1 February 2010
The internet has been a whirlwind of wailing and gnashing of teeth, interspersed with the occasional optimistic or guarded response, as space advocates respond to Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA. In case you haven’t heard, the main points of the FY2011 budget are nicely summarized in this overview document:
Increase of $6.0 billion over 5-years (FY 2011-15) compared to the FY 2010 Budget, for a total of $100 billion over five years.
Significant and sustained investments in:
- Transformative technology development and flagship technology demonstrations to pursue new approaches to space exploration
- Robotic precursor missions to multiple destinations in the solar system
- Research and development on heavy-lift and propulsion technologies
- U.S. commercial spaceflight capabilities
- Future launch capabilities, including work on modernizing Kennedy Space Center after the
retirement of the Shuttle
- Extension and increased utilization of the International Space Station
- Cross-cutting technology development aimed at improving NASA, other government, and
commercial space capabilities
- Accelerating the next wave of Climate change research and observations spacecraft
- NextGen and green aviation
- Education, including focus on STEM
Cancellation of the Constellation program; and $600 million in FY 2011 to ensure the safe
retirement of the Space Shuttle upon completion of the current manifest.
It’s that last point that has many people upset. Constellation was the ongoing program to build the huge Ares 1 and Ares V rockets to replace the shuttle and return humans to the moon. The program was initiated by the previous administration, but then consistently underfunded. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel of aerospace experts – the “Augustine Commission” – was called in to assess the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and they found that the Constellation program was “on an unsustainable trajectory” and that NASA was “pursuing goals that do not match the allocated resources”.
Given the Augustine Commission’s report, it’s not surprising that Constellation was canceled, but plenty of people are not happy about it. Unsurprisingly, particularly angry are those who were directly involved in the program and their representatives in congress. I don’t blame them for being upset, and they have every right to complain, but I think that the decision to cancel Constellation was probably the right one.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked the Constellation program. The test-launch last year of the Ares-1X dummy rocket was spectacular, and when I was in NASA Academy in 2006, I got to see some of the early behind-the-scenes work being done. It would have been great to see towering NASA rockets sending our astronauts to the space station and back to the moon. But between the inevitable delays in such a massive project, and the funds falling short of those needed to stay on target, the program really was becoming unsustainable. And worse than that, the delays compounded a serious problem in public interest. It’s hard enough to get people interested in a program designed to repeat what was done 40 years ago with Apollo. Good luck maintaining interest if that program gets drawn out indefinitely due to delays.
The new budget places a strong emphasis on commercial spaceflight, relying on launch vehicles developed by private companies to send US astronauts to the space station. No doubt about it, this is a risky move. No private space company currently has a rocket or spacecraft capable of doing this. But they’re getting close. Space-X said today that they will be capable of sending astronauts to the ISS two to three years after receiving a NASA contract to do so, and for a price of ~$20 million per seat – significantly cheaper than the $50 million price tag of a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Even if these estimates are somewhat optimistic, it seems likely that commercial providers will be able to send astronauts to the ISS far sooner than Ares 1 would have been able to, and they’ll do it much cheaper. Yes, their cargo capacity will be much smaller, but cheaper launches could lead to more frequent launches, and that leads to a healthy commercial space industry. This change in the way of doing things, although painful for many right now, could have huge positive implications for the future of space exploration if commercial space “takes off”. Bigelow Aerospace and Space X have both mentioned lunar or even Mars missions on the horizon. Healthy commercial space (and therefore lower launch costs) could also lead to more-practical space-based solar power.
Some people have complained that the jobs created by commercial space companies would be nothing compared to those lost due to the cancellation of Constellation, but I think this is a case of short-term thinking. Yes, right now probably more people will lose jobs from constellation than will be able to gain jobs from space companies, but what we’re witnessing might well be the creation of a new industry. In the long run, the job growth could be huge.
Most of the discussion today has been about the Constellation cancellation, but the rest of the budget is extremely exciting. I’m very happy to see that more money will be spent on developing game-changing technologies, such as the VASIMR engine which could reduce the duration of a crewed mission to Mars from years to months. I’m also really excited about the proposed “precursor missions”. These would be missions similar to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter designed specifically to lead the way for human missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars or elsewhere. I was also excited to see the provision for production of new plutonium, which is crucial to power missions to the outer solar system. Whether or not you agree with the decisions regarding human spaceflight, there’s no denying that this budget is great for science.
My main complaint about this budget is that it is somewhat vague on the development of heavy-lift capabilites, and that it does not spell out what the new destinations for human spaceflight will be. It’s clear that the plans presented are based heavily upon the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine Commission, but I’d like to see a series of destinations spelled out if that is the case. It’s probably premature for that, but concrete goals and deadlines would make a lot of people more comfortable.
I was skeptical of this budget at first but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. And even if you don’t like it, what were the alternatives? It was clear that even with increased funding, Constellation would leave a huge gap in access to the space station. And with the current budget crisis, it would have been hard to justify $3 billion per year for a program that wouldn’t accomplish what we wanted very quickly. So the administration took a different approach, increasing NASA’s budget modestly and redirecting human spaceflight funds to commercial providers. This could provide cheaper access to space sooner than Constellation, and meanwhile NASA’s great engineers and scientists can focus on R&D for the next-generation technologies that will lead beyond low Earth orbit. Meanwhile, robotic science will be extremely strong under this new budget, teaching us amazing things about the solar system and the universe.
I’m not the only one who is optimistic about the budget. The Planetary Society has weighed in and they are thrilled with it. So is Buzz Aldrin. Norm Augustine is also supportive, and Phil Plait weighed in in favor of the budget and particularly its emphasis on science. Of course, the real question is what will happen in congress. As I said, many people involved in Constellation are furious about the decision, and their representatives in congress will put up one heck of a fight to keep things from changing.
In the end though, I suspect something very similar to the proposed budget will be passed, and despite the naysayers, I think that’s going to be a good thing for NASA and a great thing for science and space exploration.
Update: NASA administrator Charlie Bolden’s remarks from today are available here. He spells out the changes being made and makes a compelling case for them.