Saturday, March 12, 2005

NASA Science and Singular Fiction

So, excessive speculation about NASA is going to get me into trouble, but why not live dangerously...

Several things have happened recently: there are reports of imminent layoffs of ~ 15% of the workforce NASA Watch story here. Basically Glenn, Langley, Stennis and Marshall are in big trouble for various reasons, ranging from having no major indispensable and immovable projects, to being political irritants for trite reasons. Ames may get major restructuring, possibly shifting (in part?) to a JPL like contractor center (there are UC signs inside the base already), and I suspect some people, for diverse reasons, would dearly like to see some of the land behind the fence being sold to developers and zoned for residential housing...
Kennedy and Johnson are politically immune and Goddard seems to have maneuvered to safety. Mostly. I could be wrong, but that's how it looks to an outsider.
Then, there's this - shutting down old, "past primary mission", but still operating spacecraft. NASA has always been prone to this, the money to keep these missions running is not provided up front and something has to give, but this is sign of some serious belt tightening.
Then there was the removal of the "wall" between "Exploration" and "Science" within NASA - funding can now be redirected between directorates, by the administrator, with some disgression. I have not heard any discussion which involves scenarios where exploration surplus boosts science projects - it is all pointing to the bleeding of science projects to support exploration shortfalls. Since exploration engineering projects can get very expensive, this can sideswipe a lot of science with little or no warning (ie inside a single budget cycle).
Then there is the change in accounting procedures, while it is reasonable for science missions to pay the "true cost" of launch services, as opposed to hiding the cost of some projects in the large standing budgets in other areas, the costs that are being estimated seem, again to an outsider (and, mercifully, a non-accountant) to be classic "dumb math", with sunk costs counted, and marginal costs ignored. I could well be wrong here.

At the same time, NASA has a very major new directive, negligible new funds to carry out this new mission, and a promise to the community to keep the various science sub-fields alive, if not thriving.

It can't be done - either there will be major and massive cuts (the scope of the problem is, for example, ALL of Earth Sciences to be cut, which ain't gonna happen, though expect to see them take a big hit some late friday afternoon), or NASA will get significant new money within the next budget cycle. Which it will not.

For example, upcoming projects require heavy launch to LEO and beyond (like any Prometheus class mission, and trans-LEO human mission) just as the Shuttle is to be decommissioned. With ISS to be abandoned there is also no place to assemble missions (and ISS is in a poor orbit to do that anyway). Delta Heavy and Atlas 5 ain't gonna do it; the Russians don't have anything and I don't see billions going to France for Ariane 5s. We're waiting for magic to happen, while relying on, what is to put it politely, obsolete jury-rigged crap artillery. And while there is some movement for private development, there's not exactly a development path from Space Ship One, to a launcher which can put 30+ tons into LEO. Maybe one of the private companies is sitting on the equivalent of a Sea Dragon, but for NASA to bet on that for what is basically their mandated future path beyond 2012 is insane. But they have no funding for a heavy. Maybe that is why Griffin brought up the old Shuttle-C variant. here for AstroNautix launcher list.

I expect "planets" will do fine, both inside and outside the solar system, and one or two other areas will go on, as proof NASA still does science. But the rest of the community will be devastated, with uncertainty and rapidly changing directions dominating the next few years in space science. This will not exactly cause a rush of of talent into the field, which is already hurting (for instance, the delays and uncertainty about the future of the Beyond Einstein missions has been doing damage, people and institutions made major committments based on the 2003 announcement of a committment to a research line, which a year later was wiped (and is not slowly crawling back in pieces here and there)). There is a balance between when you stop backing a losing proposition, and when you just capriciously change things on a whim with no stability, and while I happily accept that NASA has too often failed to let go when it should, swinging to the other extreme is not an improvement.

On a different note - Premack and Premack have a letter in Science, 4 Feb, 307, 673, citing a paper I have not read which purportedly demonstrates (some) animals can indeed do comparative arithmetic without having hard numeral arithmetic. Figures.


Appropriate author, and one of my favourites, former Comp Sci Prof V. Vinge.

Author of "True Names" a long out of print classic story about life online; now available. Also wrote two classic space operas, A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky; as well as the "Peace War" series, including the Libertarian Utopian classic short story "the Ungoverned".

But Vinge is best known for his promotion of the concept of the technological "singularity", aka "Rapture for Nerds". It is a very interesting concept, delving into hard Artificial Intelligence, but conceivable in the absence of it. It basically postulates that some development trends are faster than exponential, in fact going to essentially singular behaviour in finite time. I'l return to that later.

good fan site here at Caltech

recent short story published by IEEE available here

Most strongly recommended for hard science fiction fans.


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