Wish I could say that a Republican president would never pull something like this, especially when the speech touches on potential cuts that affect the workers in question, but this sort of audience-rigging is often par for the course for presidential stagecraft. I don’t know what he was afraid of — he’s been heckled before and has righties like me offering him political cover to scale the agency back — but I guess it makes sense that a guy who’s enough of a control freak to bring a teleprompter to a school is also enough of a control freak to handpick the people who get to listen to him talk about asteroids.

Now that I’ve knocked him, I’m going to let some people knock me. We got two interesting e-mails in response to my post yesterday, one from someone associated with the shuttle program, another from a professor of aerospace engineering. I invited readers to tell me why we shouldn’t cut deeply into NASA. Here’s why. First, a pep talk from the shuttle worker:

I’m not going to get into spin offs, or for every dollar in supposedly 8 dollars come back. NASA is supposed to do one thing – inspire. Does it do that? I can’t answer that, only you and the general public can. But if a space program wasn’t important, why would Russia have one when they are more cash strapped than us? Or why is China planning on going to the moon by 2020? Or why is India , Japan and Europe working on their on systems? It shows technological achievement. It shows national pride. Maybe, like Obama, you don’t believe in American pride anymore but I think you do.

Some people/students go into engineering, math, physic, etc to work at NASA, not for the money but for the goal. They believe in the American spirit of pushing the frontier. That there job is special and worthwhile. I’ll be honest, I’m sure I can more a lot more money in other fields. I have multiple degrees and I’m still relatively young… I chose to be a NASA because it gives me pride to be an American. To feel that I am helping America’s future.

NASA’s budget is about 18 billion dollars. It used to be about ½ percent of the budget and now it’s even small[er]. If you think that will balance the budget that go for it. Cut it completely. My understanding is that while 18 billion dollars is the budget, we don’t get all of it. It goes to entitlements etc. Also, manned space flight only gets a portion of that money.

The problem with NASA at present is that Obama and Charlie haven’t given us a goal. For Obama, it’s just about votes – if you noticed he ignored Texas and promised Florida the world, I mean Moon. Obama doesn’t believe in any mission but Obama. He said he wanted to kill manned space flight before the election and no-one should be surprised now. All this talk about private industry is just words by him. I believe in private industry, I just don’t believe they are ready yet. They are doing what NASA did in the 60s. We are turning our access to space over to private when they haven’t shown they can handle it yet. I hope someday they do but they have a long way to go. Once they show a reliable to get into space, than I’m all for it. But I’m not for some vague future of promises.

Now the professor, who makes some of the same points:

1) The “space exploration vs. fiscal responsibility” argument is misleading, if not wrong. NASA’s FY2010 budget is around $17 billion. Which is about 1/20th of Medicare, or roughly the amount spent on Pell grants each year. It’s a little less than the unemployment extension bill just signed. (Aside: NASA’s budget is about half of Apple’s annual sales.) Eliminating NASA would not make a dent in anything but the economics of the eastern Orlando area and south Houston.

2) Setting aside the giggle factor (thanks, Bruce Willis & Michael Bay), the asteroid landing idea is not bad. This idea is not Obama’s, but rather represents a leading alternate to the Bush-era Moon/Mars plan. I won’t bore you with details, but an asteroid landing *does* make sense.

3) The landscape is littered with the spent fortunes of dozens of privately-funded space attempts. While I would love to see privately-run space programs succeed, the fact remains that the entry costs are so high and the risks of failure so great that really only a government-sponsored program has any hope of succeeding. At least for the next 10-20 years.

4) Our military superiority absolutely hinges on space — mainly for communications and observations, but also the GPS navigation system. NASA, to be honest, doesn’t contribute much to that effort, but I’d worry that by cutting NASA, we’d cut off a pipeline/attraction for kids to become engineers, and then we’d be really screwed.

I’m lukewarm to the budget argument — yeah, NASA’s funding is chump change in the grand scheme of things, but we’re far enough in the hole now to start looking through the sofa cushions for money — but point four is a tough one for a hawk to argue with. Especially a hawk who remembers stories like this. Click the image to watch.