The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SLS illustration
While NASA has plans for future human space exploration, including the development of the Space Launch System, concerns about budgets create skepticism those plans can be carried out. (credit: NASA)

When darkness falls: the future of the US crewed spaceflight program

Bookmark and Share

In a recent article (see “NASA policy gets partisan”, The Space Review, August 5, 2013), Jeff Foust summed up the current state of the debate over the NASA exploration program thusly: “Also, unlike 2010, when there was a heated debate about the future of NASA’s exploration program, there is no driving issue of similar significance or urgency in 2013. With so little, relatively speaking, at stake, there is little incentive by the House and Senate to transcend partisan disputes and come to an agreement on what NASA funding and policies should be.” The operative wording is “there is no driving issue of similar significance or urgency in 2013.” This effectively summarizes the current state of the US space exploration program. The question is, how did the United States arrive at this situation, and is there a way forward? Both parts are unclear but this is one effort to address the question.

Loss of direction

When the Space Shuttle’s final mission ended in July 2011, the US exploration program—at least the human component—hit a pause, losing all coherence and direction. This possibility had been signaled ironically in the January 2004 announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). That announcement was fine, although disconnected from political reality even within the George W. Bush administration, whose progeny it was. What did not follow was budget: sufficient resources were never allocated even before the financial crisis that arose in 2008–2009. However, the 2004 VSE announcement definitively signaled the shuttle’s demise with the proposed successors, the Ares I and Ares V, which weew inadequately funded at best. This funding shortfall was not immediately self-evident because NASA has decades of experience making lemonade out of budgetary lemons. NASA always assumes (rightly or wrongly) that fiscal shortfalls will be made good. That is no longer true.

Efforts at replicating the past by putting China in the role of the Soviet Union as a space program catalyst have failed to gain traction. The situation is one where the unique political imperatives that drove the early US human spaceflight program do not appear at this point in history.

Basically, the reality is that there exists today no driving or agreed-upon agenda: the original Wernher von Braun paradigm articulated in the 1950s of going to the Moon and then to Mars dominates discussion without a commensurate political justification. Too often, in support of this view, the original Apollo program is unmoored from its political context. This becomes an important point if government is to fund future space exploration, as still appears the case for the immediate future. The Apollo program was the direct offspring of what was initially seen as an overwhelming political imperative: outperforming the Soviets in the ongoing political-military competition. As that great power competition waned in intensity, the Apollo program lost momentum with the cancelation of the last three lunar landing missions and the follow-on Apollo Applications Program, along with rejection of the Space Task Force report in 1969. The early 1970s saw the working off of the remaining Apollo program equipment inventory, while Space Shuttle development proceeded, albeit in a configuration that embodied higher future operating costs and technical risks (the latter not necessarily well understood at the time.) The decision to build the shuttle itself as replacement for the Saturn V was itself the product of short-term political choices in the context of the 1972 presidential election, rather than some larger plan for human space exploration (see below).

Recent efforts to create a new political justification for an enhanced human spaceflight program have failed to catch on in terms of public political support. Efforts at replicating the past by putting China in the role of the Soviet Union as a space program catalyst have failed to gain traction. The overwhelming threat perception inherent in the early 1960s does not resonate currently. So, the situation is one where the unique political imperatives that drove the early US human spaceflight program do not appear at this point in history. Other factors also explain the malaise impacting the US human space exploration program, but without political support little is possible. Thus, China races alone to replicate what the US and USSR have done earlier. Potential competitors such as India and Japan lag behind or have not joined the race yet.

It’s the economy, stupid

In 1992, the Bill Clinton presidential campaign had a famous sign in its war room: “it’s the economy, stupid,” or “the economy, stupid.” That was their mantra, to keep focused on the one issue that could elect Clinton president, the economy. Nothing else mattered. For the US human spaceflight program, the economy, in the form of the federal budget, is the only thing that matters since the late 1960s. Ignoring that reality has been the NASA way—one that is becoming even less sustainable as the program moves forward in time. NASA’s quest has been to rekindle the emotional-political context that fueled Apollo and drove it forward until the end of the 1960s.

As president, Richard Nixon (1969–1974) did two contradictory things with regards to the US space program. First, he followed President Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969) in saying no more in terms of expanding budgets for space exploration. Johnson earlier cut off the Apollo Applications Program and started scaling back Apollo itself. For Nixon, rejection of the Space Task Force report advocating continuation of the von Braun-Apollo model for space exploration was the introduction of a modicum of budget reality into future plans. However, his second choice—to authorize the proposed Space Shuttle—had the effect of keeping the flame alive for large-scale space endeavors. The funding travails of the shuttle’s development, including the sacrifice of space science projects to cover cost overruns (the “slaughter of the innocents,” in James Van Allan’s analysis), did nothing to educate the agency as to the reality of its fiscal future.

