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Verbal Testimony by Miles O'Brien: Senate Hearing on NASA's FY 2011 Budget

Status Report From:
Posted: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

image Mr. Chairman - thanks for inviting me - it is a pleasure. I am a freelance journalist with about 18 years experience covering the US space program - most of that time with my former employer - a large cable news network. Since I moved on, I have been covering space on the web - in partnership with spaceflightnow.com. We offer continuous live interactive coverage of shuttle launches - and draw a large global audience - in the past few months we have been producing a weekly half hour program to the web called this week in space - which has become the definitive video chronicler of the events that bring us here today.

I also need to tell you I serve as Chairman of the Education and Public Outreach Committee of the NASA Advisory Council - but to be clear - my views expressed here today are my own.

Mr. Chairman, Washington - we have a problem - there is an uproar across the land over NASA's course change - and it says a lot about how the public is no longer in the loop with the space agency.

The headlines read "NASA cancels its Moon mission". Now I would submit to you most people reading those stories had no idea were were heading back to the moon in the first place. And guess what? we really weren't! The program - packaged as the "Vision for Space Exploration" - never got the promised funding - and its "vision" was clearly focused on the rear view mirror.

Constellation was touted as "Apollo on Steroids" but really it was a ninety-pound weakling - an uninspired attempt to bring back the magic. NASA was acting like the middle aged high school football hero who spends too much time in the local saloon telling tales of the glory days when he led his team to the national championships.

But the country has grown up and moved on - and it is time for NASA to get off the bar stool and do the same.

And that is exactly what I see in this budget. This is a grown up approach to space exploration - one that synchs the goals with national needs and budgetary realities. The space agency is getting a slap in the face. "Thanks, I needed that!" is what it should be saying. But that is not what we are hearing - change is never easy.

But wait a minute - isn't NASA supposed to be all about change? In fact, if it can't embrace - no actually invent - change - we should close the whole place down.

But wait there is more - because as much as anything else - what we have here is a failure to communicate.

While I give the Administration plan high marks for its steely-eyed reassessment of priorities - it did a horrible job telling this story. The headlines should have read: "Space is now open for business". Or - "Space travel now for the rest of us" Or "Space Station science gets a big reprieve" or "NASA to work on fixing air traffic delays" or "NASA to focus more on our favorite planet: Earth".

You get the idea. Instead we got a bunch of blue moon stories...

Why? Well for one thing my understanding is this decision was made in the White House office of Science and Technology Policy office - and was very closely held until the weekend before the budget rollout. They were reluctant to tell the kids I guess.

Even so, everyone in the Space Cadet Nation knew Constellation was a dead man walking. But denial is a powerful thing and so NASA was caught flatfooted - with no stretegic plan on how to explain the nuance of this story.

And let's face it the mainstream media doesn't have a clue either. Reporters who know some things about this beat have been unceremoniously dumped by the big papers and networks right and left - and many of them are now...well...webcasting.

So it is the perfect storm: the agency is not sold on the change...the communications plan is non existent...the reporters are not well informed...and the public is disengaged.

But the people like me who care about this have such a deep passion for it. In advance of this testimony, I sought their opinions via Twitter and Facebook - and I conducted an unscientific poll. I would like to have those comments and those results submitted as part of the record.

Like so many of the people I have heard from, I wish that NASA had not been painted into this corner. I wish that we could have been thinking about - and investing in the next great adventure for humans in space decades ago so that we would not face this huge gap in US human spaceflight capability - which could easily morph into an abyss if we are not careful.

But that is the hand we have been dealt. And trying to recreate the past - on yesterday's technology - is not something the public can or should support.

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