Terminating Human Spaceflight Among CBO's Options for Deficit Reduction

Terminating Human Spaceflight Among CBO's Options for Deficit Reduction

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report yesterday with a list of 103 ways to reduce the deficit over the next decade.  Among them is terminating the human spaceflight program.

CBO is part of Congress and primarily supports the House and Senate Budget Committees and “scores” legislation to inform Congress of the economic implications of passing any bill headed to the floor for debate.  It also provides analysis on a broad range of topics, offering options, but not policy recommendations.

This report, Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014-2023, comes at a time when the House and Senate Budget Committees are meeting in conference to try to resolve the impasse over how to reduce the deficit.   As part of the deal last month to reopen the government and pass a Continuing Resolution to fund the government through January 15, 2014, the conference committee is supposed to complete its work by December 13.

CBO lists 103 options, of which 28 would affect “discretionary spending,” the category in which NASA funding resides.  Of those 28, nine relate to defense programs, five to transportation, and the remainder to a wide variety of programs, one of which is “eliminate human space exploration programs.”  CBO calculates the nation would save $73 billion between 2015 and 2023 by terminating “NASA’s human space exploration programs and space operations programs, except for those necessary to meet space communications needs (such as communications with the Hubble Space Telescope).”

The report offers brief (1-2 page) explanations of the pros and cons of adopting any of the 103 options.  For human space exploration, CBO’s analysis identifies the primary “pro” as advances in electronics and information technology “have generally reduced the need for humans to fly into space” — basically that robotic spacecraft are sufficient.  The primary “cons” are that terminating human spaceflight in low Earth orbit would “end the technical progress necessary to prepare for human missions to Mars” and “there may be some scientific advantage” to humans performing research aboard the International Space Station.  The report does not mention the international implications of terminating the human space exploration program.

How much influence the report will have on the budget conference committee’s deliberations is open for debate.  The fate of the conference committee itself is up in the air.  Though it has a December 13 deadline, it seems that little progress is being made.

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