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Among the milestones for the coming year will be the final flight of the shuttle after 30 years of service. (credit: J. Foust)

Space challenges for 2011


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A new year brings with it new hopes for the future, and new resolutions to do things better, or differently, than before. The new year also brings with it its fair share of challenges, though, not to mention unresolved problems and other baggage from the previous year.

Spaceflight is no exception to this. The past year was a tumultuous one for civil space in particular, as the Obama Administration rolled out a budget proposal with significant changes for the agency’s human spaceflight plans, triggering a vociferous debate that raged into the fall. While the passage of a new NASA authorization act that enacted some of those changes ended that chapter of the debate, NASA and commercial space still have a number of major challenges ahead of them in the coming year, from wrapping up its still-incomplete budget for 2011 and gearing up for future budget battles to pressing ahead with the end of the Space Shuttle, the continued development of commercial human spaceflight capabilities, and exploring new opportunities for international cooperation.

Resolving NASA’s short-term budget woes

NASA enters calendar year 2011 without a final budget for fiscal year 2011, which started three months earlier on October 1. It’s become common for Congress to fail to finalize appropriations by the beginning of the fiscal year, requiring the use of short-term stopgap funding bills called continuing resolutions, or CRs, which fund the affected agencies at the previous fiscal year’s levels. NASA and the rest of the federal government has been strung along by a series of CRs, the latest of which, passed two weeks ago, funds the government at 2010 levels until March 4.

“In the last days of last Congress they funded five hundred million dollars for a rocket program at NASA that’s already been shut down. That can’t be too hard to undo,” Rep. Issa said.

Ordinarily this would be only a little more than an inconvenience to NASA, especially since the 2010 overall budget of $18.7 billion is just slightly less than the proposed 2011 budget of $19.0 billion, the same level included in the authorization act signed into law in October. But the 2010 appropriations bill included a provision that effectively prevents NASA from terminating any element of the Constellation program or starting a replacement program “unless such program termination, elimination, creation, or initiation is provided in subsequent appropriations Acts.” Since there hasn’t been a subsequent appropriation act—nor any language in the series of CRs lifting that prohibition—NASA is required to continue funding Constellation programs, including those, like the Ares 1, eliminated by the new authorization act.

The result, as the Orlando Sentinel reported last week, is that NASA will spend nearly $500 million on the Ares 1 from the beginning of the fiscal year to early March, when the current CR ends. That money won’t necessarily be wasted—NASA officials pointed out the work could be applicable to the heavy-lift launch vehicle included in the authorization bill—but the report got plenty of traction during a slow news week.

Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” talk show on Sunday morning, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) alluded to the continued funding of Ares 1 when asked about how he and fellow members of Congress would try to cut federal spending. “In the last days of last Congress they funded five hundred million dollars for a rocket program at NASA that’s already been shut down. That can’t be too hard to undo,” he said. He used the funding as an example of how he could find “about two hundred billion” dollars of spending that could be cut.

Such rhetoric suggests that the new Congress, which takes office this week, could seek to “undo” the problem not by removing the legal language that restricts NASA’s flexibility to fund authorized programs but by cutting the funding itself. That could end up making it even harder for NASA to achieve the goal in the authorization bill of fielding a heavy-lift launcher by the end of 2016, or force NASA to scavenge for funding from other agency programs, like technology development and upgrades to the facilities at the Kennedy Space Center.

Preparing for long-term budget battles

The debate over the still-unresolved 2011 budget could be a prelude for a potentially bigger battle later this year over the 2012 budget. As part of its five-year projections in last year’s budget proposal, the administration projected a NASA budget of $19.45 billion in FY2012, a 2.4-percent increase over the 2011 proposal. That figure may now be more aspirational than realistic in the current budgetary environment.

One major change is the shift in control of the House to the Republican Party, which campaigned last year in large part on a platform of fiscal restraint. The House Republican leadership released last fall its “Pledge to America”, whose provisions included a call to reduce federal spending to fiscal year 2008 levels. For NASA, that would cut nearly $2 billion from its budget , forcing hard decisions on what programs to pursue.

For all the debate and controversy surrounding the still-incomplete 2011 budget process, with the administration’s major changes to NASA, the 2012 process could be even more agitated.

Even before Republicans introduced their plan to cut spending, the administration seemed to be preparing for potential budget cuts. In a June memo, then-OMB director Peter Orszag and then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked agency heads to “identify the programs and subprograms that have the lowest impact on your agency’s mission and constitute at least five percent of your agency’s discretionary budget” as part of planning for the FY2012 budget submissions and thus potential cuts. The cuts, based on FY2010 budgets, would amount to over $900 million for NASA.

The potential cuts come at a time when at least one high-profile agency program is facing cost overruns. An independent review panel concluded in November that the James Webb Space Telescope, previously planned to launch in 2014 at a total cost of $5 billion, would instead be delayed to late 2015 with a cost of $6.2–6.8 billion. Worse, that 2015 date is dependent on appropriating an additional $250 million in both 2011 and 2012. There’s never a good time for a cost overrun, but it’s clearly a bad time when it comes as the agency is looking at overall budget cuts.

All this suggests that for all the debate and controversy surrounding the still-incomplete 2011 budget process, with the administration’s major changes to NASA, the 2012 process could be even more agitated. After all, despite all the controversy about the policy changes in the budget proposal, there was little debate about how much money the agency would get, at least at the overall level. In the coming year, there is likely to be major debates on how much money they agency will get as well as how to spend it, a process that will start in mid-February when the administration releases its 2012 budget proposal.

