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Bush at NASA HQ
Four years after President Bush’s speech at NASA headquarters, the Vision for Space Exploration remains alive, but not without some serious challenges ahead. (credit: White House)

The Vision’s critical year

Four years ago today—January 14, 2004—President George W. Bush made the short trip across downtown Washington to NASA Headquarters to deliver a speech outlining his vision for the future of America’s space program. In that speech, Bush outlined the key elements of what came to be known as the Vision for Space Exploration: complete the International Space Station (ISS) and retire the shuttle by 2010; field the shuttle’s replacement, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), by 2014; and return humans to the Moon by 2020 as a prelude for future human missions to Mars and beyond.

While Bush’s speech excited some people, particularly space enthusiasts and aerospace professionals, others were skeptical, recalling in particular the failed effort by Bush’s father to develop the Space Exploration Initiative 15 years earlier. Many people, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, wondered whether this was the right direction for NASA, while others questioned the ultimate cost of this program. Had Las Vegas opened a betting line on the Vision, the over/under on its duration likely would have been less than four years.

It’s now clear that what takes place in the next year, from Washington to the campaign trail to the various NASA centers and industry facilities, could well make or break the Vision in its current incarnation.

Yet today, the Vision is alive and well—at least on the surface. NASA is pressing ahead with the completion of the ISS and is taking steps to retire the shuttle that, while not completely irreversible, are gradually becoming more difficult and expensive to overturn. NASA has also awarded all the key contracts for the development of the CEV, now called Orion, and its launch vehicle, the Ares 1. (The agency, though, will apparently miss a long-forgotten milestone in Bush’s speech to “develop and test” the CEV by 2008.) Ares 1 and Orion are part of a broader exploration architecture released by NASA over two years ago that also outlines the other components needed to return humans to the Moon. NASA has also started to sketch out what a lunar base might be like, where it would be located, and what sort of work might be performed there.

However, despite those accomplishments, the future of the Vision is far from certain. While most people are focused on what changes a new administration will bring to NASA in 2009, that is not the only, nor necessarily the biggest, challenge facing the Vision. A year ago, this author argued that the next two years would be critical to the long-term future for the Vision (see “The Vision at three: smooth sailing or rough seas?”, The Space Review, January 15, 2007). It’s now clear that what takes place in the next year, from Washington to the campaign trail to the various NASA centers and industry facilities, could well make or break the Vision in its current incarnation.

Political risks

In recent months, most of the attention on the Vision’s future has been focused on something that is completely out of NASA’s hands: the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Whoever is inaugurated as president, just 372 days from today, will have the prerogative to put his or her stamp on the space agency and its programs, including the Vision. That could mean reaffirming and even bolstering the goals laid out in 2004, or reshaping or truncating them, especially long-term aspects like a return to the Moon.

Since space is not a major campaign issue, the candidates have said little on the topic to date (see “Where the candidates stand on space”, The Space Review, December 31, 2007). The major Republican candidates have been largely limited to brief, generic platitudes in support of space exploration; Mike Huckabee, in a televised debate in December, said, “Whether we ought to go to Mars is not a decision that I would want to make, but I would certainly want to make sure that we expand the space program.” One of the Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton, released a policy in October that endorsed the near-term goals of the Vision, including speeding “development, testing, and deployment of next-generation launch and crew exploration vehicles.” She stopped short, though, of endorsing the Vision’s goal of human lunar missions by 2020, saying only that she supported “later human missions” beyond the completion of the ISS.

The other Democratic frontrunner, Barack Obama, recently clarified his stance on space policy after calling for a five-year delay in the Constellation program (which includes Ares and Orion) in November to help pay for his education program. In a document published on SpaceRef.com late last week, Obama outlined a set of goals and priorities not dissimilar to what Clinton proposed, including support for the continued development of Ares and Orion. However, the policy says little about long-term plans for human spaceflight other than that the CEV will “be the backbone of future missions”, and that continued robotic exploration, supported by Obama, will “lay the foundations for further manned exploration”.

Obama’s policy says little about long-term plans for human spaceflight other than that the CEV will “be the backbone of future missions”, and that continued robotic exploration, supported by Obama, will “lay the foundations for further manned exploration”.

In aggregate, these statements suggest that the next president, regardless of whomever is elected this November, would at least maintain the near-term goals of the Vision, including the completion of the ISS, retirement of the shuttle, and development of Ares and Orion. The specific long-term goals of the Vision, though, may well be in jeopardy. However, developments outside of the campaign trail could put even the near-term plans into question.

Fiscal risks

When President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, one of its central themes was fiscal responsibility. Rather than seek a major budget increase for NASA, Bush called instead for a modest $1-billion increase, spread over five years, along with reallocation of funds among agency programs. That increase, followed by only inflationary growth thereafter, would be sufficient to carry out the Vision, NASA argued, creating a graph dubbed the “sand chart” to illustrate its budget projections through 2020.

That approach has been all but discredited now, a victim of rising costs, shifting priorities, and the inevitable budgetary tug-of-war between the White House and Congress. In the fiscal year 2005 budget proposal released by NASA just a few weeks after Bush’s speech, NASA requested $16.2 billion in 2005, part of a modest increase that, in the budget’s five year projection, called for $17.8 billion by 2007 before flattening out at around $18 billion for 2008 and 2009. In fact, NASA got $17.3 billion in the final FY2008 appropriations bill, and even that was a significant increase over the FY07 budget of $16.2 billion—over a billion and a half dollars less for FY07 than what NASA projected back in 2005.

