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Bush at NASA HQ
Three years after President Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration, the effort has avoided the fate of SEI but still faces some major issues in the next two years. (credit: White House)

The Vision at three: smooth sailing or rough seas?

On July 20th, 1992, the third anniversary of President George H.W. Bush’s speech on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum where he announced plans for a human return to the Moon and later missions to Mars, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) was dead. SEI had arguably died not long after that speech, a victim of a massive price tag, Congressional opposition, and infighting between the White House and NASA. A few remnants of SEI remained in place—including an Office for Exploration within NASA led by associate administrator Michael Griffin—but by then the agency’s focus had shifted to the growing problems with Space Station Freedom and new administrator Dan Goldin’s focus on “faster, better, cheaper”. (See “Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two”, The Space Review, February 23, 2004)

On January 14th, 2007, the third anniversary of President George W. Bush’s speech at NASA Headquarters where he announced plans for a human return to the Moon and later missions to Mars, the Vision for Space Exploration (more often called “the Vision” rather than by its acronym, VSE), was still very much alive. The Vision has, so far, avoided the pitfalls that doomed SEI, including continued (if not public) backing from the White House, competent administration of the effort by NASA, and bipartisan support in Congress. Three years after the announcement, NASA appears to be making steady progress on the near-term goals of the Vision, including completing assembly of the International Space Station and retiring the shuttle by the end of the decade, and beginning development of a new generation of spacecraft and launch vehicles to carry out future missions to the Moon and elsewhere.

Looked at from that perspective, the Vision appears to be in good shape, having avoided the “infant mortality” problems that could befall it: no small feat, given NASA’s record with SEI and the skepticism in many quarters after the Vision’s announcement three years ago. It’s tempting to think, then, that the worst problems are behind the Vision, and the program will continue to gain momentum in the years to come, making it effectively unstoppable. However, while the Vision has avoided the problems that could have resulted in its early demise, one can argue that the next two years are the most critical for the Vision and its long-term future. A variety of issues that have emerged as the plan has evolved from the broad brushstrokes of a presidential address to concrete programs and contracts, combined with the presidential election cycle, suggest that how NASA and the Vision’s supporters—in the White House, Congress, industry, and elsewhere—perform over the next two years may make all the difference regarding whether the Vision will survive in 2009 and beyond.

Budget crunch

Easily the biggest near-term problem facing the Vision, and NASA in general, is the agency’s budget. When the Vision was first announced, it was sold to Congress and the public as an effort that required very little additional money, instead taking advantage of the savings that would be realized once the shuttle was retired and the ISS completed. NASA produced an elaborate chart, soon dubbed the “sand chart”, which showed how the budget for the exploration program would grow while the overall size of the agency’s budget grew only at roughly the rate of inflation through 2020. This avoided the half-trillion price tag that doomed SEI, although initially there were media reports that claimed the whole effort would cost a trillion dollars (see “Whispers in the echo chamber”, The Space Review, March 22, 2004). This appeared to win over Congress, which provided NASA with the modest initial budget increase requested to kick off the program (thanks, in part, to some last-minute maneuvering by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in the final negotiations for the fiscal year 2005 appropriations bill.)

While the Vision has avoided the problems that could have resulted in its early demise, one can argue that the next two years are the most critical for the Vision and its long-term future.

Since then, though, NASA has found it more difficult than initially expected to ramp up the Vision without impacting other agency programs. The high costs of returning the shuttle to flight and continuing work on the station led NASA, in its FY 2007 budget proposal, to propose cutbacks in science and aeronautics programs to avoid bigger cuts in the exploration program—something that Griffin, who returned to NASA as administrator in April 2005, had previously claimed he would not do. This has created a growing degree of opposition to the Vision within the scientific community where previously, when it appeared the Vision and science missions could co-exist in some degree of harmony, there had been little active opposition.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of a 2007 budget for NASA. The 109th Congress adjourned in December without approving most of the FY 2007 appropriations bills on its plate, including the one that funds NASA. The new Congress, now under Democratic leadership, announced last month that instead of finishing those outstanding bills, they would instead quickly pass a “joint funding resolution”, which, in effect, would be a longer version of the stopgap continuing resolutions that have funded NASA and other affected parts of the government since the fiscal year began on October 1. The new resolution, which would run through the end of the fiscal year, would continue to fund agencies at the FY 2006 levels—meaning that NASA could end up with about a half-billion dollars less than what it anticipated for 2007. That’s not good news for an agency that was already feeling squeezed.

Some reports have suggested that there may be some room for improvement in the weeks to come as Congress hashes out the joint funding resolution, allowing NASA to win back some of the money it currently stands to lose. However, given the expected fierce competition for funding, it seems unlikely NASA will get it all back, making a bad situation worse. In an interview with Aerospace Daily published last week, Griffin said both the two key programs of the Vision, the Orion spacecraft and Ares 1 launcher, as well as the shuttle and station, would have the highest priority for funding, suggesting that science and aeronautics programs or even lower-priority exploration programs, such as robotic lunar missions that would follow the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, could be in greater jeopardy.

