Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist who writes about space policy, wrestled with the question of how to have a sensible space effort in an era of constrained budgets in an October 28, 2013 post in his Lunar Resources blog.
After examining the current wrangle over NASA funding levels, Spudis suggests that the question is not so much about money than about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. He favors an incremental approach that would be paced by the amount of funding available, focusing on the moon. More details on a plan Spudis favors can be found here.
On the other hand, there is much to be said about not only choosing a sensible exploration program, but also paying for it. In any case, as long as the current administration is in office, NASA will be plagued by a lack of leadership, a lack of a destination, and most importantly a lack of money. It need not be thus.
It may be somewhat quixotic to suggest that President Obama and the Congress turn their attention to the dolorous state of the civil space program in the midst of turmoil in the Middle East and fights at home over the budget, Obamacare, and the fallout from the government shutdown. But NASA is in trouble, largely because budgets are declining and the president and the Congress are at loggerheads over where American astronauts should go in their first venture beyond low Earth orbit in decades.
However a little bi-partisan compromise and a little leadership could change things in the space of an afternoon meeting.
President Obama famously cancelled the Constellation return to the moon program and, eventually, pointed American astronauts toward going to an Earth approaching asteroid. The latest iteration of that plan is to use an unmanned spacecraft to snatch a small asteroid and being it to lunar orbit to be visited by American astronauts.
Meanwhile Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are cool to the asteroid mission and are keen on going back to the moon after all. The House version of the current NASA authorization bill cancels the asteroid mission and mandates a lunar return. The Senate version of the bill is neutral on the moon vs. asteroid question.
The problem is that no one wants to pay for human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Between sequestration and a sense of drift that has blighted NASA, the space agency’s budget will likely fall below $17 billion for the next fiscal year. Many space observers, including the recently resigned NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, suggest that the development schedules for the Orion spacecraft and the heavy lift Space Launch System, two crucial parts of any space exploration plan, will start to slip because of lack of funding.
It is fortunately within President Obama’s and the Congress’s power to reverse this situation. It will require a little compromise and perhaps a lot of political boldness. The leadership needs to start in the executive branch, however.
President Obama should invite the leadership of the House Science Committee, the Senate Commerce Committee, and the appropriation subcommittees that fund NASA to a White House meeting. Then he should propose the following compromise:
Since the president wants to explore an asteroid and the Congress wants to go back to the moon, then NASA should be tasked with doing both roughly at the same time. A launch manifest for the Orion/SLS system should be planned along with lunar landers and deep space habitats that would be necessary for such an undertaking.
To do this, NASA’s budget would have to expand, by several billions more a year than it is currently. A target of – say -- $20 billion a year by the end of the Obama presidency should not be unreasonable with more to follow as needed. One way to pay for it would be to scale back the administrations various tax incentives and loan guarantees for so-called “green energy” programs. They have not been productive as the Solyndra scandal demonstrated and the natural gas fracking boom makes them unnecessary.
The increase in budget would be small on the scale of the nearly $4 trillion federal budget but large compared to the money NASA spends. Paying for NASA’s exploration programs will not only take a degree of political courage on everyone’s part, but also persistence. One of the mistakes that both Presidents Bush made with their space exploration proposals was not paying much attention to them once the initial speeches were made, leaving opponents in both the Congress and the executive branch to start undermining them.
President Obama will have to swallow some pride by putting the moon back in play. Congress, especially the Republicans, will have to put up or shut up. If they want the moon, they need to pay for it. This will be a hard but necessary sale if one values American space exploration.
If both sides can manage some uncharacteristic cooperation, whatever else happens to the legacy of the Obama administration, he will at least have left a NASA once again headed for the stars and not, as it is now, endlessly stumbling in the dark, lost in space, and with the problem of doing too much with too little.