Space exploration is not only critical in refusing to surrender the battlefield of space – our next serious theater of war -- to our present and future adversaries; it also necessary in retaining US technological superiority and being able to utilize the energy and mineral resources of the Solar system essential for future global prosperity.
The major problem is that It is not just NASA but the whole of the US space industry that is in trouble. It is laying off men and women by the thousand; their skills and experience will be lost forever. Reconstituting the ability to build complex and reliable space systems without these people will be an even more expensive and time consuming process.
Meanwhile, this strategically vital industry will see its overseas competitors, such as China, grow and develop. America's edge in space is endangered, and if it disappears, a large proportion of America's global power will disappear along with it.
Presidents have traditionally used NASA for both diplomatic and military purposes. During the Eisenhower administration the President's advisors wrote that "The novel nature of space exploration offers opportunities for international cooperation in it's peaceful aspects. " Nixon did not hesitate to use the success of the Apollo Moon mission to enhance America's global position, the Astronauts traveled around the world as living symbols of US technological superiority. Bill Clinton sought to cement a positive relationship with post communist Russia by giving them a major role in the Space Station project.
NASA has also been useful in developing and preserving technologies with important military applications. The sensors used on interplanetary probes are similar and sometimes identical to the ones used on the most advanced spy satellites. Life support technologies developed for the shuttle find their way into the flight suits worn by pilots who fly high altitude military jets. And while America has not built a new ICBM or submarine launched nuclear missile for decades, NASA, by keeping the solid rocket motor industry alive has insured that if the decision were made to build a new type of missile for the US nuclear deterrent force, the Defense Department could do so without having to rebuild the nation's solid fueled rocket making expertise from nothing.
By keeping America's space industry alive and healthy NASA has in the past directly contributed to overall US global power. As the agency succumbs to confusion and a lack of clear direction its ability to help keep America secure and prosperous will inevitably diminish.
So, too, with the rest of the US aerospace industry. Boeing's effort to set up a second production line for its new 787 airliner has been declared illegal by the National Labor Relations Board on the grounds that it was going to be built in South Carolina, a "right to work" state. The courts seem to have thought that this was supposedly Boeing's way of illegally punishing the unionized workers in Washington state, who, by the way, will not suffer from a single layoff or lose a single hour's pay due to this increase in 787 production.
The F-22 manufacturing program is also shutting down. The administration claimed that it onlyneeds 187 of these air superiority fighters.
Those parts of the F-35 program that are not "on probation" are under attack for what are perceived as massive cost overruns. It looks as if the Defense budget will be cut by more than $500 billion; and there is serious talk of shutting down America's ability to build nuclear powered aircraft carriers
As America's space shuttle program comes to an end, NASA faces an uncertain and probably painful future. With a smaller budget and without a mission that has broad national support, the space agency has been floundering amid what the Washington Post calls "Rancor".
If NASA was in "disarray" in January 2009, as the current NASA leaders claim, then every single agency of the federal government that tries to accomplish or build anything was, and still is, in equal disarray. NOAA, the FAA, the Coast Guard, The Departments of Agricultural, Energy and Education, to name a few, have all proven incapable of meeting their goals or building hardware on time or within budget. Only those parts of the Government that are dedicated to stopping people from doing things,or regulating human activity, are not in "disarray." They may not be doing anything useful, but they are not in disarray.
To say, as Newt Gingrich did recently, that the problem at NASA is "Bureaucracy" is too miss the point. It was not NASA's employees who got America into this humiliating mess; it was America's politicians.
Admittedly, NASA's Administrator and his Deputy worked hard, along with the President's science advisor and the rest of the White House team, to alienate a critical mass of members of Congress by ignoring their concerns, rejecting their advice and blindsiding them with critical space policy decisions.
. The Obama administration then wrecked the previous program on the grounds that it was underfunded and behind schedule, and replaced it with a new program that looks as if it is now underfund and behind schedule. Congressmen and women being human, and under massive pressure to cut spending, have now cut the guts out of the space agency's proposed budget.