NASA administrator Mike Griffin bluntly laid out the situation last week in a speech at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. Griffin acknowledged that the administration had pledged an extra billion for NASA in the 2005–2009 period, but “a year later, about two weeks after I was privately informed that I had been selected to be the new Administrator, that increase was rescinded and, further, an additional 2 billion dollar reduction incurred,” he said. Worse, he added, the shuttle and ISS programs had not been “funded at the level required to match the nation’s commitment to complete the ISS and retire the Shuttle in 2010,” prior to his taking office. “I fixed that, rather than allowing a budgetary sham to be continued, but it was a $4 billion problem, and it was painful to fix.”

All of that has had a major impact on NASA’s ability to carry out its complete portfolio of programs, not just the Vision. “[A]dding it all up, NASA has absorbed almost $12 billion in budget reductions and unplanned expenses in the FY05-12 period that were not in the plan a mere three years ago,” Griffin said. That has left NASA with delays in key programs, including Constellation (which is now projected to become operational in early 2015, past the Vision’s 2014 goal); disgruntled researchers, like those astronomers in Austin, who have seen their budgets cut back as a result of these budgetary pressures; and a growing sense on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that NASA may be trying to do too much with too little money.

“NASA has absorbed almost $12 billion in budget reductions and unplanned expenses in the FY05-12 period that were not in the plan a mere three years ago,” Griffin said last week.

Agency supporters in Congress are trying to win more money for NASA to help rectify those problems. Last week, two key members from Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Nick Lampson, proposed adding $2 billion to NASA’s budget over the next two years in order to speed development of Constellation and close the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and Orion’s introduction. It’s not the first time such proposals have been made: last fall Hutchison and Sen. Barbara Mikulski got the Senate to approve a measure adding $1 billion to NASA’s FY08 budget. However, the House had not made a similar gesture, and the extra money was deleted in the conference committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions of the budget bill. Lampson told the Houston Chronicle that “he’s counting on a growing bipartisan sentiment in the House to assist NASA.”

Execution and other risks

Beyond the budget and politics, there are a number of other issues that could impede progress on, or even threaten the future of, the Vision over the next year. Project Constellation in particular has a number of key technical milestones in the coming year, and while NASA and its contractors are confident about their progress, some people continue to raise concerns about the current architecture, including whether the Ares 1 vehicle is underpowered (or the Orion capsule is overweight). If those concerns persist through the year, it might open the door for a reconsideration of the entire technical architecture should the next president decide to replace Griffin as NASA administrator.

There are smaller, but still significant, obstacles for the Vision in the coming year, such as with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which may be key for NASA to reduce its dependence on Russian vehicles after the shuttle retirement and thus assuage concerns about the gap between the shuttle and Constellation. Congress cut the COTS budget by about 30 percent in its final FY2008 budget, and the selection process for a new funded award or awards is held up while the GAO reviews a protest filed by former COTS partner Rocketplane Kistler about the use of funded Space Act Agreements versus conventional contracts for the program. In a speech in Houston last week, Griffin vowed to make up the money and press ahead with the program. “[M]y resolution for 2008 is to fight for the COTS program,” he said. “I will be asking the Congress for the funds in 2009 to maintain NASA’s promised $500 million investment in the program. I hope to award contracts to U.S. companies in the coming weeks ahead, once we clear all legal challenges.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all facing NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration in the coming year, though, is building up a base of support for the effort that can ensure the agency can continue to carry out the program in 2009 and beyond. That support, from the public, industry, academia, and Congress, could help win additional money for NASA to ease its current problems and encourage presidential candidates to be more forthcoming about their plans for the space agency and the Vision if elected.

“Imagine, if you will, the increased support for NASA—all of NASA—that could result if science community leaders utilized their prestige and their talent for advocacy to promote all of NASA, and not just the individual missions and portfolios of greatest interest to them,” Griffin said.

That, however, will be an uphill battle. NASA has suffered from a string of bad publicity in the last year, from the Lisa Nowak arrest to allegations of intoxicated astronauts to claims that NASA was withholding and, later, obfuscating a controversial pilot air safety survey, none of which have helped build confidence in or support of the agency. Researchers continue to feel that they have borne a disproportionate share of NASA’s budget problems. That feeling was exacerbated by Griffin’s AAS speech last week, where he admonished scientists for not supporting, or at least accepting, the continued existence of the ISS, saying that failure to do so “consigns one, in my mind, to the ‘kids table’” of policy debates. “I get the strong feeling that he sees us as the enemy, as children, and as people who need to be scolded and put in our place,” one AAS attendee said in a blog posting.

That sentiment was ironic, since Griffin was asking astronomers to support the agency’s overall goals, including the Vision, believing that by working together, everyone would benefit. “Imagine, if you will, the increased support for NASA—all of NASA—that could result if science community leaders utilized their prestige and their talent for advocacy to promote all of NASA, and not just the individual missions and portfolios of greatest interest to them,” Griffin said in his speech. “Imagine if we put aside self-interest, and all hung together.”

That might seem like a tall order for an often-fractious community, but given the many challenges on the horizon, that degree of unity may be required if the Vision is to survive into 2009 and beyond in any recognizable form.


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