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NASA administrator Charles Bolden lays a wreath at a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery on January 27. (credit: B. Ingalls/NASA)

Memorials and malaise


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This time of year is traditionally a somber, introspective period for NASA’s human spaceflight program. By random chance, the three biggest accidents in the program’s history all took place within the same week on the calendar: Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967; Challenger on January 28, 1986; and Columbia on February 1, 2003. The agency commemorated these tragedies with a Day of Remembrance on January 27, including a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, as it has in recent years.

A confluence of events has created a feeling of uncertainty about the future of human spaceflight, at least as carried out by NASA. It also raises a fundamental question that instinctively makes space advocates both defensive and nervous: why spend billions of dollars a year on a government-run human spaceflight program?

This year, though, there was a heightened sense of angst associated with the commemoration. Part of it can be explained by this being the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, a milestone that generated much more media attention than usual. Such major anniversaries are a time of reflection, recalling the tragedy and the lessons learned from it, particularly among the generation who witnessed the accident on television as schoolchildren and who, today, have their own children in school. There was a lot less attention devoted to Challenger last year on the 24th anniversary of the accident, and there will be a lot less next year, on the 26th anniversary.

That alone, though, can’t explain the atmosphere that permeates the space community, and even the broader public, during this time of memorials and retrospection. A confluence of events has created a feeling of uncertainty about the future of human spaceflight, at least as carried out by NASA. It also raises a fundamental question that instinctively makes space advocates both defensive and nervous: why spend billions of dollars a year on a government-run human spaceflight program?

One factor contributing to that sense of unease is the impending retirement of the space shuttle. For nearly 30 years the shuttle has embodied the concept of human spaceflight, at least for the American public; people approaching middle age have no direct recollection of NASA launching astronauts by any other means. But the shuttle program is, inexorably, winding down: the next-to-last mission, STS-134, is currently slated for launch on April 19, one week after the 30th anniversary of the launch of STS-1. Earlier this month NASA formally gave the final shuttle mission, STS-135—authorized by Congress last year as one additional, final flight—a launch date: June 28, 2011.

The anxieties about the shuttle’s retirement—in particular its economic impact in places like Florida’s Space Coast, where thousands will lose their jobs when the program ends—would be at least partially ameliorated if there was some certainty about what would replace it. Constellation was to be that successor, a system of launch vehicles and spacecraft that would carry humans into low Earth orbit and beyond, back to the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system. But concerns about its cost and schedule, as outlined by the Augustine Committee in its 2009 report, put the program in jeopardy, and last year the Obama Administration moved to effectively cancel it.

“NASA must stop making excuses and follow this law,” Sen. Bill Nelson said last week regarding development of the Space Launch System.

The debate that followed the administration’s low-key announcement of Constellation’s fate, tucked away in the rollout of its 2011 budget proposal, helped salvage some elements of it, most notably the Orion spacecraft. The rest of Constellation, though, in particular the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets, did not survive the Congressional debate over the future of NASA’s exploration programs. In its place, Congress authorized the development of a replacement heavy-lift launch vehicle with the bland name of the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS, along with Orion, would serve as a backup to commercial systems under development for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station, as well as for future missions beyond Earth orbit.

Even with that Congressional direction, though, questions remain. Earlier this month NASA officials reported to Congress that they currently did not have a design for the SLS that could be complete by the end of 2016, the deadline set in the NASA authorization act last year that established the SLS, nor could fit into the budget profile also set in the law (see “Can NASA develop a heavy-lift rocket?”, The Space Review, January 17, 2011). There’s also the question of what the SLS would be used for: with a minimum payload capacity of 70 tons to low Earth orbit (also mandated in the law), the SLS is oversized for launching Orion, and no other specific missions have yet been identified for it.

Congressional supporters of the SLS have essentially rejected NASA’s conclusions that it can’t build the rocket within current schedule and budget restraints, repeatedly reminding NASA that “it’s the law”—as if the administrator of NASA runs the risk of jail time if the agency fails. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the key authors of the NASA authorization act, continued to make this point last week. “NASA must stop making excuses and follow this law,” he said in a video marking the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident. “I believe that the best and brightest at the space agency can build upon the nine billion dollars that we’ve already invested in the advanced technology to design this new rocket, and I think that these pioneers at NASA can also take a stepping-stone, pay-as-you-go approach.”

Before NASA can go, though, it has to be able to pay, something it has difficulty doing now. Tuesday marks not just the eighth anniversary of the Columbia accident but also the first anniversary of the administration’s release of its fiscal year 2011 budget proposal. One year later, though, that proposal remains just that: Congress has yet to pass a 2011 appropriations bill, instead stringing along NASA (and the rest of the federal government) with a series of stopgap funding bills called continuing resolutions, the current one keeping the government running at 2010 levels into early March.

“Absent from the President’s speech, apart from mentioning Sputnik as a metaphor, was any vision for our Nation’s space agency,” said Rep. Ralph Hall.