This makes the FY 2008 budget proposal, due to be released in early February, all the more critical to the Vision and NASA. Depending on the size of the overall budget and its distribution of funding, it could ease NASA’s current crunch—or make it worse. Moreover, the budget must now go through a Congress now run by Democrats. This has elevated the position of some NASA supporters, like Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who now chairs the subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees NASA. (Mikulski led an effort, dubbed the “Mikulski Miracle”, to add a billion dollars to NASA’s FY07 budget to ease its current problems; that effort died when the new Congressional leadership elected to go the route of a yearlong continuing resolution.) However, in the House, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey (D-WI), has been a critic of NASA’s exploration plans, saying at one point last year that supporters of the Vision in Congress were suffering from “Mars fever”.

Building a constituency

The Vision has certainly enjoyed support from a number of sectors since its inception, from the aerospace industry to members of Congress from districts with key NASA centers to hardcore space advocates who were left hurting after the demise of SEI over a decade ago. But what about the general public in the US? Do they support the program, oppose it, or even care about it?

The American public, overall, hasn’t put much thought into the Vision over the last three years. It also argues that NASA and its supporters have not been able to explain why the Vision is important in a way that resonates with the public.

It all depends on how you ask the question. A series of polls performed by Gallup on behalf of the Coalition for Space Exploration, most recently in August 2006, shows that about two-thirds of the public supports or strongly supports the idea of the Vision. However, another poll performed by Gallup in mid-2005 (around the time of the first Gallup poll for the Coalition), this time for USA Today and CNN, reported that 58 percent opposed the idea of “setting aside money to land humans on Mars.” And a study released last week by the University of Chicago found that space exploration ranked 21st out of 22 areas in terms of government spending priorities, with a far larger percentage concluding that the government spends too much on space than too little. (Only foreign aid ranked worse than space.) Worse, younger Americans, notably Generation Y, have expressed high levels of disinterest or even opposition to key aspects of the Vision, such as sending humans to the Moon and Mars. (See “The medium and the message”, The Space Review, January 2, 2007)

This demonstrates that the American public, overall, hasn’t put much thought into the Vision over the last three years. That’s hardly surprising, given all the other things going on today that are either more important or simply more entertaining to the public. It also argues that NASA and its supporters have not been able to explain why the Vision is important in a way that resonates with the public. That appeared to be the case with NASA’s announcement last month of its plans to establish a base on the Moon in the 2020s: the agency trotted out a laundry list of reasons why a base was important, trying to be as inclusive as possible but failing to be compelling. (See “Moonbase why”, The Space Review, December 11, 2006) If NASA can’t explain clearly and simply why humans should return to the Moon and travel to Mars and other destinations beyond, it should be little surprise that public support is shallow, at best.

Technical complications

Unlike SEI, which died long before its broad plans could be translated into actual hardware, the Vision has reached the point where contracts have been let for some of the cornerstones of its implementation, including the Orion spacecraft and Ares 1 launcher. Those efforts, while essential to the Vision, also pose a risk: cost overruns and schedule delays in these efforts could cause backers of the effort to reconsider their support, putting the Vision in general in peril.

For months there have been rumors about problems with the design of the Ares 1, aka “the stick”, based on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster (SRB) with a new upper stage attached. The vehicle’s design has changed since its introduction over a year ago, including a shift from a four-segment SRB like the one used on the shuttle to a newer five-segment design, and the replacement of a space shuttle main engine on the upper stage with an Apollo-era J-2X. NASA has denied that there are problems with the design or performance of the Ares 1, and as recently as last week Michael Griffin said that the agency was not studying alternatives to it. However, if technical problems do emerge in the months to come with either Ares 1 or Orion, it could raise new concerns about the overall Vision.

Planning for 2009

When the Democrats regained control of Congress in the November elections, some wondered if this would result in a change in direction for NASA. In the near term, that appears to be unlikely. The Vision has had bipartisan support in Congress over the last three years, including overwhelming passage of a NASA authorization bill in 2005 that explicitly endorsed the Vision. The new Democratic leaders of key committees may take a fresh look at NASA and the Vision, but Congress doesn’t seem likely to press for wholesale changes in the Vision. Even if it wanted to, there are simply too many other higher political priorities at the moment to warrant giving NASA much attention.

A Vision that is running relatively smoothly isn’t immune from significant change or even cancellation, depending on the desires of the new president, but it will help the program avoid undesirable attention and give it a fighting chance to continue in more or less its current form by the next administration.

The real challenge facing the Vision won’t come for two more years. When the Vision marks its fifth anniversary on January 14th, 2009, the country will be on the threshold of inaugurating a new president. Will he (or she) inherit a program that has made steady progress over the previous two years, getting past the current budget problems and building up support among the public? Or will he or she find an effort that has gained a reputation for raiding the coffers of other agency programs to fund vehicles whose development is experiencing problems and delays?

Given the depth of public support (or lack thereof) for the Vision to date, a new president could shift NASA’s direction away from the Vision with little outcry, especially if the program appeared flawed. However, space is unlikely to be a high priority for the next president, given all the other pressing issues in the nation and world. A Vision that is running relatively smoothly isn’t immune from significant change or even cancellation, depending on the desires of the new president, but it will help the program avoid undesirable attention and give it a fighting chance to continue in more or less its current form by the next administration. That makes the next two years as critical as any for NASA and supporters of the Vision for Space Exploration.


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