With the fragile economy and the rampant government over-expenditures by the Obama administration, fiscal conservatives are calling for a significant reduction in spending. Many worry that deep cuts in the national defense and homeland security budgets will severely cripple our defense capabilities. However, relatively little attention has been given to a government agency that traditionally receives only a miniscule annual budget in comparison to that of other agencies.
Last year, NASA’s $19 billion budget was dwarfed by defense ($738 billion), Medicare & Medicaid ($760 billion) and Social Security ($738 billion) spending. The interest payment for the money the U.S. has borrowed alone accounted for $251 billion.
Since the announcement of the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been on a steady course to losing the United States’ lead in space technology, science & exploration. Additionally, NASA announced the end of service life for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015, which has since been extended to 2020.
Relying on the Russians?
As early as 2005, a capability “gap” had been expected during which time the U.S. would have to rely solely on the Russian Space Agency to provide crew and cargo replenishment services to the ISS at a price of at least $60 million per astronaut (per mission).
George W. Bush’s administration attempted to close that gap with the establishment of the Constellation program as a follow-on program to the space shuttle coupled with an aggressive space exploration plan. Unfortunately, fiscal realities following the 2008 economic meltdown prevented that plan to come to fruition.
A year later, the Augustine Commission, a panel of independent space experts commissioned by President Obama concluded that any human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit was not viable with the money NASA was expected to receive under the budget for 2010 and beyond.
The Constellation program was subsequently cancelled, putting the future the U.S. manned spaceflight program in a state of uncertainty.
A specific recommendation of the Augustine Commission was the establishment of a commercial market for low-earth operations, which was to include ISS crew and cargo replenishment services. This resulted in initial funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev), a program that NASA defines as “a NASA investment funded by $50M of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, to stimulate efforts within the private sector that will aid in the development and demonstration of safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transportation capabilities.”
Unfortunately, a solid business case for commercial space has not materialized, given that a) commercial spaceflight operations under CCDev will not begin until at least 2017 at the earliest and b) ISS will end it’s operational life in 2020, providing only short-term commercial opportunities, albeit; there are plans to build a commercial space station by at least one of the CCDev participants.
When asked about the future of the space program following the space shuttle, NASA Administrator Charles Boldon, an Obama appointee, said:
“The future is bright for human spaceflight and for NASA. American ingenuity is alive and well. And it will fire up our economy and help us win the future, but only if we dream big and imagine endless possibilities. That future begins today.”
In striking contrast, former NASA Administrator under George W. Bush, Mike Griffin has an entirely different view of NASA’s future, which he stated in a BBC interview following the final shuttle mission:
“When you push aside all the puffery and high-flying political announcements, with the landing of Atlantis, the human spaceflight program of the U.S. will come to an end for the indefinite future.”
So how is it that the current and preceding NASA Administrators can have such starkly different views? When you peel away the rhetoric and politics, a number of irrefutable facts remain that cast a dark cloud over the future of the U.S. manned space program:
- With the end of the space shuttle program and the cancellation of the follow-on Constellation program, thousands of highly skilled workers and engineers are now without jobs or have moved on to other industries, which means that the U.S. space program has lost a huge amount of human capital in terms of knowledge and experience.
- The shuttle fleet is now retired. No more shuttle launches; no more Hubble servicing missions; no more human spaceflight capability for NASA. No rocket on U.S. soil is currently human rated.
- NASA has no concrete plans in place for the next heavy lift vehicle to launch next-generation spaceships beyond Low-Earth orbit. A spaceship is currently being developed; a variant of the Orion capsule from the canceled Constellation program. The “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle,” however, doesn’t have a rocket to launch it yet.
- The business case for commercial space is shaky at best. While there are some short-term opportunities, most CCDev participants are engaging NASA with a significant amount of skepticism as to the long-term, viability of a commercial space market.
Where does that leave us?
Most industry experts agree that NASA’s vision for space exploration is at best ill defined. Recently, the Obama administration upped the ante by committing up to $1 billion on the third and final development phase of CCDev. However, as we have seen in the past, attempts to artificially create business markets by the government are rarely successful in the long term (take Amtrak as an example).
Businesses are good at finding their own markets sans the “help” provided by the government. In the case of commercial space, a viable and mature business model remains largely elusive.
The viability of commercial space and available funding for new and on going (non-commercial) scientific and space programs will be key to the future of NASA and the U.S. space flight programs.