Two articles regarding the never-ending debate over our national space program recently drew my attention. One, published by Hearst Newspapers, discusses the current policy confusion in space, particularly in regard to the different versions of the next NASA Authorization Bill currently before Congress. Another article highlights (inadvertently) the amount of federal money spent on civil space. Both pieces, though different in scope and intent, bring into sharp focus the dilemma facing our space program.
With the recent two-week partial “shutdown” and current focus on the Health Care Initiative, national attention is diverted from other aspects of the government. Currently, the document outlining Congressional strategic directions for the agency – the next NASA Authorization Bill – remains stagnant in the bowels of committee structure, blocked by the now too-familiar chaotic process that passing the annual federal budget has become.
Last summer, both House and Senate Subcommittees on Space drafted new Authorizations for NASA. The House version keeps a strict funding limit under the existing budget “sequester” (at a level of approximately $16.6 billion per year) and lays out a path that makes the Moon and cislunar space the next goal for human spaceflight. Significantly, the House bill specifically forbids the agency from pursuing the administration’s proposed “haul asteroid” mission, in which a meters-sized near-Earth object is bagged and brought into lunar orbit, where a human crew in the new Orion spacecraft would rendezvous with and examine it for a brief period. The Senate version of the bill authorizes more money for the agency (~$18 billion per year) but does not prohibit the haul asteroid mission – in fact, the Senate bill is silent about any mission beyond low Earth orbit at all. Both bills would continue to fund the agency’s new SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft. Ordinarily these bills would be sent to the respective chamber floors for a vote and then sent to conference, where the differences between the two versions would be sorted out.
Conventional wisdom holds that under either authorization, NASA would get less money than it needs to carry out all of the missions and policy directives in its portfolio. Most famously, the 2009 Augustine report claimed that a budget increase of roughly $3 billion per year was needed to fully execute the then-existing goal of lunar return. This number has gained wide “rule-of-thumb” currency in space policy circles and has been used as both a rallying cry to garner support for more funding and as an excuse for why the agency cannot seem to make any significant progress beyond (barely) maintaining the International Space Station.
There are two ways to approach the issue of space spending. One is to ask the question, “Are we funding the agency at the right level?” (Which assumes that NASA is – broadly speaking – going in the right direction and the rate of progress is really a function of the amount of money we spend on it.) A slightly different approach asks instead, “What are we attempting and is there a path by which we can reach that goal?” (This questions the current direction and instead seeks to envision alternative paths to space achievement.)
Many polls show that large segments of the public are convinced that NASA gets much more money than many other government agencies, particularly in comparison with social welfare programs. A recent press release from the Senate Appropriations Committee illustrates dramatically that such is not the case. In fact, the combined budgets of NASA, and the Departments of Transportation and Education are dwarfed by the amounts spent on welfare; the combined total for these three entities collectively constitute about one fifth the cumulative, discretionary amount spent on welfare over the last five years. Even more telling is that within that random grouping with Education and Transportation (see figure), the space agency’s budget is but a miniscule fraction of the aggregate amount of these three diverse federal enterprises. It is important to emphasize that this is all discretionary spending; entitlements (a much larger fraction of federal spending) are not included in this analysis.
The budget allocation for NASA is now and has been for many years about one-half of one percent of total discretionary spending. By virtue of this spending level having been maintained for the last thirty years, this annual amount of appropriated money apparently is politically sustainable. In fact, flat level funding was integral in the planning of the original Vision for Space Exploration – by cleverly spending what we would likely get for space, it would be possible (over time) to build-up a permanent and lasting capability. A predicate of this idea was that we had a notion of the direction we wanted to go – that we could systematically pursue that direction regardless of the rate of progress in any given year.
Unfortunately, the idea of an incremental, sustainable approach was lost in the implementation of the VSE, as I have previously discussed on this blog and elsewhere. We seem wedded to the idea of a civil space program as a venue for entertainment, wherein each mission must be something “new,” “spectacular” and “trailblazing.” Even now, this mindset dominates the national discussion, whereby a return to the Moon was abandoned because “we’ve been there” – a has-been stunt and the audience needs a new act. We’ve become trapped in a progressive space program of “firsts” and new thrills to “engage the public” and exhorted to “engage our touchy-feely side” rather than make logical judgments on the basis of cold facts. A tacit admission that this paradigm prevails is seen when the NASA Administrator claims in public discourse that we are doing the haul asteroid mission “because it’s all we can do” – he draws a blank when attempting to describe any possible benefits from it.
The real debate over space policy is not about destinations, it is about our national mindset and template of space operations. If the policy remains focused on performing public relations spectacles, we should not be surprised that until this “circus” folds its tent, only stunt missions will be proposed and flown.
I believe that human spaceflight has proven societal value, one whose potential is hinted at by the design and construction of the ISS, but a value not yet fully realized and exploited. We should strive for a human spaceflight program that gradually and incrementally builds capabilities over time – an extension of human reach beyond LEO into cislunar space. In such a mindset, the amount of money NASA receives becomes less significant and less disruptive. True enough, there is a budget point beyond which we cannot make any progress, but we are far away from such a level at $16 billion per year.
The National Academy panel currently examining the future of human spaceflight could serve a useful purpose by re-focusing the national debate over the civil space program by asking: “Which approach to space provides lasting value for money spent?” Instead of asking how we can “get to Mars” the quickest (for reasons that are both questionable and unlikely), the issue should be: “Can we build a lasting space transportation infrastructure – one that permits us to undertake any mission we can imagine – under existing budgetary limitations?” Answers to these questions will clearly mark the difference between cost and value – giving us either a ticket to the circus or a pathway to the stars.