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NASA Space Science

Appropriations Bill Threatens Future Space Science Missions 233

Posted by Soulskill
from the give-us-plutonium-or-give-us-death dept.
ColdWetDog writes "A brief story in the Atlantic notes that the U.S. Senate's energy appropriations bill has failed to supply funds to continue Plutonium-238 production, needed for radioisotope generators for NASA's interplanetary probe programs. No PU-238 means no more missions like Cassini-Huygens, or ones that go places where solar cells won't produce enough power. The article notes that the only other source of PU-238 is Russia — either through the government or through trolling through Siberia and the Russian coastline looking for old Soviet Era lighthouses and power stations."
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Appropriations Bill Threatens Future Space Science Missions

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday September 12, 2011 @02:12PM (#37378936)

    NASA is toast. No politician wants to say it out loud, but they've been setting this up for some time now. The space race is over and they've been scrapping various parts of NASA for the last few years now.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by hedwards (940851)

      It's got nothing to do with the space race. NASA is one of the main agencies tracking climate change and it's a bit of an odd coincidence that the same party that denies climate change is the same party that seems to feel that NASA is no longer needed.

      • by Jiro (131519)

        The Democrats and Obama are denying climate change? Wow.

      • Florida and Texas, not exactly bastions of Democrat support.

        So I guess we could find any reason to support any outcome.

        It is far simpler than that, NASA does not generate sufficient votes and every dollar is now too precious to "waste" on science when it could buy votes. Sorry for being cynical but you sometimes cannot help it when you watch what they do

      • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Monday September 12, 2011 @02:32PM (#37379200)

        I think you're really over-thinking this. I don't think politicians are that sophisticated and I don't think climate change factors into thinking as much as you seem to think it does. If Republicans were so hung up on climate change why wouldn't they just cut funding to those specific agencies responsible for climate research. But it's irrelevant anyway given that climate research is done by far more people than simply NASA.

        This is how NASA gets screwed:
        Republicans demand spending is cut. They don't care how or what as long as it looks like they've cut something. Democrats refuse to cut government staff or social programs, anything that might secure votes, so they go after unpopular programs. The thing is that Democrats, like Republicans only care about the jobs of people who will keep them in power.

        NASA happens to be one of those unpopular programs. You have the conservatives who think the money should go to defense to protect us from terrorists.. And liberals think all that money should be spend here on Earth. But sides balk at the big price takes, ignorant of all the work required to conduct a successful space program. They are also oblivious to the huge long-term benefits of a space program, that you can't just will new technology into existence.

        The pathetic irony is that after all this we then have everyone lamenting about the loss of American technological superiority. Unfortunately, the problem starts at the bottom, with the American public's fixation on sports and celebrity culture. We've brought this on ourselves and we perpetuate it by resorting to checklist politics. God-forbid a liberal have some conservatives ideas, or a conservative some liberal ideas.

        • by vlm (69642)

          The thing is that Democrats, like Republicans only care about the jobs of people who will keep them in power.

          NASA and their infinite collection of subcontractors was always a decent source of STEM-type jobs. I suppose if the kids today are smart enough not to go into STEM fields because all those jobs already have or soon will go to Chindia, then there is little lost by getting rid of the govt cheese jobs.

          They are also oblivious to the huge long-term benefits of a space program, that you can't just will new technology into existence.

          Technology is for China and India. We will become a nation of small retailers at the low end, like "pirate costume stores" and at the middle-higher end we will become rich selling each other insurance policies

        • by asylumx (881307)

          God-forbid a liberal have some conservatives ideas, or a conservative some liberal ideas.

          So true! It's hard to be a moderate because those liberals think you're a conservative, and those conservatives think you're a liberal!

        • by jd (1658)

          It's not even just long-term benefits. NASA does an awful lot of engineering work for American aviation (military and civilian), which has very immediate benefits for places like Boeing.

