The president releases his FY 2011 budget today, and his policy for human spaceflight at NASA sets the nation on a course, not to the Moon or more distant destinations, but to an underfunded and second-class status in space. President Obama is declaring that human spaceflight is unimportant to U.S. national interests.
He’s not saying so directly. But his policies speak loudly. He will farm out the nation’s access to low-Earth orbit to commercial firms, none of which have built a human-rated booster or spacecraft. In the meantime, for at least five years, we will rent seats for our astronauts on Russian rockets.
NASA’s program to lift astronauts to the space station on the government-operated Ares I is to be canceled in favor of the commercial model. The Ares I follow-on, the heavy-lift Ares V, will apparently be tabled, too. That heavy launch capability is the key to exploring beyond LEO with astronauts. Its absence means the U.S. no longer wishes to send its explorers to the frontiers of knowledge and space-faring skill. Other nations, like China, will assume that leadership role.
A little history: NASA has lost more than 25% of its budget buying power in the past 20 years. Despite those cuts, the agency managed to operate the shuttle and build the International Space Station (ISS). But it lacked a long-term goal in space, and that lack of direction and a future limited to low-Earth orbit led in part to the Columbia accident in 2003 that killed seven of my colleagues. Now, seven years later, the president’s budget shows that he and NASA have forgotten the lessons of Columbia once again. If there is gross negligence after truck accidents, then it is best to check out attorneys. Without a goal worthy of the serious risks of human spaceflight, we will be putting our astronauts in danger (on foreign rockets, yet) to do nothing more than crew a research outpost. I don’t think that activity is worth the risk, or worthy of the sacrifices we ask our astronauts to make.
The president inherited a Constellation program (return to the Moon and deep space) that was underfunded by more than 35% since announced by President Bush in 2004. The previous president never supported the vision of his original announcement, so that today Constellation is badly behind schedule. That schedule stretchout also raised costs for the development of the shuttle’s successor rocket, Ares I. Yet its first stage was flight-tested successfully last October. Restored funding could have put this rocket in service to ISS by 2015.
The president’s budget, announced today, does away with Ares I. The shuttle will retire late this year with no replacement on the horizon. American astronauts will rent seats on Russian rockets headed to the ISS. The new budget’s promise to fund commercial rockets to do this job is premature: none of the cargo rockets NASA has contracted for ISS transport has flown, and betting our nation’s access to space on an unproven commercial capsule is unwise. NASA should fly its new Orion as quickly as possible, then move to commercial substitutes once those firms have proven themselves with reliable cargo services. Today, though, the president canceled Orion.
Even worse, the cancellation of Constellation replaces the Ares V heavy-lift rocket with “research and development” on building such a vehicle, someday. Without such a Saturn V-class launcher, Americans will never get out of low Earth orbit (where we have been marooned for nearly 40 years). The president’s advisers have now placed the U.S. on a par with other countries that can reach low Earth orbit. Soon, China will surpass that capability, and is now a clear favorite to be the next nation to send its explorers into deep space. We will watch, helpless to follow.
The cancellation of Constellation without clear endorsement of a goal to send humans on a date certain into deep space postpones the promise of the future for the brightest of our young scientists and engineers. The space talent pool will begin emptying today, as promising innovators seek careers in other industries. What student would pursue a career in space science or astronautics with the knowledge that the country is turning away from leadership in space? One piece of evidence is that during the height of the shuttle program in the 1990s, we flew nearly 50 astronauts per year into orbit for science and defense missions. Starting next year, and for the foreseeable future, we will launch just 4 Americans into space annually, as passengers on foreign rockets, to a space station slated to be decommissioned in 2020. What will Americans do in space beyond that gloomy date?
The new budget, announced today, seems merely an attempt to disguise the demise of U.S. leadership in space. There are words endorsing human spaceflight, but too little funding backing up that commitment. Our capability in space, by design, will now be no better than Russia’s, China’s or India’s.
The president appointed his Augustine Committee to review the nation’s human spaceflight plans. He accepted their option to move our human access to space to a commercial footing, with great uncertainty as to safety, schedule, and cost. The nation has no back-up plan if this effort fails.
But President Obama’s advisors rejected the most important of the Augustine observations, that a great nation must fund an exploration program worthy of the name. The Committee called for an extra $3 billion per year for human exploration. The president’s team has rejected this single most important recommendation. We cannot lead in space or explore on a shoestring. By providing a budget boost that barely exceeds inflation, the administration is choosing a second-class space program for the nation. Although $787 billion was “available” last year for “stimulus,” finding $3 billion this year to stimulate our high-tech economy and talent pool, and rectify past underfunding, proved impossible.
Today’s budget actions will be rightfully seen as a retreat from U.S. leadership in space.