In the most austere fiscal climate in memory, Congress refuses to be serious about space policy. When the Obama administration, based on recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel in 2009, proposed cancellation of the overbudget, behind-schedule, underperforming Constellation program a year ago, its decision was hamstrung by wording that Congress had added to legislation that prevented NASA from shutting down any aspect of it. As a result, the space agency, like other government programs, has been forced to continue spending hundreds of million dollars on a program that most, including many in Congress, now agree will not move forward in its present form.
And now, while struggling on under the uncertainty of consecutive continuing resolutions, its budget, less than one-half of 1 percent of the total federal budget, the agency is being picked at like a wounded animal on the savannah by the jackals on the Hill. Last month, the new Republican House voted to shift about $300 million from NASA’s overhead budget to fund community policing, with no apparent regard for the effect this might have on the agency’s operations. One might have expected the previous Democratic House to do such a thing, but one would have thought that Republicans, particularly those claiming to be conservative, would have realized that community policing is a local, not federal responsibility. Yet 70 of them voted to raid the NASA piggy bank.
Last week, the Senate decided to cut almost half-a-billion dollars in funding from NASA’s request for money that would develop technologies needed to make deep-space exploration affordable, while ensuring that janitorial and landscaping services at various NASA centers would survive, thus preserving middle-class jobs.
As it happens, there is nothing in the Space Act, NASA’s charter, either as originally passed over half-a-century ago or as more recently amended, about preserving jobs of any kind, let alone middle-class ones. But unfortunately, since the end of Apollo, the agency has been largely viewed as a jobs program by the only people on the Hill who really care about it - the representatives and senators in whose districts or states NASA centers and contractors reside, and they generally get themselves assigned to the committees who make the budget decisions.
This dynamic has played out a great deal in the past year, when objections to the Constellation cancellation were driven primarily by the concern over job losses in places like Florida, Alabama and Utah. Congress responded last fall by passing a NASA authorization bill that demanded NASA build a heavy-lift vehicle with no missions specified or funded, and whose primary requirement was that it utilize “legacy” (i.e., shuttle) components built in those states, and that it work on a “multi-purpose crew vehicle,” which was simply another name to keep the expensive Orion capsule going in Colorado.
That these programs will cost many times more than multiple, redundant fixed-cost commercial providers and that the technology budget that could reduce future costs of actual space exploration will be savaged is irrelevant to those directing NASA money. It is jobs and votes that is foremost in their minds. If they get space accomplishments as well, it is viewed as gravy.
But if heavy lift is truly needed, there are much more cost-effective ways to achieve it. Modern vehicles like Delta, Atlas or Falcon would provide a better basis than maintaining the unaffordable and unreliable 1970s-era shuttle infrastructure, which has already been partly dismantled as the program winds down to its last one or two flights later this year. And the Orion was never a very good vehicle for true deep-space operations - it is designed for a repeat of the Apollo missions to the moon. NASA has developed much more innovative concepts for exploration beyond the earth-moon system that can be used in conjunction with much more cost-effective capsules from Boeing and other companies.
If Congress is serious about both trimming the NASA budget and vastly improving our prospects for space progress, there is no better target than these two programs, which would allow a reduced overall budget and an increase in those projects that are truly important to maintaining our leadership in space. In the long run, with a vibrant, new space industry that generates actual wealth, the jobs will be real, productive and sustainable, no longer reliant on a broken budget and a fickle Congress for the opening of a new frontier.
Rand Simberg is chairman of the Competitive Space Taskforce. He blogs at transterrestrial.com.