Two stories today highlight not only the budget problems at NASA, but also illustrate the apparent unwillingness of both Congress and Americans to face the terrible budget difficulties of the federal government. In both cases, the focus is instead on trying to fund NASA at levels comparable to 2012, before the Obama administration or sequestration had imposed any budget cuts on the agency.
It is as if we live in a fantasy world, where a $16 trillion dollar debt does not exist, and where money grows on trees and we can spend as much as we want on anything we want.
First there is this story from the Planetary Society: Proposed Senate bill restores $223 million to NASA’s Planetary Science division.
The writer, a blogger on the Planetary Society’s website, describes the effort by Congress to restore funding the NASA’s planetary program, cut last year by the Obama administration. Without any mention of the fact that the federal government is spending money it does not have, he advocates a complete restoration of these funds. He does not suggest where the money might come from. He does not propose cutting anything else. He does not give us any reasons why this program should be funded more than any other federal program.
As I said, it is as if money grows on trees. Give it to me!
Note that I am actually in favor of restoring these funds. Of all of NASA’s efforts, its planetary program is probably its most effective, in which we the taxpayers get the most bang for our buck. Still, I think it necessary to provide arguments why this program should get its funds over other programs. I also think it necessary, considering the budget situation, to propose other places in NASA’s budget that can be cut to provide for these restored funds. In fact, I have argued this point in great detail on this website previously.
Then we have this second story, describing the NASA budget recommendations for 2014 put forth by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This is the key quote, written by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the committee:
“While NASA’s Commercial Crew program could be the primary means of transporting American astronauts,” Smith wrote Ryan, “we cannot be solely reliant on this program. The Orion MPCV (Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle), Space Launch System, and Commercial Crew programs require a program track with a sufficient budget to support the space station as soon as possible in preparation for the next steps of human exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit …”
Smith went on to say that “due to a constrained budget environment, goals – such as maintaining 2.5 commercial teams or demonstration flights beyond low-Earth Orbit – need to be secondary to the primary goal of developing a vehicle to safely transport American astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond.” The only entity planning a demonstration flight beyond LEO now is NASA, which plans to launch an uncrewed SLS mission around the moon in 2017.
Smith and the committee are making it clear that if they need to cut anything, they are going to cut the funds to the commercial space program. This is the program that is providing the U.S. three different commercial systems for getting humans into space, and doing it for about $3 billion total, over the entire life of the program. This is also the program that will likely accomplish this within the next five years, and then be able to provide us routine manned flights to low Earth orbit on a regular basis, repeatedly, for relatively very little additional money.
Instead, these politicians want continue the funding for the Space Launch System (SLS), which is costing us about $3 billion per year, and will only fly its first manned mission in 2021, at the earliest. And even if that first manned mission comes sooner, SLS will only be able to fly once every few years, at the most.
This choice by Congress illustrates several things. First, they have no interest in saving money. They want to fund the pork in their districts, at high levels, and this is best provided by SLS.
Second, they have no interest in getting Americans back into space. Even if SLS finally flies in 2021 — something I seriously doubt — it will not provide us with a practical and cost effective ferry for getting humans to and from ISS, as these Congressmen seem to think. It costs too much to fly. ISS needs a cheap and efficient ferry. SLS can’t do that.
Finally, the decision by Congress to favor SLS means that there will be little money for NASA’s planetary program, unless Congress makes believe that money grows on trees, and funds it anyway. And sadly, that is apparently what they are doing, based on the information in the first story above. The Senate is funding everything.
In the end, nothing will get funded. In the end, this whole charade will fall apart, and the American nation will find that it can do nothing. It will be bankrupt. And this will happen because of a refusal by the American people, and their representatives in Congress, to face reality and deal with it maturely, as adults.