What the Election Means for NASA

What the Election Means for NASA

Editorial Commentary

Everyone wants to know what the election results mean for NASA.

Business Week published an interesting, if depressing, article about the current state of the U.S. human spaceflight program entitled “NASA, Lost in Space.” That was last week, even before the election.

Not to be curmudgeonly, but if I had a nickel for every article that has been written about NASA being lost in space over the past four decades that I have been a space policy analyst, plus a dime for each of the reports written about what the future of the human spaceflight program should be (27 according to my good friend Mark Craig), I might be able to buy a ticket to the International Space Station. That would be on a Russian spacecraft, of course, since we are about to mothball our transportation system for getting to and from ISS, but that’s another story.

The Republican takeover of the House is not good news for NASA. It’s not that Republicans don’t like NASA. As far as I can tell, just about everyone in the United States loves NASA. But they love NASA more in good economic times than in bad, and these are really bad economic times. The message from yesterday’s election is not just that America is angry at Washington, but that Bill Clinton is still correct — it’s the economy, stupid.

If Barack Obama wants to get reelected two years from now, he will have to join the bandwagon to cut federal spending that resonated so loudly with the electorate yesterday. The $6 billion increase over 5 years he included for NASA in his FY2011 budget request was always just a proposal and it is difficult to believe that it can survive the current economic and political climate.

As for Congress, the 2010 NASA authorization act did what most compromises do, split the difference. Not only will the government subsidize the commercial sector to build a transportation system to take people to low Earth orbit (LEO), but it will also build a government system to take people to LEO and beyond. That was unaffordable even with the President’s $6 billion proposed increase; it surely is unaffordable now.

NASA’s space science programs are very popular with Congress and the public, but earth sciences have been a political football for a long time. Many Republicans do not believe that climate change is human-induced and question why NASA needs to invest so much in earth science research. With the White House and Senate still in Democratic hands, and Senator Barbara Mikulski still in the Senate to champion Goddard Space Flight Center and its earth science research programs, the news is not entirely gloomy. Still, the President’s requested increase for NASA’s earth science program may encounter rough seas ahead instead of the smooth sailing it enjoyed this year.

Democrats now are intent on regaining the House and keeping the White House in 2012, while the Republicans want to prove that they are the party of smaller, cheaper government and win the Senate and the White House. Every agency is battening down the hatches against inevitable austerity. My best guess is that if Congress passes an omnibus appropriations bill this year, the bottom line for NASA will read $19 billion, the same as the request, but there will be a significant across-the-board reduction for all the agencies at the back of the bill. Such cuts are not uncommon, and usually are a fraction of a percent, but might well be more this time. The FY2012 request for NASA, I bet, will be level funding.

The Republicans won the House and made gains in the Senate because people are fearful of today’s economy and what tomorrow may bring. Spending money to send people to asteroids, as the President proposes, just doesn’t have the allure needed to protect NASA from the impending federal spending cut tsunami.

In many respects, this is yet another Back to the Future drill reminiscent of Mr. Clinton’s tenure as President and then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s outwardly cheerful acquiescence to that Administration’s budget cuts. He crafted “faster, better, cheaper,” which proved, as everyone says, that one can have two of the three, but not all.

What does the election mean for NASA? Another episode of trying to do too much with too little, I fear. Not to mention another round – already – of debating what should be the future of human spaceflight. Some think that a National Research Council (NRC) “Decadal Survey” for human spaceflight akin to those it does for space and earth sciences is the magic solution. Sorry, it won’t work. Having the NRC do a study every 10 years of the human spaceflight program is a noble endeavor and worth doing, but it will not take human spaceflight off the political agenda. Human spaceflight by its very nature appeals to the populace for reasons of national identity and aspirations that cannot be regulated by a sober, peer-reviewed, consensus document crafted even by the nation’s most beloved thinkers.

The space program belongs to the American people. Advocates who count “regular Americans” among their ranks need to work together to better convey how investing in NASA satisfies the need for economic stability and inspiration. Then those advocacy groups need to convert those beliefs into votes.

NASA can’t do it. First, it has to do whatever the President and Congress tell it to do, and second, it is not allowed to proselytize itself. This is an action item for the aerospace industry — traditional and entrepreneurial — and all the myriad advocacy groups to join together in making the case for space research and exploration.

It’s a difficult task. Human spaceflight, in particular, appeals to people for mostly intangible reasons — hope, curiosity, the drive to explore, national pride — not because of pocketbook issues. Without that connection, though, NASA, or at least the human spaceflight part of it, really may be lost this time.

Marcia Smith, Editor, SpacePolicyOnline.com

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