Tomorrow President Obama will deliver a policy speech at Kennedy Space Center outlining his budget proposal for NASA. The particulars of this NASA budget have been a contentious issue. While the plan does raise NASA's budget by $6 billion over 5 years, it also cuts the Constellation program & shifts aspects of NASA manned operations to private commercial interests that may or may not be able to pick up the slack. If they can pick up the slack, the hope is that it will result in launching a space industry capable of moving people into orbit for a much cheaper cost. If they can't pick up the slack, then we're back to near square one & the United States is dependent on the Russians for getting astronauts into space.
The arguments over this are interesting since it cuts across ideological lines. This issue also brings out a very old argument about the worth/cost of NASA & the manned space program.
That old argument ("Why are we wasting money on a space program?") is one I find very tiring & very dumb. I notice it in some of the NASA diaries from time to time. It's also something that cuts across the ideological spectrum. If they believe the 4,000-year-old Earth is round, conservatives who object to NASA see it as money that could be a potential tax cut. Liberals who object to NASA somehow see it as an agency that's taking money away from hungry children & people without health care. Both perspectives are based around a fallacy, and indicative of a mindset that sees any big project or idea (whether it be going to the Moon, high speed rail, solar/wind/space-based power, etc.) as either too "hard" and too "costly", or somehow places it into an either-or dichotomy that detracts from some other "more worthy" cause.
The impetus for this diary was a blog post over at Bad Astronomy that featured a video from astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Tyson, who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, is asked about the White House's current budget proposal (which he agrees with in part, and disagrees with in other parts), and proceeds to make a great statement about the cost/worth of NASA... and of dreams.
Back in 2007, a study asked Americans what percentage of the federal budget they believed NASA received? Their answer was 24%. What's the truth? Out of the $3.55 trillion 2010 United States federal budget, NASA received 18.724 billion (0.52%)... half a cent on a dollar. For half a cent on a dollar, the United States government puts men & women in space, robots on other planets, and maps the universe, yet somehow people still find a way to bitch about it.
But what's that you say? How much is spent on the "wasteful" manned space program that could be going to something else? Here's the proposed 2011 budget, all $3.69 trillion of it.
See that little red box the arrow is pointing at? That's the "space operations" budget. It goes from $6.15 billion in 2010 to $4.89 billion in 2011. Put another way, it goes from 0.17% of the federal budget to 0.13% of the federal budget, or tenths of a penny on a dollar.
So what of boldly going to places where few or no one have gone before?
Let's start with the most contentious aspect of President Obama's NASA budget proposal; cutting most of the Constellation Program that was meant to return NASA to the Moon. One of the main arguments in favor of its cancellation is that it would be too expensive to get the program back on track. According to the Augustine Commission, there were options to get the Constellation Program back on track that required a budget increase to NASA of $3 billion per year. While that sounds (and is) a lot of money, let's put that number in perspective. To me it is the height of ridiculousness that, with all the earmarks & all the appropriations for ridiculous bullshit, we can't find an extra $3 billion per year for NASA to go to the Moon and do the other scientific research & development in its mission & promote commercial interests. The 2010 "Pig Book" was released today & documents 9,129 earmark projects at a cost of $16.5 billion in the last year's legislation. Does somebody really want to argue we can't find the money to do this or things like it, since Congress has no problem finding money if it's going towards an airport, bridge, or Post Office that might have a Representative's name plastered on it?
Before I get deeper into this, let me state that I'm skeptical of what's been released so far of the President's plan for NASA. I am NOT against it, and I am NOT for it... as of now. I hope the President's speech tomorrow will fill in some of the blanks & take away some of my skepticism. But in discussing this, I'm going to try to lay out both sides of the argument & be fair.
Here's the White House Fact Sheet released in advance of the President's speech. Yesterday, the plan was augmented some by reviving the Orion spacecraft (but only as a lifeboat for the International Space Station), and committing to select a design for a Heavy Lift Vehicle (i.e. a rocket capable of pushing a spacecraft to the Moon, an asteroid, or possibly Mars) by 2015.
This new plan:
- Advances America’s commitment to human spaceflight and exploration of the solar system, with a bold new vision and timetable for reaching new frontiers deeper in space.
