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Falcon 9 on the pad
NASA administrator Charles Bolden, speaking above at the National Press Club on February 2, later admitted that the rollout of the FY 2011 budget and the policy changes for NASA it contains could have been handled better. (credit: B. Ingalls/NASA)

An agency in transition

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Over the weekend the greater Washington, DC, area was effectively crippled by a massive snowstorm, called by some, including President Obama, “Snowmageddon”. While the storm was not unexpected—being forecast up to a week in advance as a potentially major storm—the severity of it still took many by surprise as it dumped over 30 inches (75 centimeters) of snow in many locations. Citizens of region were left to dig out—slowly—from the aftermath.

“I think the fact that we’ve poured $9 billion into an unexecutable program really isn’t an excuse to pour another $50 billion and still not have an executable program,” OSTP’s Kohlenberger said of Constellation.

A week ago, the space community was similarly staggered by a storm of a different kind: the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2011. In the weeks and days leading up to the announcement, it was clear that significant changes were in store for NASA in the budget, as the agency and the administration digested the findings of the Augustine Committee (see “The real question”, The Space Review, February 1, 2010). Yet, the budget still surprised many by the scope of its changes: while Ares 1 was widely expected to be cancelled, far fewer predicted that all of Constellation, including the Orion spacecraft and Ares 5 heavy-lifter, would also get terminated. The community was forced to dig out from the aftermath of the budget’s central conclusion: the Vision for Space Exploration, as outlined by President Bush six years ago, was essentially dead.

Unlike the weather, the proposed change in direction for NASA is not immutable: it is still subject to approval by Congress, many of whose members are openly skeptical, if not hostile, to the proposal. However, if anything like the current proposal makes it past Congressional obstacles, it will represent the beginning of a major transition for the agency that goes far beyond terminating plans to immediately return to the Moon.

The big shift

Perhaps the most telling measure of the magnitude of the changes in the budget proposal is that most people overlooked what is the most commonly tracked metric of NASA budgets: its overall, or topline, amount. As it turns out, that amount is $19.0 billion, a modest increase over the $18.7 billion the agency got for the current fiscal year, and counter to the trend of frozen or decreased budgets for discretionary spending in general. Projections for future budgets included in the proposal would increase NASA’s budget to just under $21 billion by FY 2015.

Far more attention went instead to how NASA would spend that money. Gone was the entire Constellation program, including the Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft. (The budget includes $2.5 billion in 2011 and 2012 to cover the “close out costs” associated with ending the program.) Instead the agency unveiled three “robust” new exploration programs: technology demonstration, heavy-lift and propulsion research and development, and robotic precursor missions to potential future destinations for human exploration.

Also included, as many expected, was support for the development of commercial crew transportation. The budget includes $6 billion over five years, starting with $500 million in FY 2011, to “spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles”, as a NASA budget document put it. Those vehicles would transport crews to the ISS, whose life would be extended to at least 2020 under the budget proposal.

At the rollout of the budget last Monday, NASA and White House officials tried to justify these major changes in the agency’s plans, especially the cancellation of Constellation. They noted that, without a substantial infusion of additional funding, Constellation would not have delivered on its goals of returning humans to the Moon until the 2030s.

“I think the fact that we’ve poured $9 billion into an unexecutable program really isn’t an excuse to pour another $50 billion and still not have an executable program,” said Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a teleconference with reporters last Monday about the NASA budget. “Instead, we’re going to make wise and prudent investments—an additional $6 billion over the next five years—to really propel us on a new journey of innovation and discovery.”

“We are not drifting,” Bolden said. “We have defined destinations where we want to go, we will go there incrementally, and through our technology development, that will help determine where you go first.”

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, speaking at the beginning of the same telecon, sought to dispel notions that relying on commercial providers would somehow jeopardize safety. “NASA will set standards and processes to ensure that these commercially-built and -operated crew vehicles are safe. No one cares more about safety than I. I flew on the space shuttle four times. I lost friends in two space shuttle tragedies,” the former astronaut said, his voice becoming heavy with emotion. “So I give you my word: these vehicles will be safe.”

What Bolden or others couldn’t tell people on the telecon, or later meetings, was exactly what the future direction of NASA human spaceflight was in terms of destinations and schedules. “I believe we have a robust program here that I believe will get us certainly beyond low Earth orbit, to the Moon, to the asteroids, with our partners on a timetable that would definitely beat where we would have been heading” under the old plan, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said Monday.

“We are not drifting,” Bolden said at a press conference at the National Press Club the next day. “We have defined destinations where we want to go, we will go there incrementally, and through our technology development, that will help determine where you go first.” He added that the agency was establishing “tiger teams” to work out the details of future exploration plans, including destinations and timetables.

Bolden also had a message to the workforce, especially those who worked on Constellation. “Everybody’s had a death in the family,” he said Tuesday. “We need to give them time to grieve, and then we need to give them time to recover.”

Strong reactions

While Bolden was talking about a grieving workforce, it was apparent that other people, particularly many on Capitol Hill, were at earlier stages of the grief process, namely denial and anger. Indeed, it appears that, in rolling out the new plan, the administration and NASA forgot a piece of advice nearly five centuries old. “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince. “Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Even before Bolden and others could talk about the new budget, members of Congress who represent states and districts with a stake in Constellation were sounding off about the budget, and negatively. “The President’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of US human space flight,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), in a press release that came out within an hour of the overall budget release. “The cancelation of the Constellation program and the end of human space flight does represent change—but it is certainly not the change I believe in.”

