The budget battle at NASA

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.

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15 comments

  • Jim

    I think some headway has been gained. Maybe not as fast as we would like, but moving in the right direction. After all, the sequester did go into effect, and there was a real chance it would not just a few months ago. So those $1.2T in cuts is the baseline from which any other discussion will be had- they won’t just go away. And even on the budget itself, there seems to be a better recognition of managing all aspects of the budget- top, middle, and bottom lines. And now, there even seems to be some renewed hope for a “grand bargain” which seemed all but dead a year ago. I am hoping that can be reached. I said some months back that we will know we are making headway when everyone is screaming, because no one should be exempt from the pain…and at times I have heard both parties screaming. Neither side is going to get everything they want. All of this would have been just dreaming back in 2004. Maybe I’m seeing the glass half full, but I remain hopeful.

    • Garry

      Where are you getting $1.2 T in cuts? I’ve been hearing $46 billion for this year, below what was projected, and we’re still spending more than last year. The encouraging thing is that discretionary spending is slightly down.

      If we don’t do anything about entitlements I think it’ll be game over. I hope there is a grand bargain struck, so long as it makes sense.

      We’ve gone downhill quite a bit from 2004. I hope we get a critical mass of people who are serious about solving the problems before it’s too late. It’s too easy for politicans to kick the can down the road, but the kicks are getting shorter and shorter.

      The whole way NASA is being handled per this article tells me we’re far from reaching that critical mass.

      I hope I’m wrong.

      • Jim

        The $1.2T are planned cuts over a 10 year period (and that is the sequester), of which the $85B (in reality $45B) are for this year. Granted, planned cuts are just that…planned. But that is a far different conversation than the one we were having in 2004 when spending cuts were not even discussed, and programs never had to be paid for. I just think things are being discussed differently now…programs have to be paid for, cuts are happening, and almost every planned expenditure comes with a “how are we going to pay for that” disclaimer. I think its why, for example, our total expenditure in Libya was $1B rather than $1T. I’m not saying we are there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but the whole conversation now is completely different.

  • wodun

    We can’t count on future cuts. Any cuts in the future are determined by the politicians in those years who can do away with those cuts or increase spending in other ways to make sequestration meaningless.

    NASA priorities are a mess and every space cadet has their own preferred route. But someone needs to sit the Republicans and Democrats down and explain to them that comercial crew is the fastest way to stop relying on other countries, who are not always friendly, for access to the ISS. As a bonus we get redundant capabilities and wont need SLS as a back up.

    • Kelly Starks

      >..comercial crew is the fastest way to stop relying on other countries..

      Really its not. The providers are the bottom end of aerospace, and really arn’t up to anything like that – as SpaceX has demonstrated – adn isn’t even projected to really be faster. If anything NASA doing a good job of using them to dosprove the concept of “commercializing” NASA launches. Ignoring that, The craft are to limited for anything beyond, and Congress was sold by Griffin on doing something BEO in the future, and needing a HLV for it. So SLS is seen as minimal table stakes for NASA future.

      So if they want a NASA for anything in the future they figure SLS is the minimum technical lead, certainly it needs to be major (including budget wise) to get voter support to sustain it.

      • MattW

        Good Lord. If SpaceX and Boeing are the bottom end of aerospace, who is the top?

        • Kelly Starks

          Boeings not involved in Commercial crew – though they have expressed interest – perhaps.

          SpaceX is near the botom. High cost, high failure rate.

          • David Masten

            Boeing’s CST-100 Capsule is part of the current Commercial Crew activities.

          • High cost, high failure rate.

            The first three F1′s were part of the learning curve. Thus not failures. How did your first three rockets go?

            The fourth F1 was a success. If it hadn’t been, SpaceX would have been no more according to Elon.

            The last F1 was a success. Customer’s agreed and orders went up.

            Every F9 has succeeded in it’s mission despite glitches. The F9 has a 100% success rate. Even when a secondary payload was not put into it’s correct orbit (a decision, not a technical issue) the customer was happy with the result because they got the data they needed which was the purpose of their mission.

            High cost? In your dreams. That’s why they are getting orders that would have gone to others.

            Only one thing prevents SpaceX from really breaking out and that will be resolved in just a few years. You haven’t seen anything yet.

            Kelly, time is not on your side. If you were famous we’d be quoting you saying 64k is more memory than anyone needs.

          • MattW

            False. Boeing is one of three providers in the commercial crew program. If you’d like, I can send you copies of the contracts.

            Again, who is the top in aerospace?

            I cannot imagine the amount of mental energy it must take to watch SpaceX’s missions and think of them as failures.

  • Kelly Starks

    >..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. ..

    Right – no bias shown here.
    ;/

  • Publius 2

    There is one and only one way to end the insane federal spending binge, and that is for the House Republicans majority to refuse to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling. That forces the Government of the United States to live on its paltry income of $2.2 trillion per year. In other words, it forces Congress and the executive branch to make difficult choices while sparing future generations from paying any more of the bills. I mention the House GOP because they represent the only group of politicians currently capable of behaving in the best long-term interests of the country. The Democrats would never take such action. So the future of the nation comes down to whether there are enough members of the House with sufficient courage to take drastic action to stop the runaway spending train in its tracks. If they do, the country has a future. If they don’t, nothing else will save it. Congress simply can’t be trusted with the credit card of deficit spending. They are taking future income from our children and grandchildren to fund ill-conceived and corrupt programs. Motives aside, this is the effect of what’s happening, and future generations will curse us all if we don’t bring this insanity to a halt.

    • Unfortunately, Congress will do what the public wants it to do. And sadly the public does not want the federal budget cut right now. The November election proved it. So do polls. The public is unwilling to make any sacrifices at all, and will punish any politicians who try to trim the budget.

      This at least is my pessimistic take on the situation right now. I hope I am wrong.

  • Kelly Starks

    KS >>High cost, high failure rate.

    >ken anthony
    > The first three F1′s were part of the learning curve. Thus not failures.
    > How did your first three rockets go?

    Generally all their competitors went flawlessly. Thats the standard in the industry. Engines pretty much never blow up. There are a couple big exceptions, but 1/3rd of your launchs having a inflight explosion?

    > The fourth F1 was a success. ==

    If you ignore some systems failures.

    If it hadn’t been, SpaceX would have been no more according to Elon.

    > Every F9 has succeeded in it’s mission despite glitches. ==

    Glitching including a engine explosion, control system drop outs etc.

    In general you ignoring the real failurs in the systems. Pretty much every flight has a serious systems failure, then they brag about being able to work around it. Other launcher – even shuttle, had the vast bulk of the flights with no serious problems that anyone needed to work around.

    Its like the blat baffels on the F9 so it can make it to orbit even with a engine explosion. No one else uses them – they just build better engines.

    > High cost? In your dreams. ==

    Thats not what their customers say, what the CBO, GAO, SpaceX press statements say.

    Launchs per pound to the ISS are 20% higher then what shuttle was.

    Fan boy logic and numbers don’t cut it. Nor does ignoring inconvenent facts.

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