- Increases NASA’s budget by $6 billion over 5 years.
- Leads to more than 2,500 additional jobs in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center area by 2012, as compared to the prior path.
- Begins major work on building a new heavy lift rocket sooner, with a commitment to decide in 2015 on the specific heavy-lift rocket that will take us deeper into space.
- Initiates a vigorous new technology development and test program to increase the capabilities and reduce the cost of future exploration activities.
- Launches a steady stream of precursor robotic exploration missions to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions, while also providing scientific dividends.
- Restructures Constellation and directs NASA to develop the Orion crew capsule effort in order to provide stand-by emergency escape capabilities for the Space Station – thereby reducing our reliance on foreign providers.
- Establishes the technological foundation for future crew spacecraft needed for missions beyond low Earth orbit.
- Increases the number of astronaut days in space by 3,500 over the next decade, extends the life of the International Space Station, likely beyond 2020, and enables the launching of astronauts on new vehicles from the Kennedy Space Center 1- 2 years sooner.
- Jumpstarts a new commercial space transportation industry to provide safe and efficient crew and cargo transportation to the Space Station, projected to create over 10,000 jobs nationally over the next five years.
- Invests in Florida, adding $3 billion more for the Kennedy Space Center to manage – a 60 percent increase.
- Makes strategic investments to develop critical knowledge, technologies, and capabilities to expand long-duration human exploration into deep space in a more efficient and safe manner, thus getting us to more destinations in deep space sooner.
- And puts the space program on a more ambitious trajectory that pushes the frontiers of innovation to propel us on a new journey of innovation and discovery deeper into space.
Also, the argument is that aerospace companies (startups like SpaceX & old-school types like Boeing & Lockheed Martin) will compete, innovate, and fill the gap left by the Space Shuttle, when it comes to sending material & people into low Earth orbit. In doing this, there is a belief the "New Space Industry" will be able to do it at a much lower cost, and create thousands of jobs.
PayPal founder Elon Musk said his company SpaceX hopes to fly astronauts to the space station by the end of 2013. He figures he will charge NASA about $20 million an astronaut. That's a bargain compared with the more than $300 million a head it was going to cost NASA under the Bush plan, and the $56 million NASA will pay Russia for trips on Soyuz rockets in the short term.
Musk's Falcon 9 unmanned rocket is sitting on a Cape Canaveral pad with its initial launch a month away. Several companies are competing with Musk, including one run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Musk said what's happening is "the new generation of space."
So after reading all of that how could anyone be skeptical? The biggest criticism of the proposal, as echoed by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the video above, is that it's long on broad ideas that sound good but short on details, dates, goals, and specifics. It is also betting on an industry that may or may not take hold. For example, as impressive as SpaceX's achievements are, let's remember that they're still a company that's only 2 for 5 when it comes to launching rockets into space, and none of them had a human being riding along either.
The prospect of NASA relying on smaller companies — unproven upstarts in the view of critics — could create yet another hurdle in convincing an already skeptical Congress of the idea of relying on commercial companies to provide taxi transportation to the International Space Station. "I don’t think there is a business case for us," John Karas, vice president and general manager of human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin, said about space taxis.
Publicly, Boeing has been enthusiastic... But Loren B. Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a policy group financed by military contractors, said Boeing is more skeptical in private.
In 1995, Boeing began pursuing the commercial space business through an international partnership called Sea Launch; it also developed the Delta IV rocket to launch both military and commercial satellites. The company lost money in both efforts, with Sea Launch filing for bankruptcy in 2009. To stem the Delta IV losses, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which was also losing money with its Atlas V rocket, set up a joint venture called the United Launch Alliance in 2006.
"Senior Boeing executives have told me that they are skeptical about new launch opportunities, given the losses they incurred on previous initiatives such as Sea Launch and the Pentagon’s expendable launcher program," Dr. Thompson said. "They are unlikely to invest large amounts of money on the new NASA vision."