“The President’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of US human space flight,” said Sen. Shelby

Over the course of the next day or so several other members of Congress also weighed in, with various degrees of disapproval or outrage. The plan was “unacceptable” to Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center. “Leaving NASA with no detailed plan or timeline for exploring beyond Earth’s orbit will cede our international leadership in space, cost our country the numerous economic benefits of human spaceflight, and fail to inspire this and future generations to excel in science and technology.” Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), whose district is immediately south of KSC, said he was “disappointed” in the plan. “This budget effectively ends America’s leadership in human space exploration.”

Members also aired those concerns during several hearings last week, none of which were explicitly about the budget but which provided them the opportunity to sound off on the budget. “I do share the concerns expressed by my colleagues about the proposed budget and the impact on human spaceflight, and essentially decimating America’s human spaceflight capacity,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), vice-chair of the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, which held a hearing on “Key Issues and Challenges Facing NASA” on Wednesday.

The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), was a little subtler in her criticism. “As I reviewed the President’s budget request, I found a quite glaring omission,” she said in her opening statement Wednesday, that being a lack of a broad vision for the agency. “My concern today is not numbers on a ledger, but rather the fate of the American dream to reach for the stars.”

The chair of the overall committee, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), took a more neutral stance in a press release Monday. “We will need to hear the Administration’s rationale for such a change and assess its impact on US leadership in space before Congress renders its judgment on the proposals,” he stated. However, he sounded more skeptical in an interview with The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville on Sunday. “My position would be to continue with the existing program until (Obama) can demonstrate there is a better alternative,” he told the paper. “The burden of proof is on the president.”

About the only member of Congress who sounded even lukewarm in his support was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and that was primarily of the plan’s emphasis on commercial providers over the government-operated Constellation. “We have had one test on all of this research that has been done on Constellation,” he said during Wednesday’s hearing, referring to the Ares 1-X test flight last October. “One test that had no new technology and hardware… and that brought us to $9 billion that we spent on the program that is now being suggested that we scrap,” he said. “This does not speak well of using our government as the vehicle for getting human beings into space.”

Supporters of the new plan relied instead of a patchwork of industry executives and other experts who issued statements or made comments, particularly in favor of the emphasis on commercial providers. “The Commercial Spaceflight Federation welcomes the decision today by President Obama to give NASA a 21st century vision for human spaceflight,” Brett Alexander, president of the industry group, said during a press teleconference a few hours after the budget’s release. “Commercial spaceflight is complementary, not competitive, to NASA.”

Augustine’s statement in support of the budget proposal, Nelson claimed, “was a namby-pamby watered-down statement that was oblique at best.”

As part of the budget rollout, NASA and OSTP released statements by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Augustine Committee chairman Norm Augustine. “The truth is, that we have already been to the Moon—some 40 years ago,” Aldrin said in his statement. “A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our Nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century.”

Those statements, though, were hardly enough to sway critics. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) was in particular unconvinced by Augustine’s statement, and let Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, know during a hearing about the overall budget proposal Tuesday. “It was a namby-pamby watered-down statement that was oblique at best,” Nelson claimed.

He also warned that Congress would consider making changes to the budget proposal in reaction to what the White House and NASA have proposed, including the termination of Ares 1 in favor of commercial providers. “I want you to take that for consideration,” Nelson concluded, “and that’s got to be changed, Dr. Orszag.”

By the end of the week, NASA administrator Bolden admitted than the unveiling of the budget and NASA’s new direction left something to be desired, and took the blame. “The reason Congress is angry with us, the reason that the NASA workforce was not better prepared, was because I didn’t listen to people like Morrie [Goodman], who talked about how we should roll this thing out,” Bolden said at a press conference Saturday at KSC, referring to the agency’s assistant administrator for public affairs. “I thought I knew better, to be quite honest… Was it screwed up? Yes it was.”

A grander transformation?

Many people—on Capitol Hill, in industry, and on editorial pages and in the blogosphere—missed in the discussion (not to mention the hype and hyperbole) about cancelling Constellation and “giving up the Moon” a more fundamental issue. If the plan survives the Congressional gauntlet of hearings, markups, amendments, and votes in anything like its present form, it will mark a radical transformation of the agency. Gone would be the emphasis on the development and operations of launch vehicles and spacecraft, focused on traveling to specific destinations. In its place would be the development of capabilities and technologies needed for future exploration to a variety of destinations, while also supporting the development of a commercial infrastructure to handle more routine operations.

NASA and White House officials hinted at this in the presentations of the budget last week. “Rather than setting those destinations and timelines, we’re setting goals for capabilities that can take us further, faster, and more affordably into space,” Garver said Monday.

On Tuesday, OSTP director John Holdren introduced Bolden as “the visionary leader of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which he is restructuring into the science-centered, technology-advancing, forward-leaning institution it needs to be to meet the challenges and opportunities of our country’s activities in space in the 21st century.”

Something like kind of transformation—from operations to technology development, from destinations to capabilities—has been promoted by some space advocates for some time (see “Review: Choice, Not Fate”, The Space Review, this issue). Such a transformation requires winning over those invested the most in the old system, convincing them that the old destination-driven paradigm that has driven human spaceflight since the original Space Race needs to be discarded for a new approach. That task could make Snowmageddon look like a snow flurry.