          And, yes, you're absolutely right about the technological superiority thing. It's not limited to space tech - it's very debatable as to whether it would be even possible to re-import a lot of the tech jobs (such as plasma TVs, digital cameras, etc) back into the US due to the total lack of the necessary skills and experience

      • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Monday September 12, 2011 @02:36PM (#37379226)
        The article refers to the Senate approprations bill. Are you aware that the Senate is controlled by the Democrats? Which means that this appropriations bill was almost certainly written by a Democrat staffer.
        It was an Obama appointee to head NASA who said that his number one priority as head of NASA was outreach to Muslims. That sort of priorities on the part of the Administration might explain why NASA is being dismantled. Well, that combined with the fact that most NASA employees are in Texas and Florida, states that most likely will vote against Obama next year (OK, Texas will certainly vote against Obama, and Florida will likely vote against Obama).
        • by vlm (69642)

          Well, that combined with the fact that most NASA employees are in Texas and Florida

          Ah but they've got sub contractors all over the country. In fact you can't really do anything there without involving as many states and districts as humanly possible. Its actually getting to be a problem, as the intentional destruction of our industrial capabilities means more and more work simply can't be done here anymore, and its not like China or India need foreign aid.

        • But yeah, you know, good point.

        • by gad_zuki! (70830)

          >It was an Obama appointee to head NASA who said that his number one priority as head of NASA was outreach to Muslims.

          An appointee was talking about something about Muslims you say!?!

          Show me the change in the mission statement, show me the change in the missions. Oh you can't. You're just parroting Hannity, Rush, and O'Reilly with your meaningless drivel.

          >Well, that combined with the fact that most NASA employees are in Texas and Florida, states that most likely will vote against Obama next year.

          Flori

        • At the start of this administration, Alabama's 5th district (Marshall Space Flight Center) had a Representative on the Energy and Commerce Commitee. He, being an idiot, switched parties and lost his position on a powerful comittee and essentially was useless until he was voted out of office last November. I'm sure he wasn't the only NASA proponent in the House, but he certainly cost NASA.
      • by erroneus (253617)

        Yes. It's going from bad to worse. Some would argue that the government has never really supported the interests of the nation but have always supported the interests of business. I can't agree with this in its entirety or there never would have been a NASA and we would not have had child labor laws, the FDA and more. That's not saying they are doing what they should be doing or that they aren't doing enough, but they exist and at one time or another, did serve the interests of the people.

        These days, we a

        • Yes. It's going from bad to worse. Some would argue that the government has never really supported the interests of the nation but have always supported the interests of business. I can't agree with this in its entirety or there never would have been a NASA and we would not have had child labor laws, the FDA and more. That's not saying they are doing what they should be doing or that they aren't doing enough, but they exist and at one time or another, did serve the interests of the people.

          As a matter of p

      • by vlm (69642)

        It's got nothing to do with the space race. NASA is one of the main agencies tracking climate change and it's a bit of an odd coincidence that the same party that denies climate change is the same party that seems to feel that NASA is no longer needed.

        For the religious types, facts opposing them encourage them, shows the devil cares enough to try to tempt them.

        I think its probably more a factor of apathy. Some paleo-conservatives on the far left believe there was or currently is a garden of eden across the planet and if we have to commit civilizational suicide so New Orleans sinks beneath the waves in 200 years instead of 100 years, well then lets fire up the ovens and sharpen the hatchets. Everyone else is like "eh".

        Where I live has been under a mile

        • by jd (1658)

          It goes without saying that the two shuttles that exploded did so during political stunts where NASA was under extreme pressure from government to play up for the cameras rather than pay attention to the engineers. I don't know enough about the situation surrounding Apollo 1, but it wouldn't surprise me if grandstanding was a factor there as well. Hmmmm, come to think of it, how many actual (non-natural) disasters haven't happened due to grandstanding? The Titantic ploughed through a known ice field in orde

      • by Biff Stu (654099)

        It has nothing to do with climate change. Satellites in Earth orbit that study climate change can get plenty of power from solar panels and will eventually de-orbit. Nobody wants to release Pu when these satellites de-orbit. The Pu is reserved for missions to the outer planets where there is not enough sunlight to power the spacecraft.

      • I don't think so. As some have pointed out.

        Florida, and Texas are the states with the most to gain from NASA Existence and those are States that do have a history of switching parties and hold a good amount of votes.

