Astronomer Neil Tyson, a friend dating from the Aldridge Commission, recently appeared on Comedy Central’s Daily Show to promote his new book. During the program, Neil suggested that NASA’s budget should be doubled. He made the point that the current total budget for the civil space program is less than one-half of one percent, so doubling the budget would still result in less than one percent spending on space. Neil believes that a strong, vigorous space program inspires the next generation to take up scientific and technical studies, fields of endeavor vital to our nation’s future. Initially taken aback, Jon Stewart, the show’s host, ending the segment by proclaiming Tyson his preferred choice for President in 2012.
The very thought of a doubled space budget is one to start the salivary glands of most space cadets watering overtime. Think of all the missions we could do! No more either Space Launch System (SLS) or commercial launch – we do both! No longer either James Webb telescope or Mars missions – we do both! All issues resolved, all problems solved, all constituencies satisfied. Right?
A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay stating that more money for NASA was not the answer to their problems. That post was written when NASA still had a strategic direction – the now-discarded Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). After this administration terminated the VSE, they endorsed another program called Flexible Path. No destination was named (though a human mission to one of the Earth-Moon L-points or to a near-Earth asteroid was posited), rather the agency was asked to design generic systems that, in theory, could take us anywhere. Flexible Path was the course advocated by the Augustine committee, who had been tapped to evaluate NASA’s implementation of the VSE. Their report claimed that it was not possible to implement the VSE (specifically, the development of the lander needed to return to the Moon) without a one-third increase in the agency budget, so a refocusing of the strategic direction of the agency (one more “flexible” than the VSE) was necessary.
The conclusions of Augustine (specifically, the non-return to the Moon part) were embraced by the administration and early 2010 the plug was pulled on the VSE. However, the commercial (COTS) part of the terminated VSE was retained, becoming the primary avenue and focus of NASA funding and development for future cargo and eventual human access to and from low Earth orbit. The decision to terminate VSE became increasingly controversial as the agency also decided to move forward with the planned shutdown of Shuttle. In light of the unknowns of commercial launch success or its timetable, it became evident that the delay caused by these decisions would affect our space workforce and the viability of the U.S. space program. Congress reacted by insisting that the agency develop a new heavy lift vehicle (to ensure human missions beyond low Earth orbit), a program now underway known as the Space Launch System (SLS). Until one (if any) of these systems come on line (projected to be in 5-10 years) we must purchase human LEO access from the Russians.
More money might alleviate some near term issues with certain missions (such as ExoMars, the now-canceled joint NASA-ESA mission to Mars), but as Neil Tyson suggests, would that give us a fundamentally different and better space program? More funding would enable more activity, but to do what? As we no longer have a reasonable, near-term strategic goal (and I do not count empty promises of human Mars missions 30 years in the future as such), more money might accelerate progress on some programs, but money alone will never establish a healthy and vigorous space program.
What has held us back from creating a strong space program? I contend that it is the lack of any strategic direction, by which I mean not simply a goal, but a believable goal, one that combines clear and pressing societal value with attainable, decadal timescales, at costs at or less than their projected budget line. Under the existing operational template, most proposed space goals satisfy one or two, but not all conditions.
In space, as in most federal programs, throwing money at a problem may be necessary, but is seldom sufficient. A doubled space budget would likely produce more studies, additional staff meetings, endless Powerpoint charts and countless and interminable management training retreats. NASA’s productive engineering segment will continue to shrink as bureaucratic overhead continues to swell. A program without a direction, no matter how well funded, creates nothing but waste.
We must not retreat from our role as a viable space faring nation. If we become complacent and lose our place in history, there is no assurance that the values and liberty we cherish here will follow humanity into the new frontier of space, or even remain strong here at home. Money alone does not measure the health of a program or a nation. NASA and the United States urgently need a believable, strategic space goal.
Today the U.S. space program is moving rapidly toward oblivion. Can it be saved? I myself go back and forth debating this critical question. Today I think it is possible. If reason is the ability to draw conclusions from what is evident, faith is the ability to believe in things unseen or not proven. I must have faith – it sure as hell can’t be reason.