Now to be fair to the White House, the fact sheet released late yesterday says the President will give a "timetable" tomorrow for a next step for NASA. This is in stark contrast to last month, when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went up to Congress and was drilled by members in part for a lack of specificity. In all of the Congressional hearing to date, I believe only one member (Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)) has offered support to this plan so far. During House & Senate hearings, the "hostility toward the administration's plans for NASA was so great that three lawmakers who don't serve on the science committee attended [the] hearing just to give Bolden a piece of their mind." Of those lawmakers that gave Bolden a piece of their mind, was Representative Alan Grayson (D-Orlando) who called President Obama's NASA budget "faith based" after Bolden couldn't give a straight answer on what the "next step" was for NASA.
Also, answers like this one didn't help Bolden in selling the proposal. It's also indicative of what concerns some people about this new direction for NASA.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) said at that hearing, "The lack of a clear mission, with goals and milestones, fails to not only inspire the current NASA workforce, but also fails to inspire the future generation of scientists and astronauts." She added that she had recently visited a high school in her district and met with a student who said he wanted to be an astronaut. "I had no clue what to say to him at that point," she said, citing the cancellation of Constellation in the budget proposal.
Bolden’s response didn’t help. "I would have told him to forget it for a while," he said. His response was well-intentioned: he thought students should focus first on getting a good science and engineering education (and, unstated, that the odds of becoming a NASA astronaut are very long: there are far more professional athletes in the US today than members of the astronaut corps). But in the context of the hearing, that probably didn’t alleviate any concerns about the future of human spaceflight.
Because of this reaction among Congress, the event at the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow was scheduled. Now you might expect opposition from Grayson & some of the others, given they're looking out for a project in their back yard. However, the hostility towards this proposal extends past the usual suspects looking out for jobs in their districts/states.
From The Oregonian, March 07, 2010:
The battle for space exploration is being waged in some decidedly terrestrial places. One is room 2338 of the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the cramped office of Oregon Rep. David Wu. Another is down the hall, the rather pedestrian committee room that's home to the Science and Technology Committee... Not many members of Congress are happy about the change, especially the small, but devoted space-geek subset of Congress that considers NASA and space exploration its marquee issue. For this group, of which Wu is a charter member, an intense exploration of space brings technological advances and innovation that benefit everything from health care to auto design to helping stabilize Social Security.
"NASA is really important," said Wu, who chairs the Science panel's Technology and Innovation Subcommittee. "It's really important for technology and it's really important for vision. It's important for where the human race is going eventually. But it's only $17 billion a year. The innovation enterprise is huge." Wu and his allies are augmented by lawmakers of both parties from Florida, Texas and Alabama where the space industry is largely based and where jobs -- and money -- are directly connected to a future of manned missions to space.
"I was against privatization with the Bush administration. I'm against privatization in the Obama administration," Wu said in an interview. "What Obama is proposing is so fundamentally flawed, that's why there's been a strong reaction."
Yesterday, two letters were released from former astronauts. One letter was signed by Neil Armstrong (Commander Apollo 11), Jim Lovell (Commander Apollo 13), and Eugene Cernan (Commander Apollo 17), and called the proposed plan "devastating" to United States leadership in manned space flight. A second letter from a large assortment of NASA veterans from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs was published asking the President to reconsider.
"One of the greatest fears of any generation is not leaving things better for the young people of the next. In the area of human space flight, we are about to realize that fear; your NASA budget proposal raises more questions about our future in space than it answers.
Too many men and women have worked too hard and sacrificed too much to achieve America’s preeminence in space, only to see that effort needlessly thrown away. We urge you to demonstrate the vision and determination necessary to keep our nation at the forefront of human space exploration with ambitious goals and the proper resources to see them through. This is not the time to abandon the promise of the space frontier for a lack of will or an unwillingness to pay the price."
Today, Buzz Aldrin responded to his Apollo 11 crewmate, by releasing a letter praising President Obama's proposal.
"As an Apollo astronaut, I know full well the importance of always exploring new frontiers and tackling new challenges as we explore space. The simple truth is that we have already been to the Moon – some 40 years ago. What this nation needs in order to maintain its position as the 21st century leader in space exploration is a near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies that will take us further and faster – while expanding our opportunities for exploration along the way. The President’s program will help us be in this endeavor for the long haul and will allow us to again push our boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth. I believe that this is the right program at the right time, and I hope that NASA and our dedicated space community will embrace this new direction as much as I do. By so doing we can together continue to use space exploration to help drive prosperity and innovation right here on Earth."