        If they are going to "Debunk the Myth of Global Warming" they are going to need more Complicated Facts in which they can twist around. NASA would be a great tool of that you get a lot of complex data, easy to "Mathify" (Like Quantify but used to obscure vs. enhance) to make your own personal c

        • Except that the Senate is majority Democrat, not right wing. The Right typically likes NASA, as you said, it goes hand in hand with the military. According to TFA, the House (Republican majority) recongnized the problem but didn't do anything about it, and the Senate just ignored it entirely. I don't think it makes sense to politically polarize this issue as they're both doing it.
        • by jamstar7 (694492)

          The real problem isn't some grand scheme against NASA or a conspiracy. It is just the Right Wing has gotten Nutty Right and doesn't like any Government funding for anything.

          ...that isn't connected to defense spending.

          Fixed that for ya.

    • by durrr (1316311)
      NASA is toast, because with the next-gen USA the bankers will recive so much in never-ending bailouts they can start their own space agency.
    • by 0racle (667029)
      Add to that that no one has the balls to look at defense or education spending. Cutting NASA's funding ($17b*) will totally make more of an impact than looking at Defense ($613b*). More money has been spent on Air Conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan than is being spent on NASA.

      Americans spend more on pizza [universetoday.com] every year than they do NASA.


      * - 2009 budget levels.
      • by sjames (1099)

        Besides that, we were supposed to be out of Iraq by now. I'm pretty sure the ROI on blowing up brown people is terrible.

        It's fine and dandy if the world actually needs us to keep the peace, but I say let the market decide. Send out bills and wherever it's not paid, withdraw.

  • Not a problem. We'll just rely on the Russians just like with manned access to the ISS. What could possibly go wrong?

    • They'll have plenty soon.

      • by Hartree (191324)

        "They'll have plenty soon."

        They might even be willing to deliver it.

        • by rubycodez (864176)
          actually, that would be far beyond their abilities to produce, and at any rate useless for a bomb. while fissionable isn't fissile.
          • by Hartree (191324)

            "actually, that would be far beyond their abilities to produce, and at any rate useless for a bomb. while fissionable isn't fissile."

            Questionable how far beyond.

            In quantity, yes it would be difficult but not because of lack of knowledge.

            Natanz isn't set up for it (not got the right neutron spectrum being a light water power reactor). But, they have a reasearch reactor (forget the name of the site) that could be set up for it. Whether they've bothered, given all the work they've done on enriched uranium is a

      • "Hello Iran, you want a nuclear programme? Well I'll tell you what, how about we lend you some gear, and we'll send over some guys to help you run it? Great! Now, when you get pretty good at Pu-238 we're going to want to buy everything you make. Oil? Nah, keep it..."

  • by Anonymous Coward

    That means no more Explosive Space Modulators for Marvin to use to threaten to blow Earth away!

  • well according to star trek at least... only about 50 years left until first contact

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday September 12, 2011 @02:24PM (#37379102) Homepage

    Many short-lived isotopes are in short supply. There's very limited US tritium production, medical radioisotopes production is so limited that there are medical shortages, and there are fewer research reactors operating. Transmutation is almost a dying technology.

    Most of the radioisotopes were made in facilities built for bomb programs. Both the US and the USSR now have far too much bomb-grade PU-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. The giant nuclear facilities of the Cold War are mostly idle, or are hazardous waste sites.

    The smaller nuclear powers are mostly separating uranium isotopes, which today is a centrifuge operation carried out in plants of modest size. The old gaseous diffusion plants were huge - square miles of plant.

  • So let's see, SSC canceled but that was a while ago. James Webb Telescope on the chopping block, probably gone. Tevatron closing (and yes, the Tevatron does a lot of work that can't be done at the LHC. It uses lower energy but a different set of collision types). And now this. At this point it really seems like the US is just giving up at doing interesting science when it has anything like a big price tag where a big price tag means a price tag that is a tiny fraction of the military budget.
    • Yep. It's like at some point we just sort made a collective decision in this country to just suck. Seems like we're giving up on big science and engineering altogether.
  • From what I understand, all the Pu238 really does is generate heat, which is used to power spacecraft. Aren't there designs for tiny fission reactors which will accomplish the same thing using enriched Uranium (of which we have plenty)? Wouldn't this be an excellent substitute? I don't think it's a safety issue: If they blow up on launch, it's still less radiation spilled than Pu238 logs that we use now, and if they melt down in deep space, it's not our problem.

    What am I missing?