Accepting the shuttle’s retirement

For the last several years, as it became increasingly clear that the shuttle program was reaching the end, supporters—including the shuttle workforce, communities like Florida’s Space Coast, and various legislators—have been going through the various stages of grief. There was, for a long time, a sense of denial that the shuttle program would really come to an end. More recently, there’s been anger directed at policymakers for pushing ahead with plans, which date back to President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration speech seven years ago this month, to end the shuttle, as well as bargaining in the form of efforts to try and extend the shuttle program.

However, entering 2011 it’s now clear that, barring major delays that push out the final three flights on the manifest (including the one mission added last year in the NASA authorization act), this will be the final year of the shuttle program. The anger and bargaining has, in some quarters, turned to depression over the end of vaunted program and the concomitant loss of jobs, and a gap of several years before the NASA is able to launch humans into orbit again (with uncertainty over whether this would be done on commercial vehicles or on Orion). By as early this June the final shuttle mission may be soaring into the Florida skies. But, with those flights, will there also come acceptance of the end of a long-running chapter in NASA’s history?

Developing commercial human spaceflight

Last year was, in some respects, something of a breakthrough year for commercial human spaceflight. While there were no commercial human missions in 2010—not even a space tourist flying on a Soyuz mission to the ISS—much of the policy and technical groundwork was laid to enable such missions, most visibly with the successful flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft. By the end of 2010 several companies, including established firms like Boeing, Orbital Sciences, and United Launch Alliance, had formally expressed their interest in developing commercial crew transportation systems.

Several suborbital vehicle developers may begin flight tests of their vehicles to high and even suborbital altitudes by the end of the year.

Like 2010, the coming year is unlikely to see commercial human missions, at least to orbit, but it will solidify the foundations upon which the efforts will be built. In the spring NASA is expected to make a new round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards to support work on various technologies and systems needed for such vehicles. SpaceX is scheduled to make its next COTS Falcon 9/Dragon launch later this year, approaching and potentially even berthing with the International Space Station, demonstrating the capabilities required to deliver cargo to the station—a key step towards human spaceflight. Orbital Sciences is also scheduled to make the inaugural launch of its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft this year, although it appears that effort is separate from its crew transportation proposals, which involve a lifting body vehicle launched on an EELV-class booster.

Suborbital spaceflight was out of the limelight in 2010 compared to previous years, overshadowed by the surge in interest in orbital human spaceflight. Yet companies in the field made at least incremental progress, including the first captive carry and, later, glide tests of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Spaceport America, the spaceport that will initially host operations of the system, is also scheduled for completion this year, after the dedication of its runway in October 2010. Several other companies, including Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and XCOR Aerospace, may begin flight tests of their vehicles (either crewed or remotely piloted) to high and even suborbital altitudes by the end of the year.

Proposing cooperation with China

For several years observers have pointed to what appeared to be an emerging space race among Asian nations, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea. What 2010 demonstrated was that if there is a race, it’s not a particularly close one. China carried out 15 orbital launches in 2010: the same number as the US, and more than India, Japan, and South Korea combined. Moreover, both India and South Korea suffered launch failures in 2010, including back-to-back failures of India’s GSLV, raising doubts about Indian plans for launching humans by the middle of the decade. Japan, while suffering no launch failures, is instead facing fiscal pressures after government officials there rejected a proposed modest budget increase for the space agency JAXA.

China’s increasing capabilities in space have come at a time when the United States has shown renewed interest in cooperating with China on space issues. In October, NASA administrator Charles Bolden visited China and met with some of their leading space officials. Those meetings, though, and other efforts, including a mention of cooperation in space exploration in a joint statement after the November 2009 meeting of President Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao, have yet to result in concrete activities between the two countries. Why is that?

“We need to get past the idea that the Chinese need us more than we need them,” Kulacki said. “We have to find something of value to bring to China if China is going to be enthusiastic about our efforts to engage them on this.”

One expert on China’s space program believes the problem is that China doesn’t need to cooperate with the US as much as American officials think it does. Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at a forum in Washington last month that China’s space efforts were kicked into high gear by President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative. “The United States was going to make another Kennedy-sized investment in this whole area of technology and China just could not be left behind,” he said. If China didn’t invest in space, “in the way the scientists put it in their letter to Deng Xiaoping, [it] ‘would make us a second-rate power again.’” China’s space capabilities, therefore, are tied closely to their national prestige and status, he said.

That growth in capabilities in the following three decades means that, from a technical perspective, there’s little incentive for China to cooperate with the US on space issues, Kulacki argued. “We need to get past the idea that the Chinese need us more than we need them,” Kulacki said. “We have to find something of value to bring to China if China is going to be enthusiastic about our efforts to engage them on this.” However, the US has been unwilling to offer anything of value, thus the limited prospects for cooperation.

“The United States doesn’t want to bring anything major to the table, but the Chinese need something major on the table in order for cooperation to get started,” Kulacki said. What could that “major” thing be? He suggested some kind of unspecified civil space project: “Somewhere to go together, something to do together, something to build; an actual, important project.” That could be especially difficult now, as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a leading critic of China’s human rights record, takes over as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with oversight of NASA’s budget.

Certainly these are not the only challenges that NASA, other agencies, and various companies and organizations will face in the coming year in space, but these alone will keep the various players in spaceflight occupied for much, if not all of the year. More importantly, how these challenges are addressed this year—the 50th anniversary of the first human flights into space—will help shape the next 50 years of human spaceflight.


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