A Personal Perspective on NASA's New Direction
Abandon in Place space art
Yesterday I had the privilege of being interviewed by Steve Grzanich, a reporter for WBBM-AM radio. The topic of our conversation was my reaction to this week's announcement regarding NASA's new budget and the decision to cancel both the Constellation program and NASA's plans for a return of humans to the Moon. In the context of the interview I was speaking as an individual who also happens to be a director for the National Space Society and a vice president of the Chicago Society for Space Studies.
I would summarize my reaction to the new NASA direction as mixed. There is good news in the announcement but also bad news. My feeling is that on the whole, the announcement reflects an administration position that is soft on its support for space exploration.
On the good side is the plan to operate the International Space Station for an additional 5 years – until 2020. ISS was built to provide us with a science platform in space and I viewed it as the height of folly to terminate the station by de-orbiting it in 2015. Who but the government would spend 25 years and over $100 billion to build a laboratory and then abandon it only 4 years after its completion? I would also hope that when 2020 arrives, if ISS is still viable, that it be privatized for continued use and not deliberately destroyed as was originally planned.
The very good news was the expansion of a commitment for NASA to procure commercial launch services. This is something that the space movement has been advocating for years. Such a program was already underway in the guise of the COTS program. COTS – Commercial Orbital Transportation Services – is a program to procure the commercial delivery of cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). One of the driving factors for this was the “gap” – that being the period of time between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the availability of its replacement via the Constellation program. During this gap, the U.S. government would essentially be outsourcing its access to the space station to Russia.
Tied in with the decision to expand NASA's procurement of commercially provided services is the administration's decision to cancel the Constellation program. Constellation is/was the program that would provide both crew (Ares I) and cargo (Ares V) launch vehicles, a crew spacecraft (Orion), and a lunar lander (Altair). Of course there is no reason why both government and commercial launch services could not have been pursued in parallel. Make no mistake – this decision was not made because the Obama administration has become pro-space advocates of free markets. Rather it is in recognition of the fact that private enterprise can probably do the job faster and cheaper and abandoning Constellation means the cost of the Constellation program can be removed from the NASA budget.
The bad news is the cancellation of plans to return humans to the Moon which once again consigns astronauts to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). A pro-space administration would have expanded the commercial program to include calls for private industry to develop a transportation system that could deliver humans and cargo to the surface of the Moon – with NASA signing on for some number of missions. There was no need to throw out the goal of returning people to the Moon.
As to NASA's proposed budget for the next five years, the annual increases called for will be less than the rate of inflation so NASA's purchasing power is actually going to decline over time. Given that NASA's 2009 budget was 18.78 billion (inclusive of stimulus funds, source:NASA Budget Summary) and the proposed 2015 budget is $20.99 billion, this works out to an annual growth rate of a paltry 1.8 percent.
On the good side, the budget will provide $4.9 billion over 5 years for a space technology development program; $3.1 billion over five years for heavy lift vehicle research (recall the newly canceled Ares V heavy lift vehicle); and $7.8 billion over five years for technology demonstrations for spaceflight technologies – if the administration keeps its word. Unfortunately all the technology examples given are technologies initiated in the past but abandoned. For example – inflatable structures. Does anyone here recall TransHab?
One disconnect I noticed was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's claim that "Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year." This means the development of a non-chemical based propulsion system. Unfortunately there is not one word about the development of such a revolutionary system in the NASA budget statement.
While there is more to say about the new direction being set for NASA, my comments here represent my reaction to the major points announced earlier this week.
Abandon-in-Place is a piece that I created to voice my disappointment at the cancellation of the last three Apollo missions to the Moon – one empty spacesuit for each of the canceled Apollo missions. Given that NASA has now been told by the administration to abandon plans for a human return to the Moon, this artwork seemed an appropriate piece to use. For more information about the art, see the Abandon-in-Place web page.
Ad Astra, Jim
Postscript: The National Space Society has released a press release outlining its position on the new NASA budget. See Welcomes Sci-Tech, Private-Sector Spending In 2011 Budget, But Calls For Continued Human Spaceflight Beyond Earth Orbit