One of the more irony-laden recent press releases, at a time when this nation is saturated with them, is from the American Astronomical Society (AAS), protesting the House Appropriations committee's cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope. What did the astronomers expect? Did they really believe that the US Government would demolish the human spaceflight program and leave their precious "science" programs untouched?
The House Appropriations Committee has cut deeply into NASA's overall budget, leaving it with $1.9 billion less than the President requested. Its members slashed the Commercial Crew Development program, and agreed to increase support only for the new Space Launch System, sometimes referred to as the Congressional Rocket.
To say that NASA is "screwed up" is to put it kindly. Sometimes destabilizing an institution may be necessary to revive it, but more often the destabilizing is simply destructive. NASA's leadership seems honestly to believe that everything is A-OK. In a Washington Post article on July 2nd, the agency's Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, is quoted as saying, "We have a Program. We have a Budget. We have Bipartisan Support. We have a Destination." Unpacking that statement is an interesting exercise: it will show that while NASA is losing support for its budget on Capitol Hill, NASA's leaders do not seem to understand why this is happening.
NASA has rejected the policy that the Bush administration had carefully crafted in cooperation with Members of Congress from both parties and which had been accepted with overwhelming bipartisan support. It was a policy that not only would get America back to the Moon sometime in the middle of the next decade, but would do so with a minimum of job losses.
Of course NASA has a program; that is the easy part. Turning the program into reality is hard, and there is no sign that NASA's current leadership can convince Congress to fund the Program.
Traditionally NASA has undertaken the job of opening up the frontier and without the assurance that NASA can create it is hard to imagine that investors will be willing to risk providing the financing that the economic expansion of the US into the Solar system. NASA plays a role similar to one the US cavalry played when America moved west: it provides the settlers and business people with enough security to risk building a new economy.
The House Appropriations Committee has given NASA a budget. It Is hard to imagine how that budget can be made compatible with Lori Garver's and the administration's program. Congress is funding its priorities: a new rocket and the new exploration vehicle that the new rocket will launch. Congress is cutting the budget for the things that the administration wants such as the budget for unfocused technology development
The NASA program that the administration wants is one based on the idea that a new kind of 'commercial' space industry can provide access to orbit, while NASA invents new technologies that can explore the solar system at a lower cost than current technology would allow. The Congress disagrees and has ordered NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket using existing technology. With this rocket, the US will be able to send human missions to the Moon or to Mars or, as the administration wants, to visit an asteroid.
The administration says that it wants to go to an asteroid because it wants to gather information about the formation of the Solar system; that it believes that the experience of going to an asteroid will help develop the technology and expertise needed to go to Mars.
Last year, Congress passed the NASA Authorization Bill with bipartisan support, but it lacked the overwhelming bipartisan support that previous NASA authorization bills had received in 2005 and 2007. Sadly, the space agency has lost much of its traditional base of Congressional support and has not been able to find much of a new one.
People at NASA say that they have a destination:a so-far unidentified asteroid.They say this will provide better scientific information about the early development of the Solar System and that the operation will be a low-cost way to develop technologies that will be needed if NASA is someday to send people to Mars. But NASA lacks a serious plan to get there and also is having a real problem finding other nations ready to cooperate. As long as the US cannot maintain a space policy for more than several years at a time, few countries will dare to invest their time and efforts in cooperating with it.
Last February, America's premier space policy expert, John Logsdon, pointed out that, "Today, there most certainly is no pressing national security question for which the answer is: "go to an asteroid."
In an era of tight budgets and angry partisanship, it may be foolish to imagine that any national leader could convince a large majority of Congress to fund an ambitious national program, let alone the kind of transnational "feel good" project -- such as the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission that was supposed to symbolize US- Soviet "détente"-- that some people in this administration seem to believe is desirable.