Ronald Reagan’s (1981–1989) decision to approve the space station program fed the delusion that the fiscal support was there. Outside President Reagan himself, there was no political support for the space station in Congress and inside the administration; other priorities were more important. The abortive Space Exploration Initiative announced by President George H.W. Bush (1989–1993) on the 20th anniversary of the July 1969 Apollo 11 landing dissipated quickly. The 1990s were spent struggling to get the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) budgets under control (only partially successful) and the station actually built. The earlier Challenger accident in 1986 signaled the shuttle’s eventual demise despite rhetoric that the shuttle could fly until 2030 or beyond (similar to the now ancient B-52.) The B-52, however, met a defense need, meaning the money was there to upgrade and improve the aircraft; that did not exist for the shuttle. Significant money for upgrades only came after shuttle accidents. The decision to terminate the space shuttle was finalized after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia reentry breakup. President George W. Bush (2001–2009) announced the VSE which was canceled by President Barack Obama (2009–present) for a more nebulous way forward known as the “flexible path.”

The Great Recession has changed budget dynamics in ways that represent a maximum danger for the US human exploration program.

This brief overview illustrates the point that there has been a continuing disconnect between aspirations and budget. Even the most supportive situation has found an agency whose budgetary reach always exceeds its grasp. Even the blessed Apollo program underwent significant budget cuts almost immediately after its initiation—this represents reality in Washington politics. Discretionary programs such as the space program are not guaranteed any particular level of funding in the absence of national emergency. That moment in history occurred in the 1960s but has not reappeared since, despite much rhetoric, including presidential statements never backed by sufficient cash. This is not say that NASA has not been funded, but initial funding quickly disappeared, leaving programs underfunded especially as costs rise above projections; there is then no slack in the system to cover such shortfalls. What occurs next is cannibalism among agency programs with the political weaker giving to the stronger. NASA is in, at best, a stasis situation, with only minimal pressure for upward change but great potential for decline.

The Great Recession has changed budget dynamics in ways that represent a maximum danger for the US human exploration program. Concerns about budget deficits make discretionary spending more vulnerable to cuts—being defined as discretionary means not essential for government operations. Rather, they are nice to have but not critical, so they can disappear, at least in principle. One must remember the defense budget is also technically discretionary, but not in reality, although there is no guaranteed funding level. Extreme partisanship, especially in the House of Representatives, raises a further barrier to establishment of future directions for the space program; such plans would normally lead to a basically coherent budget future albeit underfunded for the program. Across-the-board budget cuts make planning difficult at best and impossible over the long term. The agency is not critical enough to be immune from such cuts, especially since the Department of Defense is not immune. Lack of budget and even budget certainty going forward makes hash out of any future planning. This raises the question whether the US human spaceflight program has an independent future before it.

Things that matter

There are no quick solutions to a problem that is four decades in the making. President Nixon’s decisions in 1969 and 1972 regarding the Apollo program first, and then the Space Shuttle, set the game in motion. On one hand, Nixon introduced realism into the budget discussions, a situation partially reversed by the shuttle choice, one that was marinated in presidential politics. The shuttle was considered politically critical in January 1972 because of the shuttle-related jobs to be created in California at the point when Nixon confronted a strong opposing candidate, Edmund Muskie, whose campaign subsequently evaporated in the New Hampshire snows. One must note that the space program was not a partisan issue because nationally the program never mattered: it became a playground for constituency politics (keeping jobs at the NASA centers) and selected special interests such as universities and a few contractors (the big money in aerospace was in defense contracting.) NASA and human spaceflight were symbolically important but not essential. Most in Congress are only vaguely interested in the space program, as it is not relevant to their constituency interests except at a symbolic level. What complicates things presently is that partisanship has been imported into the field for reasons unrelated to the space program or human spaceflight.

The US human spaceflight program is built around two totems at this point: support of the International Space Station as the last vestige of the von Braun paradigm, and development of the Space Launch System (SLS). Taking each in turn, with the shuttle shutdown in July 2011, the United States is paying the Russians to take astronauts to the ISS while concurrently engaged in developing commercial flight options through several companies, first to deliver cargo to the ISS and, later, crews. This program has two impacts: encouraging commercial spaceflight and reasserting a US presence in human spaceflight at least to low Earth orbit (LEO). One must note that no one is moving beyond Earth orbit yet in terms of human spaceflight. This program also removes NASA from the burden of supporting LEO missions. The Space Shuttle, due to its design limitations, turned the program into a trucking service at first to LEO and back, and then to the ISS. The latter task was, in fact, the shuttle’s original mission in the larger scheme vetoed by President Nixon. Its approval left the shuttle as an isolated technology from the original dream as the other building blocks—except, belatedly, the ISS—never got built.