Further challenging NASA is language in its 2010 appropriations bill—which remains in force without a 2011 appropriations bill—that prevents NASA from terminating any aspect of Constellation. As NASA Inspector General Paul Martin warned Congress earlier this month, this means that NASA must continue to fund elements of Constellation, such as the Ares 1 upper stage, that have been canceled by Congress in the new authorization act. In a letter to members of Congress, Martin said that the existing restriction would result in NASA spending $215 million through the end of February on those programs. “Constraining NASA’s ability to stop spending money on aspects of a rocket program that the Administration and Congress both have agreed to cancel while at the same time prohibiting the Agency from beginning the follow-on program called for in the 2010 Authorization Act strikes us a problem ripe for correction,” he wrote.

Even when that problem is corrected, there’s greater uncertainty about NASA’s future funding. When it rolled out the 2011 budget a year ago, the administration projected steady, if modest, increases in NASA’s annual budget in future years, from $19 billion in 2011 to nearly $21 billion by 2015. While that $19-billion figure generated little debate last year in Congress, the prospects of an increase budget in future years appear to be diminishing. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama proposed a five-year freeze for discretionary spending, which includes NASA, in order to deal with massive budget deficits.

That budget freeze might also be the best NASA can expect in 2012 and beyond. In last fall’s campaign, House Republican leaders proposed cutting spending to 2008 levels, which would cut NASA’s budget to $17.3 billion. Earlier this month, the Republican Study Committee proposed a steeper cut, to 2006 levels, or about $16.5 billion a year for NASA. And last week Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation that would slash NASA’s 2011 budget to under $13.4 billion as part of $500 billion in overall spending cuts. That proposal is highly unlikely to be enacted, but these varying proposals all indicate that NASA’s hopes for increasing budgets in the future are all but dead.

The same State of the Union address where Obama announced the spending freeze also caused unease for some in the space community, for a different reason. Recalling the launch of Sputnik and the shock waves it sent through America, he called the competition from rising countries like China and India “our generation’s Sputnik moment”. Recalling the original space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, he discussed how it “unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

Space advocates, though, were disappointed that the president’s speech looked backward when it came to NASA, and not forward. The president called for increased investment “in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology,” but space didn’t make the cut. Space rarely gets mentioned in the State of the Union in general, but to be mentioned in the speech only for what it once did, and not what it will—or at least could—do in the future, was particularly galling for some.

“Absent from the President’s speech, apart from mentioning Sputnik as a metaphor, was any vision for our Nation’s space agency,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in a statement after the speech. “I am disappointed that the President used this moment only to reflect on NASA’s history, rather than promoting a strong vision for the future of space exploration.”

What’s needed now more than ever is a clear purpose for why we spend money and risk lives in government human spaceflight, something that provides a cohesive, compelling vision that is affordable and sustainable over the long haul.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, by comparison, tried to tie the agency to the speech’s themes of innovation, education, and infrastructure. “The 21st Century course that President Obama has set our agency on will foster new industries that create jobs, pioneer technology innovation, and inspire a new generation of explorers through education—all while continuing our fundamental mission of exploring our home planet and the cosmos,” he wrote in a blog post on NASA’s web site.

All those factors go a long way to help explain the sense of uncertainty and even malaise that many feel about NASA’s human spaceflight program. The long-running current program, the shuttle, is coming to an end, with a Congressionally-mandated successor facing questions about its utility, not to mention NASA’s own concerns about its ability to complete it on schedule and budget. The agency, which had looked to modest budget growth over the next several years, may see a long-term budget freeze as its best option, and could face significant cuts along with much of the rest of the federal government. And, in one of the most prominent presidential speeches of the current administration, the agency is recognized for what it did decades ago, not what it’s doing today and in the future.

Combined, this could be a recipe for mediocrity—at best—for NASA’s human spaceflight program: enough to make slow progress on new vehicles and spacecraft, but not enough to return to NASA the prestige it enjoyed in the early Space Age and that so many space enthusiasts crave for today. And as the glory days of Apollo fade further into history, and as external forces, like fiscal policy, continue to intrude, more people may begin to ask why NASA should spend billions of dollars a year on human spaceflight when that money could be spent on other agency programs, like aeronautics, earth science, and space science, not to mention other non-NASA programs—or simply not spent at all.

Space advocates have no shortage of reasons for human spaceflight, from science to technology spinoffs to national prestige to, as the Augustine Committee put it, “chart a path for human expansion into the solar system” (see “The $3-billion-a-year question”, The Space Review, September 21, 2009). Yet, individually and in ensemble, these rationales have failed to be sufficiently convincing to the public and policymakers to sustain past human exploration efforts, and there’s little to suggest the future will be any different. (Commercial human spaceflight, by comparison, has a very different, and more concrete, purpose, measured in terms of maximizing such metrics as revenues, profits, and return on investment. But even it is increasingly intertwined with government efforts, through the administration’s proposal to support development of commercial vehicles to serve both NASA and other customers.)

What’s needed now more than ever is a clear purpose for why we spend money and risk lives in government human spaceflight, something that provides a cohesive, compelling vision that is affordable and sustainable over the long haul: difficult, to be certain, but not necessarily impossible. It may be the most fitting memorial for those who gave their lives reaching for the stars.


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