How much should we spend on America’s space program? Does NASA’s budget need an infusion of billions of dollars? The way these questions are answered gives some indication of why one believes we have a space program, what it should be doing and whether money is the key needed to unlock the barriers hindering our access to space.
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin recently opined that, “we're going to have to spend what it takes." If we can’t pursue space goals “with sufficient robustness,” he hopes that the newly formed Augustine Commission recommends that “we just not do it.” Additionally, Norm Augustine himself recently said that, despite our current technology and knowledge, ultimately, “It boils down to what we can afford.”
As we all know, spending money is easy. Spending money wisely is something else entirely. The Apollo era, when money supposedly flowed freely, is often cited as the glory days of NASA. Early Apollo spending was high primarily for two reasons.
First, in its early days, NASA had little infrastructure – few field centers, test equipment, space vehicles and the people to design, build, test and fly the spacecraft. A lot of NASA’s early funding went toward building up the facilities needed to go to the Moon: the KSC Moonport (the VAB and Launch Complex 39), the Houston MSC (now JSC) campus, the Deep Space Network and the several other installations around the country.
Second, there was a perceived political imperative that required rapid progress in space and this urgency expressed itself as high rates of expenditure. Apollo was not a journey to the Moon—it was a race and the Soviets were thought to be ahead of us. They orbited the first satellite and the first human. They did the first spacewalk and were the first to hit the Moon with a robotic probe. Being behind was a jolt and a wakeup call for Americans who believed our country was and should remain the world’s leader in technology.
With the lunar landing accomplished, the urgency of space dissipated and NASA adjusted to being just another federal agency, seeking to retain what it already had while expanding its sphere of activities to the extent that it could. However, institutionally, NASA never abandoned its business model of “racing to somewhere.” This way of thinking is manifest as NASA again pins its hopes for a viable space program on getting more money.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) outlined what became known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). It called for a permanent lunar base and a manned mission to Mars. NASA’s response to the new mission directive was tepid; it produced a 90-Day Study that concluded we could do SEI if the agency budget was increased substantially. In other words, the agency response to the Presidential directive was “Give us more money.”
Flash forward 15 years. In an attempt to set a long term strategic direction for space and to assure that we maintain a productive, technological workforce, President George W. Bush (Bush 43) outlined the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). It directed NASA to return humans to the Moon and learn to use lunar resources, followed by manned Mars missions, all the while integrating private industry into the architecture.
NASA’s response to the Vision was the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), which outlined an approach using Shuttle-derived hardware. However, as work unfolded, Shuttle heritage was diluted, costs rose rapidly, the date of lunar return receded, and the idea of incrementally developing a sustainable space infrastructure using lunar resources was abandoned. The lunar surface mission was warped into a “touch and go” demonstration followed by an Apollo-style Mars mission, staged entirely from the Earth. Once again the agency’s response to a new exploration challenge was to close ranks and follow the Apollo template, repeating the refrain, “Give us more money.”
Now NASA’s former administrator, Mike Griffin tells Norm Augustine to " do it right or don't do it at all.” In effect, Griffin is playing the “Washington Monument” game, a form of budgetary blackmail that threatens to terminate something believed to be strongly supported by Congress and the public (in this case, human spaceflight) unless some increased budgetary threshold is reached (in this case, more money to implement the ESAS.) But this “game” only works when you’re holding the high cards, in this case that the public won’t stand for the termination of human spaceflight.
In a previous blog I discussed the issue of public support for space exploration. While people don’t often think about space (and virtually no one casts their vote based on how the space program is funded), they still like the idea of having a space program. The fact that we’ve had the same space budget for thirty years (in constant dollars, between 0.5 and 1.0% of federal spending, more or less) suggests that this level of funding is politically sustainable.
As celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 begin, the agency has been unable to create a sustainable architecture for lunar return, thereby bleeding the life out exploration efforts. There is still no plan for lunar surface activities. In their urgency to exit the Moon as rapidly as possible and get to Mars, NASA is side-stepping the principal reason they were to go to the Moon in the first place – to learn the skills needed to live and work productively on another world. Is it any wonder that Congress and the public are uneasy about their space agency and its plea for more money?
The response to the questions I asked at the beginning should not be, “Give them more money.” The question we need to ask NASA is, “Given a constant level of funding over time, can you create a program that incrementally and cumulatively builds up a real space faring capability?”
If the answer to that question is “No,” then we need to ask, “Why not?”