NASA Space Funding Reaches Critical Tipping Point

With the submission of the final findings of the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, NASA and lawmakers determining the agency's budget face several critical questions but none so much as funding.

Just days before NASA launches the first Ares I-X test rocket -- the current future of the agency's space flight plans -- former Lockheed Martin executive Norman Augustine presented the final report of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee Oct. 22 outlining what the blue ribbon panel considers to be the futility of the Ares rocket program.
"I think there is an argument that it was a sensible program to begin with," Augustine said at a National Press Club event. "There is a real question whether it's a sensible program today."
They key question surrounding NASA's plans, the panel said, is money or, more specifically, the lack of it. NASA has already spent almost $6.9 billion on a plan centered on the Ares launch rocket to be back on the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar outpost for future space expeditions. NASA continues to speed $300 million a month on the program.
According to NASA's current plans, the International Space Station will be retired at the end of 2015, another conclusion that the Augustine panel disputed.
The committee also noted the NASA's current plan to decommission the space shuttle fleet at the end of next year was unrealistic and should be funded through at least 2011. The panel said that the projected flight rate through 2010 is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since the Columbia disaster.
As with the history of NASA, it's only a matter of funding and Augustine said the current program "is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided or the exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be abandoned at least for the time being."
The Ares I rocket under development, Augustine said, is a "very expensive vehicle" and not likely to fulfill its mission without a major funding upgrade.
"The premier finding is that the human spaceflight program that the United States is currently pursuing is on an unsustainable trajectory," Augustine, who was appointed to head the review panel five months ago, said.
The committee also suggested the use of private spacecraft should be considered in any future planning for NASA as well as pursuing international partnerships. "There is now a burgeoning commercial space industry. If we craft the space architecture to provide opportunities to this industry, there is the potential -- not without risk -- that the costs to the government would be reduced," the report notes.
By outsourcing flights to the ISS (International Space Station), NASA would could redirect funding for the construction of a launch report capable of carrying astronauts deeper into space than the moon.
According to NASA's current plans, the ISS will be retired at the end of 2015, another conclusion that the Augustine panel disputed.
"The Committee finds that the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the
international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life to 2020," the report states. "It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life."
The lawmakers who make the final decision on NASA funding are less than pleased with the Augustine's panel's findings.
"I have to say that I am extremely frustrated, in fact, I am angry," stated Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in September when the panel released its preliminary report. "With all due respect to Mr. Augustine and his panel, I have to say that I think we are no further ahead in our understanding of what it will take to ensure a robust and meaningful human space flight program than we were before they started their review."
Giffords added that the Augustine's review panel's conclusions were hardly surprising to the elected officials who annually struggle with NASA funding: there is a serious mismatch between the challenges that we have asked NASA to meet and the resources that have been provided to the agency. "In other words, we can't get anywhere worth going to under NASA's projected budgets. But we didn't need an independent commission to tell us that. That's been painfully obvious for some time now," Giffords said.
Rep. Bart Gordan, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee added, "I have made no secret in recent years of my belief that the resources given to NASA haven't kept pace with the important tasks that we have asked NASA to undertake. We either have to give NASA the resources that it needs or stop pretending that it can do all we've put on its plate. That's especially true for NASA's exploration program, and it's true for the rest of its important missions too."
Or, as Augustine testified, "The Committee concludes that no rational exploratory program can be funded under the existing funding constraint and that plans for America's space exploration program would de facto be halted and human operations limited to low earth orbit."