The Rhetoric on the NASA Budget

This week, the White House unveiled its fiscal year 2013 budget request for NASA and as soon as that happened, the hand-wringing about NASA’s budget began. In order to decipher the conversation that surrounds the request and the debate to come, we need to briefly look at how NASA is currently constructed and the missions it supports.

NASA is composed of 10 centers, five involved in human spaceflight (Johnson, Kennedy, Stennis, Goddard, Marshall), five involved in research (JPL, Ames, Dryden, Glenn, Langley), NASA headquarters, and roughly half a dozen other facilities. Each center has a different function or specialty which support NASA’s missions of human space exploration, robotic space exploration, planetary sciences, Earth sciences, and aeronautics. In the map above, you can see that those centers are spread across the country. Geography is the first factor that drives the initial rhetoric regarding the budget.

The day after the budget was released, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) released a statement saying:

“I am pleased the President requested $830 million for Commercial Crew programs, which is America’s single most important near-term civil space project. But cutting the Technology budget while increasing the Earth Science budget – a function that doesn’t even belong in a space exploration agency – and continuing to shovel resources into the SLS money pit is a travesty.

“Any more of this kind of “leadership” and soon NASA’s entire budget will be consumed by JWST and the SLS, two things that won’t have made it off the launch pad ten years from now.”

So what’s behind this statement? Well, SpaceX and Blue Origin, two prominent commercial space partners, are both headquartered in California. In addition, two Mars’ robotics programs that are now at risk would be developed and run out of JPL and Ames, also in California.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) released this statement:

“As I told the Administrator during our meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration.”

Rare to see bi-partisan support of anything these days. Then, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) chimed in with this reaction:

“Despite repeated assurances from NASA and White House officials that the SLS and Orion are ‘key elements of our future strategy for human space exploration’, vehicle development for the heavy lift SLS rocket and the Orion capsule is cut by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Given that JSC is one of the centers that will most benefit from the development and operation of SLS, these comments should not come as a surprise. The bottom line for each of these representatives is that a reduction in funding to a NASA mission supported by their local centers means a potential loss of jobs at each of those centers. Again, less budget means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means that constituents in the districts that they support will be out of work.

Having the conversation center around the benefits of one aspect of NASA’s mission vs. another aspect of that mission will not advance the conversation very far. It causes internal strife in an organization that can’t afford to have that. Missions will always need to be appropriately vetted to ensure we are pursuing worthwhile scientific or technological goals. The reality is there are benefits to be gained from all aspects of the agency’s current missions. At this point, funding is being spread so thin across programs in a way that jeopardizes the long term success of several programs. To best accomplish NASA’s mission of exploring the solar system will require a combination of human and robotic exploration supported by satellite or telescopic observation. Each one of these areas of research provides different benefits. Someone who tells you we should only do one or the other of these things is likely not seeing the entire picture.

Satellite observation provides invaluable insight into the varied worlds around us. Satellites like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can help map a planet, identify where water once flowed, and point robotic exploration missions to areas of high value. They can peer far into the surface of these worlds giving us insights we would have otherwise never had.

Robotic missions can then go to the surface and help us understand the environment where humans will eventually tread. Robotic explorers can go where it is too dangerous to send humans. They can also explore for long periods without the need for refueling or replenishment. Eventually, those robotic explorers will fail and cease operation.

Enter the human explorer who can change a research target at a moment’s notice, conduct research and exploration without needing someone on Earth to command him or her to do so, and can repair instruments or rovers that break. In addition, as we explore the solar system, we learn more and more about ourselves. Space exploration tests the limits of human endurance and requires continued advances in so many areas.

To do human exploration, we need a US vehicle capable of reaching orbit, low Earth or otherwise. The commercial crew providers show promise but are by no means guaranteed success. As people are now finding out, the commercial providers face the same technological and budgetary challenges that NASA has faced for decades. Several are turning to NASA to provide tried and true expertise for operating their spacecraft. Just as it has always been, the future of human spaceflight will be a public-private partnership.

The real question shouldn’t be should we do robotics vs. human exploration or commercial vs. NASA, it should be are we as a country spending enough on scientific research and development. NASA’s total budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion. This represents .48% of the federal budget or less than half a cent from your tax dollar. This is the lowest percentage of the federal budget that NASA has received since 1960. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the NASA budget is comparable to the Department of Defense Budget. The DoD budget request for 2013 stands at $525 billion dollars or 30 times the NASA budget. By point of comparison, in NASA’s entire history from 1958 to 2012, the US has given NASA $543 billion dollars (non-adjusted) or $18 billion more than the DoD’s request for next year. Staggering.

At one point, I was a doubter of MPCV and SLS, believing the rhetoric that had spewed forth of it just being a pork program. That was before I talked to people hard at work on that program, people who are working as hard as they can to get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible, so that we can resume human exploration of the solar system. Without MPCV and SLS, NASA would not have any budget for human exploration and who knows if we would ever get that back. Now, MPCV is on track for a test flight in 2014 and SLS is slated for its first test in 2015 and a longer test flight in 2017. If funding is maintained, those dates will be here sooner than you think.