Lack of agreement regarding future missions beyond LEO reflects the central reality that no one, executive or congressional, is prepared to commit to a realistic budget for human space exploration. The result is a program whose budgets gets caught in the undertow of partisan wrangling.

The SLS is purportedly NASA’s ticket to the future of space exploration beyond LEO, breaking the bonds of the Earth. What that future is remains speculative: Moon, Mars, an asteroid, or something entirely different? Unfortunately, the SLS’s future remains murky in part because of budget realities. NASA funding is in relative and absolute decline as the agency becomes caught in the maelstrom of federal budget politics. Choices based on policy choices are not being made but, instead, across-the-board cuts are the approach. The agency’s reflex built into its DNA since Apollo is to siphon funds away from other program areas to keep the human space exploration effort alive, at least at some level. Signs of internal policy dissent are appearing publicly. The agency is confronting another crisis similar to the earlier period labeled the “slaughter of the innocents” in the early 1980s, when space science was sacrificed on the altar of the shuttle, and the later period in the 1990s when the ISS and shuttle were projected to consume the entire NASA budget. The latter did not happen—the programs were restructured, reducing the budgetary impact—but it was a real threat. However, that was an era when there existed a commitment to the program at least at some level; that commitment may not exist in the present budget environment.

Lack of agreement regarding future missions beyond LEO reflects the central reality that no one, executive or congressional, is prepared to commit to a realistic budget for human space exploration. The result is a program whose budgets gets caught in the undertow of partisan wrangling in which a visceral Republican dislike of the Obama Administration blights any efforts at possible future planning. Instead, Congress struggles to pass specific requirements that the agency or SLS and the Orion capsule cannot meet given budget realities. The result is delay and disruption in the program – a recipe for a failing program.

Going forward

There are several items that must be addressed if the United States is to remain an active leader in human space exploration. First, the clock is running on the ISS: its replacement, or not, must be on the US and international agendas. NASA is pushing to extend the ISS beyond 2020, but that even if done only delays the question of what next? Barring a major change, the United States will not be the funder of such an endeavor. That means “NASA-Next” will truly be an international cooperative project. Such a program will require forethought and planning. It also should incorporate private sector funding and technology. NASA-Next could be the core for a space village of free flyers including space tourist hotels. Bigelow Aerospace has developed habitats, but their likely isolated locations leave open questions of rescue and assistance that a village could provide. This, ironically, returns the NASA-Next to an earlier conception of the original US space station that got eliminated over the years. That earlier configuration saw free flyers as manufacturing nodes that could also return at some point. If humans are to inhabit space, one must start building the experience and technology that makes that possible rather than one-off missions that lack continuity. ISS is currently providing some of that continuity despite the constant crew rotations. NASA-Next could become the means by which humans actually begin residing in outer space as a routine experience rather than an exotic occurrence restricted to a select few. This assumes the commercial sector will be able to lift both people and payloads at a cost that makes such endeavors cheaper than the shuttle and Soyuz spacecraft provided earlier and presently. If domestic political objections are removed, this could include China as a partner: ITAR restrictions do not appear to have crippled their space program.

Second, the US must overcome its internal divisions and agree on a realistically funded NASA program. John Kennedy and Apollo are not returning, nor are the Chinese currently the reincarnation of the 1960s Soviets who inspired the original competition. Future space exploration must be grounded in a sense that what is decided is important. This does not imply crisis funding (barring the arrival of aliens in the neighborhood or an asteroid threat that we are actually aware of before it passes by or hits) or that everything must be done. Globalization is much overused, but it holds—at least partially—the ticket to outer space, since several nations now possess useful technology that can be employed by all. Space science can no longer be the piggy bank that must be broken open for human spaceflight, but does not mean that space science is immune to the travails of the US budgetary process. Congress, if possible, can go to multiyear appropriations for NASA as partial protection, but the central reality of US politics is that Congress reserves the right to change its mind. Budgets follow that logic. Those individuals who think that situation is wrong need to get over it; this is a democracy. The future is always out there but only the people, through their representatives, can decide what that means. A publicly funded program is always hostage to the vagaries of public choices as mediated through their representatives.

A privately funded space program represents a possibility in principle, but likely flounders on where the upfront funding is to be found to pay for developing expensive technology and conducting operations. Outsourcing the program using public monies to support private efforts is not necessarily a solution since funding is never guaranteed. Remember that Congress has the last word. The amount of money required is too great. Plus, private-public partnerships are one solution, although it does not get one beyond Earth orbit. Ultimately, there is a way forward for the US human space exploration program, if all the stakeholders involved—NASA, the White House, Congress, and the American people—realize the future cannot look like the past.