    • Yes, the Russians have been using these mini-reactors on some of their missions.

      http://www.space4peace.org/ianus/npsm2.htm#2_2_1 [space4peace.org]

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Monday September 12, 2011 @02:45PM (#37379332)

      Complexity and weight. A radioisotope thermal generator has exactly zero moving parts. It is almost literally a sphere of nuclear unstable metal, surrounded by some thermocouples. You really can't get much simpler and hardy than that.

    • by gewalker (57809)

      What you are missing is how radioactive Pu-238 is compared to U-235 / U-238

      Pu-238 half life 87.7 years. U-238 4.5 billion years, U-235 713 million years, so using pure U-235 the material is 8 million times less radioactive. -- So, you need a corresponding bigger lump of U-235. Needless to say, this is quite a different thing.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Fundamental minimum mass of a fission reactor is immense compared to the minimum size of a RTG. Also "no moving parts" fission reactors are hardly off the shelf, although there are theoretical ideas based on pebble beds. I would imagine a pebble bed reactor in zero-G transitioning to midcourse thruster acceleration would be quite a handful to theoretically simulate.

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        Your are right. You can make RTGs the size of a coin. But the you can make reactors pretty dang small. The Snap-10a was only 600+ pounds.

        • by compro01 (777531)

          Great, that's only 20 times the mass of the trio of RTGs on Cassini. And it produced a whole 3/4s the power. And was supposed to work for a whole year (vs. 13 and counting for the RTGs).

  • Some speculations (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Xacid (560407) on Monday September 12, 2011 @02:54PM (#37379420) Journal

    I know we all love our space projects here and I'm no exception - but the reality is that part of recovering from this unfathomly huge deficit is cutting spending.

    If you were looking at your finances and were trying to take care of your debt aggressively you'd cut damned near anything not necessary. I can't really fault the politicians for this per se, but if they're going to make the programs we love suffer they need to continue cutting elsewhere as well (which appears to be happening relatively slowly and painfully). I've heard them mention there'd be sacrifice and thus I'd also like to see them cut their own benefits and salaries; however, I haven't seen such occur yet. (If it has and I've somehow missed it by all means educate me).

    My questions to you all:
    -If we start slashing budgets in this manner how does this affect jobs? Obviously there will be layoffs but will it be on a scale that's more/less devastating to our economy as a whole?
    -Would you approach this specific funding issue differently?
    -What else would you cut?

    • by Microlith (54737)

      I'd start with defense spending, as well as Social Security and Medicare reforms. For instance, would it not make sense for the government to negotiate the price of drugs and equipment they buy for Medicare/Medicaid, instead of being legally barred from doing so and paying whatever obscene price the manufacturer asks? Then I'd pare down in order of budget size.

      Attacking NASA while refusing to even look at defense spending or Social Security is them saying "I refuse to even approach the problem," not that th

      • It is financed entirely by dedicated taxes and presently has a surplus. There is certainly trouble ahead but in the near to mid term Social Security spending does not contribute to the Federal deficit and cutting Social Security spending will not reduce the Federal deficit.

        On Defence, I agree with you.

    • Re:Some speculations (Score:5, Interesting)

      by robot256 (1635039) on Monday September 12, 2011 @03:52PM (#37380062)

      1) I heard recently that the reason unemployment remaining flat because the government as a whole is cutting jobs (mostly contractors) at the same rate the private sector is creating jobs. That sounds pretty significant to me, maybe you wouldn't call it "devastating" but it's definitely relevant to the discussion.

      2) Science and technology investment, of which NASA is a part, is precisely that: an investment. Infrastructure, education, health care, and environmental regulations are also investments that increase productivity over the long term. Cut them, and you reduce economic output (and tax revenue) in decades to come.

      3) Things that could be cut with fewer long-term consequences: tax breaks, subsidies, and foreign wars. Also social security reform with means testing, and a health care system that does not involve siphoning billions of dollars into the pockets of insurance executives.

      BTW, I don't know why people (including Obama) think cutting business taxes will spur hiring. No business is going to hire unless they see demand for their services, and demand is spurred by consumer wealth, not business wealth. Unless the people who are actually employed get paid more, they will not increase demand and businesses won't hire, no matter how "cheap" employees become.

