Let’s be blunt: the federal government is broke. With deficits running in the billions per day, there simply is no spare cash for any program, no matter how important or necessary. Nothing is sacrosanct. Even a proposal to cure cancer should be carefully reviewed before it gets federal funding.
Everything has got to be on the table.
Thus, no one should have been surprised when word leaked two weeks ago that the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration was proposing cutting the entire unmanned planetary program at NASA, while simultaneously eviscerating the space agency’s astronomy program. No more missions to Mars. No probes to Europa or Titan. Further and longer delays before the James Webb Space Telescope is completed. And Kepler’s mission to find Earth Like planets orbiting other stars would end mid-mission.
The Obama administration has to find ways to trim the budget, and apparently it is considering eliminating these programs as a way to do it.
Yet, the money spent on space astronomy and planetary research is a pinprick. Considering that the federal government overspends its budget by approximately $3.5 billion per day, and the total amount of money spent on these two science programs equals about $2.4 billion per year, it seems senseless at first to focus on these kinds of cuts. Quite clearly, even eliminating them entirely will not put the federal budget into the black.
Now I am not one to say, “Cut the budget, but please leave my favorite programs alone!” I recognize the serious financial state of the nation, and realize that any budget suggestions I make must include significant total cuts to NASA’s budget.
As a space historian and science journalist who knows a great deal about NASA, however, I also know that there is plenty of room for cuts in NASA’s budget. By picking our priorities carefully at a time when our options are limited, NASA might even be able to accomplish more, not less, with a smaller budget.
Moreover, if I, as a space junky, think it is possible to continue NASA’s most important programs and still trim its budget by 15% to 20%, in real dollars, doesn’t that suggest that the same could be done across the entire federal government?
All it takes is a little knowledge, some common sense, and the courage to say no.
What to cut
The two things that everyone wants from NASA are manned space exploration and space science (including both planetary research or space astronomy). Can we somehow keep these programs going and cut the budget at the same time?
First, let’s talk about manned space. At the moment NASA has a two-pronged effort to get Americans into space. First there is the Space Launch System (SLS), a Congressionally mandated heavy-lift rocket designed to launch the Orion capsule. Budgeted right now at about $3 billion per year, this program could cost between $18 to $62 billion (depending on who you ask), and is not expected to make its first manned flight until 2021.
What makes the SLS program very worrisome to me is that it is very similar to NASA’s numerous previous efforts to replace the space shuttle, all of which never flew, and all of which cost the taxpayer billions of dollars. For example, NASA spent approximately $9 billion trying to develop the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets, only to have the entire program canceled in 2010 by Barack Obama. Sadly, this stillborn program is only one of many like it in the past three decades. In each case, the program was canceled before NASA could complete it.
NASA’s second manned space effort is its commercial crew program, where the agency gives relatively small subsidies (usually less than $100 million per year) to a variety of private companies. All told, the present Congress has appropriated a small yearly stipend for this program, $312 million in the House bill and $500 million in the Senate bill. Yet, despite costing less than a third of SLS, this measly amount looks like it will produce three to five different rockets/spaceships capable of putting humans and cargo into low earth orbit. And these companies appear primed to do it within five years, far faster than SLS.
To me, common sense says that if the U.S. government committed its money to these multiple private companies instead of SLS, manned space could be accomplished for less than a half billion dollars per year, while trimming NASA’s budget by three billion dollars. As a bonus we will also get competition and innovation in the aerospace field, something that industry has lacked for decades.
Note that I do not advocate increasing the budget for the commercial companies. We don’t have the money for this, and they seem to be getting the job done anyway. Moreover, too much government cash might be counter-effective, encouraging them to be less efficient than they presently are.
So, eliminating SLS takes $3 billion off the top of NASA’s budget, bringing it down to about $15 billion yearly, which would still leave the space agency with a budget larger than it had during the Clinton years. Even better, making this cut does nothing to prevent Americans from getting into space. Instead, we do it for less money and in less time.
What to keep
Now, let’s consider the planetary and astronomy budget of NASA. These programs have been very effectively funded at around $2 billion per year for decades, increased recently by about a half a billion dollars because of the overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope.
No one would deny that NASA’s space science work has been one of the space agency’s most successful and effective programs. For relatively little money we have sent space probes to almost all the planets as well as a number of asteroids and moons, while building space telescopes that have widened our view of the heavens. Unlike NASA’s ineffective efforts to replace the space shuttle, its science program has given us a great deal of bang for the buck.
By eliminating SLS we give NASA some budgetary wiggle room. Instead of cutting space astronomy and planetary research, as it appears the Obama administration is considering, NASA could even apply a small amount of that three billion dollar savings — say a half billion — to NASA’s astronomy and planetary programs. This will not only keep them going as vibrantly as they have been, it will provide the cash to finally finish the over-budget and seriously delayed James Webb Space Telescope.
The result: even as NASA’s actual budget is cut by $2.5 billion (and I do mean cut, not a reduction to the rate of the budget’s growth), the agency will still be able to maintain its manned and science programs, and possibly do so more effectively than before.
The rest of the government
As someone who knows the history of NASA and its budget, I have the knowledge to intelligently pick and choose between programs in order to find the most cost-effective possibilities. All I did was accept the reality that the total budget had to be less than before, and that some programs must be eliminated, in their entirety. I then took an honest look at the various programs and chose to keep those that were effective and eliminated those I had good reason to believe would fail.
Similarly, I know there are equally knowledgeable people in all other areas of the federal budget who, recognizing that there’s no spare cash for anything, can make the same kinds of hard common sense decisions. For example, NOAA needs to replace ACE, one of its space weather satellites that tracks the sun. If this part of NOAA’s mission must get its highest priority, then the agency must find something else it considers less important and sacrifice that in order to fund an ACE replacement.
I am sure there are innumerable other examples just like this throughout the entire federal government.
All it really will take is a bit of common sense, a bit of blunt honesty, and a recognition that the federal government can no longer have it all. If we have the courage to do this, we might then finally get the federal budget under control so that it is no longer sucking the life out of our entire economy.
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