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The Remote Sensing Problem

Over at the Washington Post, in discussing the coming crisis in weathersats, the editorial board can't resist taking an ignorant dig at George W. Bush:

The reasons for this outlook are many — some overspending on certain projects to the harm of others, costly congressional mandates that diverted resources, and a recent rocket accident. Even if those factors were ignored, says Dennis Hartman, the chair of the panel that produced the report, agency budgets would still be too low to keep the country’s earth observation system in reasonable shape. The NRC proposes restoring NASA’s earth observation satellite funding to the level seen in the late 1990s — before President George W. Bush reprogrammed money from those satellites into things such as manned spaceflight to Mars. That level stands at about $2 billion. [Emphasis added]

There were problems with George Bush's space policy, but shifting funding to humans to Mars was never one of them. Bush's plans were for a lunar return, not a Mars mission, though one was envisioned as a follow on in the 2020s.

NASA has spent exactly zero dollars toward sending people to Mars, unless you count the money wasted on an unnecessary new heavy-lift rocket which might, theoretically, play a role in such a mission decades from now, but whose primary mission is to sustain what remains of the Shuttle workforce with its jobs in key states and districts.

And that's the real problem -- NASA's budget is held hostage by those few in Congress on the space committees who want to direct it to their constituents, and who are relatively indifferent as to actual progress or results. If they want to free up budget for new weather satellites, the Space Launch System would be a great source of funds, at the two billion per year that Congress insists on wasting on it. It could fund not only remote sensing, but also fully fund the request for commercial crew, to accelerate that program and reduce the time that we are dependent on the Russians to get Americans to orbit.

But even if the money were forthcoming, it's not clear, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that the traditional NASA procurement approach is the best one. Even if one believes that procuring remote-sensing data for public use is a legitimate role of government, it might be better to actually procure data, rather than hardware. With a data-purchase plan, NOAA would specify what data it wanted, at what resolution, and how much it was willing to pay for it, and let the private market provide it in a competitive manner, rather than NASA contracting out the building and launching of satellites for it. There are already private remote-sensing providers, and this could provide a market opportunity for them to expand their services, with likely much more innovation and competition (perhaps using cheaper launchers such as those provided by SpaceX), if only the Congress and administration would allow it to happen.