The expectation that the "New Space" commercial human spaceflight industry -- which can be described as a collection of small entrepreneurial firms that have been building small rockets and have been trying to find low cost ways to get into space -- will be able to replace NASA may not be realistic.
Considering how things are going in Washington,however, it may be more realistic than any other part of the space agency's current program. Congress seems ready to cut more than two thirds of the proposed budget for commercial human spaceflight --from the proposed roughly $900 million, down to about $300 million. That cut, however, will just slow the industry down rather than stop it.
This will mean that for many years there will be no way for Americans to get into orbit other than to buy a seat on a Soyuz capsule from the Russians.
As long as NASA depends on Russia for access to the ISS, Russia will be able to shut down that access at any moment and take full control of a station that America spent more than $80 billion dollars building. There is also the ongoing international image of America's astronauts dependent on Russia for their professional existence.
If NASA chooses to spread tiny -- by government standards -- sums of this $300 million around to all of the current recipients of "commercial" space contracts, the country will end up with a collection of undercapitalized, nearly bankrupt "New Space" companies that are totally dependent on government funding.
There is also the possibility that regulatory actions by the Federal Aviation Administration, or by some other part of the government, could bring the whole effort to build the "New Space" industry to an a loud halt, in which event the US would lose an important body of technical and business knowledge,as well as the drive, enthusiasm and imagination that these bring to the whole aerospace industry.
The problem is that the "New Space" industry is a valuable source of ideas and often pushes NASA and the large aerospace companies to innovate, to abandon their old procedures in favor of better new ones;but the industry lacks the capital to accomplish any really big projects such as building a rocket that can actually reach orbit. If America is going to be able to obtain access to the minerals and energy resources in the Solar System that it needs to thrive in the second half of the 21st century.
We shall have to have both the large, old fashioned aerospace firms and the small, nimble "New Space" firms.
SpaceX based in Hawthorne California, seems to stand by itself. The firm has the deep pockets of its founder, Elon Musk, co-inventor of PayPal, and it also has been developing its rockets and other space hardware for more than a decade. The company has so far successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket twice . Sometime in the late fall of this year, it hopes to launch it again, carrying the company's Dragon capsule. The Dragon will fly past the International Space Station (ISS), demonstrating that SpaceX can safely operate its maneuvering thrusters and its communications gear near that$100 billion orbital facility. If all goes well, next year the SpaceX Dragon capsule will dock with the station, proving that the firm can fulfill its obligations to fly supplies to the space station under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract it signed in 2008.
Once this happens, SpaceX will assume the mission of sending US cargo, consisting of food, water oxygen, and equipment,to keep the station running and to support the scientific experiments that are performed there.
At some later time, SpaceX hopes to show that it can fly people, as well as cargo, to the ISS. Under the best of circumstances, NASA's future access to orbit for people will depend on the success of a single firm's launch-system. Based on past experience with space systems' delays and cost overruns, this dependence on a single company will last until the end of the decade, if not longer.
The Air Force learned that when it relied exclusively on a single rocket to launch its vital satellites into orbit, if something went wrong with America's ability to keep its array of military satellites working and in orbit, it would not be able to monitor what was going on in important parts of the world. This happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s after a series of accidents grounded both the Space Shuttle and the Titan rockets. None of the other "New Space" firms that NASA has been supporting has any real chance of sending people into orbit within the next five years or more. If America's wants to have assured, low cost access to space, both for military reasons and to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are out there in the Solar System, it will have to have multiple ways of getting people and payloads in orbit. The current Delta and Atlas rockets may be reliable but they are not low cost.
Just as the Constellation Return-to-the-Moon program that the administration destroyed was constantly forced to adapt to funding shortfalls,the commercial human spaceflight program is also learning to adjust to constantly changing levels of government funding. If the next administration wanted to, it could cancel the whole commercial program and base the cancellation on the same grounds that were used to kill Constellation: that it is behind schedule and underfunded.
It looks as if keeping a strong and prosperous aerospace industry – and America – is nowhere near at the top of the President's priorities.