OPINION: Fund NASA or shut it down
A recently-issued audit by the Government Accountability Office or “GAO” detailed how NASA lacks the funding to fly the Space Launch System (SLS ) by its scheduled launch date in December of 2017. This is only the latest delay for the successor to the space shuttle, originally ordered by President George W. Bush to fly no later than 2014. Is SLS destined to go the way of Constellation?
NASA programs are gutted and canceled on a regular basis. From a budget that consumed nearly ten percent (NASA’s budget actually peaked at about 4.1-4.5 percent of the federal budget) of the Federal budget in the 1960s, NASA’s budget woes began shortly after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The Apollo 18, 19 and 20 missions were canceled due to these budget cutbacks. The ambitious Apollo Applications project, which would have included the space station Skylab, a manned lunar base, and a manned Venus flyby, was canceled except for Skylab. About two decades later, in the 1990s, another NASA project, the X-33, called VentureStar, a planned successor to the shuttle, was canceled in 2001 after testing difficulties.
And most recently, the ambitious Constellation Program, an initiative with the directive of returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon, and then Mars and points beyond – was cancelled by the Obama Administration.
The cancellation and subsequent redirecting of NASA to empower commercial companies – radically changed the space agency’s goals. Moreover, seven years worth of development and $9 billion had already been spent on Constellation at the time of the program’s close.
Congress salvaged some of the Constellation Program in the form of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System. But just as with Constellation, they are failing to give NASA the funding necessary to complete its tasks. Cost overruns are a part of aerospace, and NASA appears to be taking the audit in stride. But with its congenital under-funding of NASA, it’s hard to believe Congress is really serious about America’s civilian space activities.
Since the termination of the Apollo program in 1972, NASA has limped along with less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and it is usually one of the first targets when Congress wants to reduce spending. Yet in addition to the manned space program, the organization has many other programs across which it is required to spend its diminishing pennies.
If NASA is not to be properly funded, it cannot accomplish its goals—or worst the agency will try to fulfill its obligations with adequate resources. The consequences of these actions were visible during the so-called “faster-better-cheaper” era at NASA. Several spacecraft were lost during this time.
While some would argue that the contractors and agency itself has a tendency to overfund its projects, the recent relationship that NASA has fostered with the commercial space firm SpaceX highlights that space – doesn’t come cheap. SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has made repeated statements and even testified that his company can handle the U.S. Air Force’s annual launch requirements and then some. With the agreements that the company currently has on the books, that comes to about 17-18 launches per year. Which is almost double what the company has been able to conduct in the past half-decade.
Evidently President Obama’s goal is to transition from a government-run space program to a commercial one (a strange goal for a Democrat, and impractical for a large-scale program), and yet the private companies competing for the Commercial Crew Program contract will be taxpayer-funded—so the private space program is not really private at all. In fact the use of the word “Commercial” is highly inaccurate as the only customer that, at present, uses the Dragon spacecraft – is NASA.
The same is true for Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus spacecraft which is one of the two companies delivering cargo to the ISS under the Commercial Resupply Services contract.
While Bigelow Aerospace has expressed interest in Boeing’s CST-100 for its proposed inflatable habitats, the fact remains that rather than changing the paradigm, these efforts primary positive aspect are that they are allowing different aerospace companies a chance to compete with established players such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. If the President and Congress really want U.S. manned launches to the International Space Station, an asteroid capture mission, and a manned mission to Mars, then they’re going to have to be willing to either make the investment, or to work with organizations such as the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency so as to help offset the cost.
Russia is increasingly proving to be an unstable partner for such an effort and China’s activities toward gaining technological insight through less-than-honest means – make them an odd fit for such a collaborative effort. The simple fact is that while the world needs a crewed deep space program with an eye set on development and colonization – the U.S. cannot afford to fund it entirely on its own.
NASA still needs to be ever-vigilant in terms of cost-overruns. Congress needs to recognize the organization that will develop the capabilities allowing us to not only protect our home world – and to cease being a single-planet species altogether – is NASA.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider.
This commentary was edited at 7:08 p.m. EDT on July 27 to include two additional images.
This commentary was edited at 11:13 a.m. EDT to reflect accurate percentage of U.S. budget allocated to NASA during Apollo Program.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.