The space program is dead, long live the space industry!

The news following the midterm election results have not sounded good for NASA. Two stories on Monday alone signaled the bad news:

Earlier stories last week were no more encouraging:

While Republicans have, since the 1970s, generally been more enthusiastic than Democrats about NASA and manned space exploration, the new Republican Congress has a tone that seems decidedly different from past years. Above all, it appears the public is finally becoming aware of the recent explosion in the federal debt, as illustrated by the graph below. (hat tip to Gateway Pundit and The Captain’s Comments.)

Federal deficit

The public’s growing concern about these numbers was clearly reflected in the election results. First, there was the success of many tea party candidates advocating fiscal responsibility and a radical shrinking of government. Even in cases where conservatives lost, the closeness of the election in districts or states where liberals have rarely in the past been challenged suggests the mood of the electorate is decidedly shifting in a direction against federal spending.

Second, the electorate seemed surprisingly hostile to pork, expressing little interest in being brought off with baubles for their home districts. Thus, candidates who ran against pork seemed to get far more enthusiastic attention and positive publicity than those elected officials famous for “bringing home the bacon.”

In such an atmosphere, the priorities of Congress will be forced to change. The outlook therefore does not look good for the type of pork funding represented by the NASA authorization bill passed on September 29, with its billions of subsidies for the aerospace industry.

We can see an indication of this new tone by some of the initial plans announced by the Republican leadership. As a first step, the Republicans have proposed cutting the federal budget back 2008 levels. This change alone would reduce NASA’s annual budget by about $2 billion, or 10%.

This solution, however, will not close the budget gap, only shrink it slightly. The Republicans will still be faced with massive amounts of red ink and a public demanding that they deal with it. To prove they mean what they say, the new House leadership will be forced to propose some additional draconian cuts.

Unfortunately, the circumstances at this moment has made NASA a prime budget-cutting target.

Consider the details of the three NASA manned space budget items outlined in the September 29 authorization:

  • the addition of one last shuttle flight to the flight schedule.
  • the heavy-lift rocket/capsule program, what I like to call the “program-formerly-called-Constellation.”
  • the commercial subsidies to new space companies to provide crew and cargo ferrying services to ISS.

First the shuttle. Because of inaction over the past six years, this program is essentially dead. No more external tanks are being made, and NASA really only has the capability of adding one flight, should Congress give them the money.

Being a dead program makes it easy for Congress to let it die immediately. Since significant numbers of shuttle-related employees have already been laid off, and those that remain are quite prepared for the eventual end, the political damage caused by the program’s cessation has already passed. Adding one more flight will not change this political reality, while costing several billion dollars, money that the Republicans are trying not to spend.

What about the “program-formerly-called-Constellation,” whereby NASA is required by the authorization bill to build a heavy-lift rocket and a capsule to go with it for less money and in less time that originally planned for Constellation? As it was very doubtful the space agency could have built Constellation on the old budget and schedule, it is even more unlikely they can do it on a shrunken budget and schedule. Furthermore, the Obama administration really doesn’t want to do it at all, and tried hard in 2010 to get the program shut down, even though Congress had expressly forbidden the administration from doing so.

It is for these reasons that I consider the “program-formerly-called-Constellation” to be nothing more than pork, street money to pass out to various aerospace companies located in specific Congressional districts in order to keep these voters happy, at least for a little while. Whether the “program-formerly-called-Constellation” ever gets built was entirely irrelevant to the elected officials who passed this authorization.

I therefore think it likely that the new Congress — looking to save money wherever it can and faced with an electorate that seems hostile to pork — will find it easy to shut this program down. Why waste the money on such a hopeless project, especially when there is the strong likelihood that the project will experience cost overruns and schedule delays? (By the way, it was exactly this kind of thinking that led to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision to kill the New York-New Jersey rail project. As Christie noted, “I cannot place upon the citizens of New Jersey an open-ended letter of credit, and that’s what this project represents.”)

Then there is item number three, the billions in subsidies to the new private space industry. This funding also faces significant hurdles. For crass political reasons, many powerful Republicans in the outgoing Congress had opposed these subsidies, preferring instead to give the money to the “program-formerly-called-Constellation” so that NASA could hire people in their districts. This opposition still exists, and is now more powerful because the Republicans in question will probably head several key House committees.

In addition, as this program has only just gotten started it has not yet had the chance to build up the kind of vested interests required to maintain its political base in Congress. Thus, like the shuttle, it is an easy program for the new Congress to cut. If they do it, relatively few people will complain.

Thus, it appears that funding for all of NASA’s manned program is in serious trouble.

Now, it is possible that Congress will decide that there are important strategic and national security reasons for maintaining a U.S. capability to get humans into orbit. In that case, Congress might agree to fund the private space initiative that the Obama administration is advocating. Or they might choose to fund the “program-formerly-known-as-Constellation.” I doubt they will choose to do both, however. Moreover, it will also not surprise me, given the political atmosphere, whichever program they fund they will do so at a reduced level, significantly less than the amounts listed in the September 29th authorization bill.

Either way, the political situation almost certainly means the end to the American government space program.

From my perspective, thank god. For decades I’ve watched the NASA waste billions on repeated efforts to replace the space shuttle, none of which ever flew. Considering the terrifying nature of today’s federal deficit, it seems to me that it is irresponsible to spend more billions on another program that cannot be completed. Our first priority must be to get our financial house in order. Once that is done, we can then consider the future and space exploration.

Despite this dismal analysis, there is a bright silver-lining for space exploration. While the new Congress might be hostile to spending money on space, they are also hostile to government regulation. Unlike the outgoing Democratic House, which included men like James Oberstar, who never saw a transportation regulation he didn’t like, the new Republican Congress does have a much more laissez-faire attitude to business and industry.

With this in mind, here are two specific things the new Congress could do to truly help private space development, both based on the premise that expanding freedom is always the best way to encourage success:

1. Repeal or significantly rewrite the Space Amendments Act of 2004. This law puts so many regulatory hurdles on the new space tourism industry that it is very unlikely that industry will ever get started with it in place. (For more details, see my UPI articles from 2004 and 2005 here and here.)

2. Simplify the process for flying astronauts and business to ISS. I am sure that many people in the aerospace industry can cite specific examples where NASA regulations make doing this work difficult for new companies, if not costly and untenable.

If Congress will follow through on just these two simple things, the lack of government money for NASA will become meaningless, and might ironically be the best news for American industry in decades.

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4 comments

  • It may be dead in some minds, but once the vialbility of mineral resources on the moon become active, it will suddenly live again

  • Bill is talking about “the space program”.. ya know, the stuff NASA does. Mining the Moon is something NASA will never do because it isn’t the Ministry Of Space (or Mines).

  • Kelly Starks

    Good Essay Bob. Couple nits and a question

    Adding one more shuttle flight will not billions more.

    I wouldn’t call the “program-formerly-called-Constellation” to be nothing more than pork. Its life-support to retain some shred of manned space flight capacity in the US. Likely even needed to keep the potential for the alt.space folks developing.

    Big agree that dropping billions in pork to Alt.space companies is even less likely to fly.

    But have you considered the ISS? It was the last congress that pushed for a 5 year extension of its operation to 2020. That’s high profile and pricy. Could this Congress drop it?

    As to commercial crew to the ISS I think that’s dead. It was politically very iffy before – now the expense to certify new commercials rather then buy a handful of extra Soyuz flights…. I’d believe a crash program to restart the shuttle program rather then that.

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