Are We Alone – Gone Missing: Alan Stern

by Gary Niederhoff on January 24, 2011

Part 2 of Gone Missing, featuring Alan Stern, aerospace consultant and planetary scientist.
(TRT 5:17)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve Bergman January 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I’m a bit uncertain about this segment of the show. Alan Stern makes some very provocative allegations regarding the efficiency of NASA, going so far as to say that he thinks we could get twice as much mileage out of the available funding. He declines to address the issue of how much funding is appropriate in any absolute sense, presumably because his focus is on wringing the most science out of what is available. His comments have the ring of reasonably possible truth. If he is correct, it would be great. Heads could roll. (Mike Griffin’s already has.) And we might have, e.g., WFIRST and TSSM, and LISA, in addition to EJSM.

We must be very careful, here, of course. The late 90’s and early 2000’s “faster, better, cheaper” initiative was a mixed blessing. We were crashing probes on Mars faster than we could construct them. There is such a thing as too much parsimony. Still, it would not surprise me to find huge wastage and inefficiency at NASA. The points raised were worth consideration.

Having kept an eye on NASA’s budget over the last few decades, it seems pretty clear that the US public is unwilling to spend much more than the current $1 per week per capita. (Although I would gladly spend much more.) The only realistic hope that I see lies in stretching those dollars. I conceded that it may or not be realistically possible to do much more than we are doing.

And yet Seth’s summary was “let’s hope NASA gets more funding”, apparently dismissing Stern’s points. And then there was the bit about “showing Stern the door”, which I didn’t get at all. Maybe I’m just dense today, or missing some important background context.

Did AWA intend any of this as editorial commentary? Or am I reading too much into it? It may well be that I have such strong feelings on these issues that I’m perceiving an editorial commentary where none exists. I had the same feelings back in February during the Burt Rutan interview. Seth seemed angry. But I couldn’t tell for sure. Of course, I was dealing with so many (in my opinion, irrationally) angry people during that time that it was hard to keep track.

If someone from AWA has a moment, I would be interested in any elaboration they might care to make on these topics.

To be clear, I consider AWA and the the SETI Institute Colloquium Series to be top quality programming. Some of the very best available in the science popularization arena. No criticism is intended. But I’m interested in whatever editorial comments AWA team members might care to make.

Steve Bergman

avatar Seth Shostak January 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Thoughtful comments from Steve. Alan’s remarks are based on his considerable experience working with NASA. His suggestion that there might be a factor of two efficiency improvement possible for the Agency is obviously not a frivolous comment, as he’s been directly involved with some of NASA’s bigger missions.

Yes, you’re correct in noting that he didn’t wish to address what the CORRECT funding level of space research ought to be, but it is worth noting that since 1975, non-defense related spending on basic and applied research as a function of GNP has risen about 25% in the U.S. We’re definitely in the top tier of spending on space, scaled to the population.

Oh, and the comment about “showing Alan the door” was made by Molly only in reference to Alan’s humorous disclaimer that, as a rocket scientist, he had troubles finding his way out of a building! So I wouldn’t over-interpret this banter.

— Seth

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