So, Let's Talk About It: The NASA Resources Gap

By Richard Mains, Posted 10/26/09

Norm Augustine, Source: AP

Norm Augustine, Source: AP

Norm Augustine and the "Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee" that he Chaired, reputedly worked hard on a fast track, accepting input from most everyone, to define options that would fit inside or fall outside the current and projected NASA budget.   It was obviously a tough, thankless job, and we can assume that none sought the assignment by NASA and the Obama Administration.  According to their final report, "The Committee was asked to review the program of record [current approved NASA plan] and offer prospective alternatives, not to recommend a specific future course for the human spaceflight program".   They deserve our appreciation for this major effort and their well-written report.  If you don't agree, I suggest trying to put yourself in their place with their mandate.   

The report has some elements that please many, but as a total package seems to please only a few.  And it really was not focused on recommendations, but on options, even though they seemed to have some favorite ones (but who wouldn't).  What it really nailed down was a fact that many seem to understand, but few want to acknowledge openly, let alone discuss in detail.  The first paragraph of the Executive Summary nails it to the door for all to see: 

"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.  It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.  Space operations are among the most demanding and unforgiving ever undertaken by humans.  It really is rocket science.  Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations.  Such is the case today."

NASA budget decreases, frozen budgets with no inflation factor included, unfunded White House mandates, and the need to rebuild the aging space infrastructure is forcing very difficult choices and many see some major downside for their particular interests.  However, the entrepreneurial commercial space market seems to have emerged from this process with a broad vote of confidence from the Committee, from the NASA Administrator, and the public.  There seems to be general agreement that NASA is clearly overextended and desperately needs to lower its costs for support of ongoing human-related flight operations, especially in low Earth orbit, by utilizing commercial solutions, whenever appropriate.  If commercial space entities cannot attract sufficient investors or eventually make a profit, they will go out of business, but we all hope that U.S. companies, many of whom are already involved, will compete strongly with their international counterparts.  What we need to surely avoid is NASA going out of business, not due to lack of funding, but lack of public confidence and support.  Aerospace is one of our best manufacturing and export sectors which we must retain and expand for global competitiveness.  Also, our commercial space entities, often in partnership with government, will build new infrastructure elements (launch vehicles, spacecraft, fuel depots, research labs, space services, etc.) that will lower costs, and ultimately increase reliability and expand the space enterprise market. That's a path to both economic vitality and sustainability.

Expansion of commercial space activity in partnership with NASA and DoD inevitably brings some conflict between civil servant and private sector jobs, at least during the initial challenging transition period.  This has brought congressional resistance to the fore, especially from the strong NASA-funded mission development focused states such as Florida, Alabama, and Texas.  Jeff Foust of The Space Review captured an insightful quote from Jeff Greason, the CEO of XCOR Aerospace and a member of the Augustine Committee.  Greason states, "To put it brutally, this trade, to my mind, is a trade between whether we have a space program or a jobs program".  And that's a trade that nobody wants to make.  Ideally, of course, such transitions, would be done with overlapping government and private sector activity, no gaps in between projects, and evolve so people have some chance to adapt. 

Due to the realities of the current economic chaos both in the U.S. and world-wide, change seems to be happening often in hard, disruptive ways.   We need our mature workforce and our new workforce in both sectors to work together, especially during this transition period.  We can't afford to lose any talent in either category.  A new collaborative endeavor by government (NASA and the Air Force Research Lab) and the emerging commercial reusable launch vehicle industry (suborbital and orbital) is emerging, called the "Commercial RLV Technology Roadmap Project".  Such public-private partnerships can greatly help to lower the conflict over jobs since both sectors have major roles to play in advancing these technologies to lower space access costs while steadily building an infrastructure that will produce long-term value for the nation. .  

 

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