I spoke on Sept 14. at the Aerospace Industries Association panel discussion on space history and policy on Capitol Hill. Panelists included Buzz Aldrin, Brewster Shaw, and Frank Culbertson. It was a distinct honor to be included with such experienced space fliers in a wide-ranging discussion for congressional staffers and industry representatives.
I will break down my remarks in several installments over the next few days. Here is a brief summary of my first few minutes at the lectern.
My key experiences in deciding on a space career were shaped by the Moon Race of the 1960s. I grew up just two miles from the Martin Baltimore plant where Buzz Aldrin used to fly in to inspect his Titan booster. Buzz also trained underwater for his Gemini 12 spacewalks in mid-1966 at the McDonough School’s swimming pool in Baltimore. The excitement of having the space race come to my hometown certainly shaped my career aspirations. Watching Apollo unfold, I learned our nation could do anything when its citizens worked together.
Progress in space was so rapid that I was worried that I would not make it into the space program (as a test pilot) before NASA reached Mars in the mid-1980s. (I needn’t have worried). My entire education and career were directed toward the goal of qualifying to apply to NASA for the astronaut job. After being turned down twice, I was lucky enough to make it to the Astronaut Corps. From 1990 to 2001, I had the privilege of flying 4 times on U.S. space shuttles.
The shuttle was a superb and reusable science platform during the 1990s, the role it played in 3 of my missions. Human explorers aboard the shuttle materially added to the success of the research efforts aboard on my two flights with Space Radar Lab, and on STS-80’s deployment and retrieval of two science satellites, ORPHEUS-SPAS and Wakeshield.
On my last mission, aboard Atlantis, I assisted my crew in ISS construction, delivering and activating its first science lab, Destiny. My career highlight was executing 3 spacewalks in bringing Destiny, the nerve center of the Station, to life.
During the 1980s and 1990s, as my astronaut career took shape, I saw several NASA grand designs initiated, but then fall flat when not supported by necessary funding. President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, announced in 1989 and calling for a return to the Moon within a decade, was dismissed by Congress. Within a year the SEI had disappeared from sight. (Our class patch in 1990 included the Moon and Mars as well as a space shuttle; we were hopelessly optimistic.)
In 1993, the ISS program was nearly canceled by the Clinton administration, despite international commitments to our partners. It survived only when recast as a lifeline to the Russian aerospace establishment, to keep it from working with the Iranian regime. Again, a promising program was hobbled by lack of support (and NASA stumbles), taking far longer to execute than its original decadal goal.
During the 1990s, NASA mounted two attempts to replace or supplement the space shuttle. The X-33 Venture Star program and the X-38 Crew Rescue Vehicle were both canceled as technical problems mounted or funds ran short. Congress and the White House were content to let the shuttle soldier on, with discussions of flying it through at least 2020. The Columbia accident in 2003 shook up NASA’s complacency, and both the accident investigation board and the new Vision for Space Exploration projected its retirement by 2010.
Meanwhile, ISS finally reached orbit, with construction beginning in 1998 and continuing through 2010. But long delays in its assembly, and rising costs, left NASA with no budget to do anything but maintain the shuttle and move along with the ISS construction schedule.
In my view, underfunding by the last administration made Constellation fall behind schedule and become increasingly unpopular. At the same time, NASA was given many difficult missions: replace the shuttle after 2010, operate the ISS, build a deep-space exploration vehicle, and create a launch vehicle to make beyond-LEO exploration possible. Neither the Bush administration nor the new Obama direction for NASA gave the agency the funds to accomplish these goals. Today, the slight increase called for in the president’s budget over the next five years is insufficient to meet all of NASA’s “new space” direction.
Having seen many innovative space exploration plans falter in the past 20 years, I have drawn a few lesssons:
i. Promised support by the administration and its OMB should be delivered – not doing so is demoralizing to the nation and to NASA’s team of highly skilled explorers. The Congress has the oversight responsibility to ensure that NASA’s goals are matched by available funding.
ii. Without long-term support from Congress and the administration, NASA cannot attract a new generation of young explorers. Just continuing with the ISS and buying access to space from the Russians is not sufficiently exciting to young students considering an aerospace or high-tech career.
iii. The Augustine Committee last fall explicitly called for a space program worthy of a great nation. The cost of that program is not $19 billion annually, just because that has what historically has been made available. That figure is not based on the facts of a truly ambitious exploration program. Chronic underfunding has been the major cause of NASA’s failure over the past two decades to create beyond-LEO hardware and programs.
We must debate what kind of future in space our nation desires, and decide whether we are willing to spend what it takes to achieve it. I don’t believe 0.5% of our federal budget is a serious commitment to U.S. leadership in space. I doubt if in the next 10 years, that level of investment will take us where we say we want to go.
…coming soon, Part II