Couple that with the continued development of commercial crew services, which some companies are still on track to provide by 2016, and the US would have a fully operational human exploration program with access to low Earth orbit and beyond in 4-5 years. Robotic precursor missions would have already paved the way and suddenly, we would have the capability to do the things we’ve always dreamed.

Isn’t that worth paying for?

Quick addendum: I’m not trying to suggest that the government should give NASA whatever it wants unchecked. Accountability is absolutely needed and funds for research should also be used in other areas of scientific, technological, or medical research. I am suggesting we ought to consider our national priorities of where to invest taxpayer money and perhaps alter the balance of things.

Misconceptions about the Future of Human Spaceflight

This week, someone stumbled across this blog while searching for an answer to this question: “will jaxa houston operation close after the last shuttle retirement?”

Two weeks ago, I read a comment on my favorite tech blog, Gizmodo, asking why NASA still needed an astronaut corps if the NASA human spaceflight program had been cancelled.

Before that, I was told about this exchange from a friend of mine:

Waitress – Where do you work?

Friend – JSC.

Waitress – Oh, you mean the credit union?

Friend – No, the space center.

Waitress – Oh, I thought that place had been shut down.

Sigh.

Everyone here recognizes we are not about to enter the golden age of NASA human spaceflight programs.  There’s even the depressing possibility that those days are long behind us and we will never again achieve the high points of the past.  The future right now is far from certain and there are a number of possibilities in the years ahead.

First and foremost, NASA will be operating the International Space Station for at least the next ten years.  This means that, with any luck, there will be a NASA astronaut in space every day for the next ten years.  Not only will there be one, but there could be as many as three, while part of a larger crew of six or seven people.  Humans have lived in space aboard the space station for the past ten years and will continue to do so for the next ten years or more.

Twenty years of continuous human presence in space will be quite an achievement if we can pull it off.  We’ll definitely need a lot of luck in addition to the hard work, determination, and expertise of every astronaut, flight controller, or instructor.

For the next 3-4 years, the only ride to ISS will be aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft, a stalwart capsule that has been in service for 50+ years.  Once we hit 2015 or 2016, things look a little more unclear and different possibilities emerge.  Currently four U.S. companies, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin, and Boeing, are building possible crewed vehicles capable of launching into low Earth orbit and rendezvousing with the space station.  In addition to these companies, several others are also still developing potential crew vehicles.

Once one or two of those companies succeed, we will no longer be dependent on the Soyuz to get to orbit.  The successful commercial companies will secure government contracts that will require them to fly a couple of times per year to the space station. At that point, NASA will likely be the only customer in town, though it’s possible a company like Bigelow Aerospace will have the first commercial space station in orbit at that time.

If those companies do not succeed, NASA is developing its own vehicle, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  The MPCV is a capsule that is intended to be able to go to ISS and beyond.

What people often miss is that many of the previous NASA human spaceflight vehicles were built by private contractors.  The Space Shuttle and Apollo capsules were built by private companies and turned over to NASA for operation.  The difference here would be in the operation of the vehicle.  These companies could operate the vehicles themselves or partner with NASA to do it, but either way, they would ultimately be coming to the space station and working with NASA to successfully complete missions.

Before the next vehicle becomes operational, my hope is that we will have settled on what our next human spaceflight goal will be.  The possibilities include a return to the Moon, a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, or even a mission to one of Mars’ moons.  If we’re going to take advantage of the development of a new vehicle, either MPCV or otherwise, to go to another destination then we will need to start planning within the next couple of years.

In order for our future programs to be successful, we cannot approach these projects as a means to leave footprints on the ground.  We have to approach them to leave an infrastructure in place that will allow for continued expansion of commercial companies into the solar system.

In my opinion, the government will always need to be out in front, laying down the infrastructure that will allow commercial companies to be profitable.  If ISS didn’t exist, the only market for services would be for millionaire space tourists.  NASA is defraying the development costs of the commercial companies to encourage their participation.  Take that away and take ISS as a destination away and do all of these companies continue to make the progress they do?

I’m not sure of that.  I wouldn’t put it beyond one of the Über-rich space enthusiasts to try this without assistance, but their will be a lot of risk and the cost of failure will be very high.

Beyond the ISS, NASA will take the burden of doing the initial forays to an asteroid and learning what it’s like to live and work there before opening up the future markets for asteroid mining.  This is probably the next profitable endeavor in space beyond tourism.

All of that, though, is a pipe dream until a vehicle gets built.  So we will continue to work to use the ISS to the fullest of its capabilities, but my hope is that once we get a vehicle in place, then we will really take off (pun absolutely intended).

Hopefully the next time someone searches about the demise of human spaceflight, they’ll stumble across this and see that while the future is uncertain, there is reason for hope in the long run.  NASA will continue to send humans into space.  NASA will continue to operate the space station.  Someday, humans will live on other worlds in the Solar System and I firmly believe NASA will be a key part of it.  Of course I believe that,  I plan to push that direction as hard as I can.