Obama Asks for $2.5 Billion to Cancel Constellation; $6 Billion to Pay for Commercial Substitute

Obama Asks for $2.5 Billion to Cancel Constellation; $6 Billion to Pay for Commercial Substitute

It is ironic that today is both the anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy that spawned President George W. Bush’s Vision for the Space Exploration, and the day that President Obama announces that he wants to cancel it.

America’s attempts to go back to the Moon and on to Mars will go back to the drawing board if Congress agrees with the FY2011 budget request for NASA. President Bush’s “Vision” will be stopped in its tracks with cancellation of the entire Constellation Program — the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, the Orion spacecraft, and the Altair lunar lander – that were to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. Instead, NASA will throw its support to the commercial sector to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to someday once again take Americans into space from U.S. soil. After the final shuttle launches this year, NASA astronauts will have to ask others for rides into space.

How long it will take for the commercial vehicles is anyone’s guess. Advocates of this “commercial crew” approach are confident that private sector companies can develop human-rated launch vehicles (i.e., meeting NASA safety standards for carrying people) within the next few years. Skeptics have heard promises about commercial space too many times to believe it again.

In total, NASA is requesting $19.000 billion for FY2011, a 1.5% increase over FY2010’s budget of $18.724 billion. Its 5-year budget plan would see modest increases thereafter, reaching $20.660 billion by FY2014. That is about $1 billion short of the level proposed by the Augustine Committee, which called for a gradual increase by FY2014 to a level $3 billion above the FY2010 NASA budget, with inflation-adjusted budgets thereafter. The NASA budget released today projects funding to FY2015, when NASA’s budget would increase by another 1.9% to $20.990 billion.

NASA Administrator Bolden said that the President is increasing the NASA budget by $6 billion over the next 5 years (apparently compared to his FY2010 budget estimate), calling that “an extraordinary show of support.”

The Augustine Committee laid out options for the future human space flight program, but did not make recommendations. Still, many read its report as an endorsement of pursuing commercial alternatives to the Ares I launch vehicle for taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The Obama proposal goes well beyond that, relying on the commercial sector for all future U.S. human space flight, with the government investing in technology but not new vehicles. Sally Ride, a member of the Committee, participated in the NASA budget briefing and enthusiastically supported the President’s plan, saying that it put NASA on a “sustainable path to the future.”

The battle over the role of the government versus the commercial sector in developing new launch vehicles and spacecraft for human exploration is likely to consume congressional debate over NASA’s budget this year. Part of the debate may overlap with President Obama’s major focus in this election year – jobs. The President’s budget asks for a $100 billion jobs package, but NASA supporters may ask whether aerospace jobs are part of his agenda.

NASA has not provided an estimate of how many government and contractor jobs will be lost with the cancellation of Constellation – on top of terminating the shuttle over the next several months – or gained by its new commercial approach. Administrator Bolden provided only vague assurances that since the total NASA budget was going up, he expected to support more not fewer jobs though they may not be “concentrated on a few manufacturing and development contracts,” and that an “enhanced commercial space industry will create new high-tech jobs.”

The President announced two jobs programs today: “Investing in Innovation to Create the Industries and Jobs of Tomorrow” and “Spur Job Creation and Revitalize Rural America.” The fact sheet on the first mentions NASA only in the context of its Summer of Innovation education program, not about the high-tech jobs that might be gained or lost or new technologies that might be developed because of its dramatic change of direction for the space program. The second fact sheet does not mention NASA at all.

In any case, U.S. attempts to send people back to the Moon would return to the back burner. If Congress agrees with President Obama, this will be the third time in three attempts (1969, 1989, 2004) that plans for human Mars exploration have fallen short.

What President Obama wants to substitute is a program that relies on the commercial sector – with substantial taxpayer support – to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to take U.S. astronauts to space. The first destination will be the International Space Station (ISS) whose operational lifetime will be extended until at least 2020, five years beyond the current U.S. commitment. No decision has been made on destinations beyond that. NASA will focus only on development of new technologies not launch vehicles or spacecraft for human exploration. Deputy Administrator Garver says that NASA is focused on developing capabilities, not choosing destinations, but the Moon, Mars and asteroids all remain possibilities: “NASA is committed to exploring space. We’re not canceling the exploration of space, just the Constellation program,” and our “ultimate” destination is Mars and the moons of Mars.

Whether or not one believes that sending people to the Moon or Mars is important, this abrupt turnaround may be difficult for NASA’s workforce and supporters to absorb. It was only six years ago that NASA was turned topsy-turvey to march down the path of the Vision for Space Exploration. Now the Obama Administration is asking to turn it topsy-turvey again, this time to promised gold at the end of a different rainbow – commercial crew.

NASA and the White House will have their work cut out for them to convince a financially strapped country to believe that this time they’ve picked the right program.

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