    • by jd (1658)

      Actually, no. I side with Keynes to some extent on this. To cut deficits when in a recession, you have to increase spending (in the short term), but you should also increase taxes for the wealthy to cover the increase in spending (since resources don't vanish, a recession is ultimately a hoarding problem).

    • by blueg3 (192743)

      Well, if I scale the federal budget down to the size of a (relatively large) household budget, since "running government spending like household spending" seems to be a popular meme, I get that this program would cost me less than $1 a year.

      I think if I was in debt and trying to cut spending, taking any appreciable amount of time to figure out how to cut $1 a year is not going to be a worthwhile investment, especially if that limits my future ability to do useful things. Kind of like saving money by not rep

    • I've got bad news for you: Despite the current unemployment rate being "high," there are too many people working. Those people are getting paid, in part, by the trillion dollars a year the federal government is borrowing with no plan to ever pay it back.

      Here's the funny thing about money the government spends: nearly every dollar ends up employing someone. Go ahead, let that sink in.

      Every dollar the government "pays" is in salary for a federal worker (employment) or benefits (which employs people who provi

      • by blueg3 (192743)

        Raise the Soc/Med age to the average age of mortality for people who live to 18

        Since the SSA has historical data on survival probability going back to, roughly, its inception, there's a more clever way of adjusting this. Look at the probability of surviving to the retirement age when SSA was instituted, and pick the age such that you have the same probability of surviving to retirement now. (SSA already provides data limited to people who survive to adulthood.)

        There's a bit of drift in men vs. women, but it works out to about 3 years, if I remember correctly. Oddly, that happens to be

    • by suresk (816773)

      The simple fact is that budget cuts will be made based on what is politically easiest, not based on what will save the most money or will be best for our long-term future. Congress is trying to drum up loose change from the couch while ignoring where the bulk of our spending actually goes. We'll cut (comparatively) tiny amounts from research, while leaving intact hundreds of billions in spending to fight an enemy that stopped existing decades ago.

      To put it into perspective, the CBO estimates NASA has cost u

    • by sjames (1099)

      Funny thing though, we're still in Iraq, which seems to offer no ROI at all. We're wasting billions on the TSA which is currently 0 for 2 and shows no sign of improvement.

      So, get the hell out of Iraq and get the Corps of Engineers busy rebuilding infrastructure. It's cheaper, provides economic stimulus, and actually does offer a return on the investment.

      A 10% cut in DoD spending would finance all of NASA 3 times over.

      Where military action is actually necessary, drop cheap dumb bombs, not expensive smart on

    • by gad_zuki! (70830)

      > but the reality is that part of recovering from this unfathomly huge deficit is cutting spending.

      What? NASA is 17 billion annually, or less than 2 months in Iraq. Our defense budget is 600billion not counting our wars. Or war spending during Bush is in the TRILLIONS.

      I hate fuckers who want to cut science or education or medicare because they voted GOP and wanted to go to war but now refuse to make rational cuts in defense and war spending. We're spending ourselves stupid because all the proposed cuts

  • Am-241, while only producing 1/4 the power of Pu-238 for a given volume, will output for centuries with its nearly 500 year half life. Much better for long term missions.
    • by 0123456 (636235)

      Am-241, while only producing 1/4 the power of Pu-238 for a given volume, will output for centuries with its nearly 500 year half life. Much better for long term missions.

      How many 500-year missions does NASA have planned right now?

      America probably won't exist in 500 years, let alone NASA.

      • by rubycodez (864176)
        after 25 years, you'll find your pu-238 battery is down to 80% of its original output, but the am-241 is still 96%.
    • by erice (13380)

      Who needs a probe that can remain electically powered for centuries? Most missions are limited by limited by fuel for maneuvering thrusters. Needing 4x the mass for electrical power likely means less fuel. You could switch to ion engines, which are thriftier but but then you need much more electrical power, which you won't have.

      • by rubycodez (864176)
        How about a probe that can remain electrically fully powered for 50 years? Pu-238 will have 66% of original power, but am-241 will be 93%.
    • by compro01 (777531)

      Closer to 1/5th the power, and that's not counting the inch of lead you need to surround the thing with.

  • Have they tried the Brits? They had a very extensive nuclear power programme and there are all kinds of used nuclear fuels from all the magnox and AGRs lying around at Sellafield.

    Surely there must be something there that they can use?

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