have hard budget requirements, like the ISS and robotic missions that need to launch at particular times, but for the SLS and the Orion programs they are transportation systems that are being built in anticipation of future BLEO needs.

The future needs for the SLS and Orion require one or more BLEO exploration programs to be funded, however the level of funding possible is not limited - NASA's budget could go up, even significantly, if Congress wants the BLEO program goals to occur sooner rather than later. For instance, $5B a year would be a massive increase for NASA, but it's a rounding error for the overall U.S. budget.

But increasing NASA's budget would probably require a goal that is perceived as very important to the U.S., and I don't think such a BLEO goal is likely to show up anytime soon, and I don't think Congress cares what Elon Musk wants to do on Mars. So NASA's budget will probably stay about the same, and any new BLEO programs will be shoehorned into that budget profile - regardless how much that stretches them out into the future.

As to the topic at hand, if NASA was mainly a Human Space Flight agency, then I think we'd see a much more cohesive set of plans and goals, well supported by Congress, and a higher cadence of activity than we've seen. The science part of NASA has a pretty good cadence of missions, even though they cost far less than HSF, but they do provide a consistent stream of results. Not saying one is better than the other, just that science has been a very consistent effort within NASA.

My $0.02
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?