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Lamentations

Neil deGrasse Tyson (stage left) is an American astrophysicist, science communicator, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and a Research Associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. Since 2006 he has hosted the educational science television show NOVA scienceNOW on PBS, and has been a frequent guest on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Jeopardy!.

He let loose a with a series of tweets today (@neiltyson) before the launch of STS 135, Atlantis. I'm going to quote a few of his tweets, and offer my own piquant observations.
@neiltyson Many lament the shuttle era's end. But that's misplaced sentiment. Lament instead the absence of an era to replace it.
He's absolutely right. As he would go on to tweet, we had Mercury leading directly into Gemini, which then led directly into Apollo and the moon landings. Unfortunately when they stopped Apollo at 17, launched in December 1972, there wasn't another manned program ready to launch like there'd been for Apollo. There was a confused pause on the part of Nasa, a troubling precident.

Nasa filled the gap, as it were, with Skylab. Skylab was launched 14 May 1973 (chronologically not long after Apollo 17) and stayed in orbit until it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 11 July 1979. A product of the Apollo Applications Program, it was one of two space stations that were meant to be orbited.

Trying to watch Atlanta
Waiting for Atlantis to launch

Unfortunately, due to budget constraints the second Skylab was never launched, and now sits as an exhibit in the at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. It never launched because Nasa's nascent Shuttle program was pulling in Nasa funding the way a black hole sucks in matter, leaving no funding to prep Skylab B and the Saturn V needed to place it in orbit.
@neiltyson No. I'm not in Florida for the launch today. I'm a much bigger fan of when things begin than of when they end.
Yeah, I kinda sorta know how he felt. I tried twice to win a slot on Nasa's Tweetup, but I lost out both times. I guess I wasn't important enough to rate.
@neiltyson The US military spends as much in 23 days as NASA spends in a year - and that's when we're not fighting a war.
and
@neiltyson The entire half-century budget of NASA equals the current two year budget of the US military.
When you consider the trillions spent everywhere else in the federal budget, it's amazingly hypocritical of Nasa's many critics to claim that Nasa's budget is a waste. Yes, there are overruns and schedule slips to the right for Nasa programs. But how many hundreds of billions, nay trillions, have been wasted on innumerable DoD contracts?
@neiltyson Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards thru time.
Or to look at it in a different way: Nasa's budget since 1975 has been 1% of the federal budget or less, too many times far less. The only time it exceeded 1% was from 1962 to 1974, with the development of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the launch of Skylab. A tremendous amount of science and engineering was accomplished in those days. Throttling Nasa's budget's to %1 or less of the federal budget since 1975 brought us the long-strung-out Shuttle program and the ISS over the next 30 years. And with the end of Shuttle, all we have left is the ISS.

Neil doesn't seem to have much use for commercial space (SpaceX, for example). The problem with that attitude is with a tacit approval of Big Space. Big Space is the same guilty group that have given us the Military Industrial Complex and the trillions spent and wasted on defense. Big Space turned the Shuttle program into their own personal jobs program. We got a very expensive spacecraft and a very expensive LEO space station that pretty much sucked precious funding into it, leaving little left for pure planetary science.

We need commercial space to actually give us what Shuttle promised and never delivered; low-cost access to space. Yes, commercial space will take us to where we've been before. But that's not the point. By way of analogy, the early microprocessors were giving us what we already had in minis and main frames. Except it made computing dirt cheap and extremely accessible. The explosion of creative that resulted helped shape the world we live in today.

It would be great if we could reproduce that same kind of explosive creativity for space travel. We won't have dirt cheap personal rockets, but we will have access to space orders of magnitude cheaper than what the old guard in Big Space have given us. And we need that. I don't ever want to see anything like the Shuttle program created again for the U.S.

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