Campaign '08, Congress, NASA

Weldon’s grand plan for a shuttle “soft landing”

Congressman Dave Weldon (R-FL) formally announced yesterday his legislation intended to keep the shuttle flying until Orion is ready to begin operations. A breakdown of what his bill would cost, according to Florida Today:

  • $1.6 billion to speed the development of the new Orion space capsules and Ares rockets.
  • $819 million to reimburse NASA for costs incurred returning to flight after the 2003 Columbia accident.
  • $1.2 billion to bolster other NASA aeronautics and science projects that have been cut in recent years.
  • “Such sums as necessary” to keep the shuttle fleet flying two missions a year until Orion spacecraft are ready to launch.

Weldon believes that the “such sums” would amount to $2 billion a year for 2011 through 2013, when Orion would be ready to fly under an accelerated schedule, although he didn’t get into details why he thought that, given that this would be cheaper that current shuttle operation costs (he did say he thought that one of the shuttle orbiters could be retired, and that NASA had developed a track record that showed it could “be innovative and make do with limited resources”).

Where would this money come from? That’s not addressed in Weldon’s legislation. “It’s an authorizing bill, not an appropriating bill,” he said, meaning that even if Congress approved the bill, there’s no guarantee that appropriators would provide the requested funding. Recall that the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 authorized nearly $18.7 billion for NASA in FY08; it appears the final appropriations bill being considered by Congress now will fall over $1 billion short of that request.

Moreover, it doesn’t seem likely at the moment that Congress would approve the bill. Florida Today reports that two of the biggest shuttle supporters in the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill Nelson, were lukewarm at best about the bill. The Orlando Sentinel reports that even Weldon considers it unlikely that the bill will make it into law.

So why introduce it at all, besides demonstrating to constituents that you’re trying to help the local economy by keeping the shuttle and its jobs in place for a while longer? Weldon hopes that his bill will “force a national debate over the future of America’s space program”, in particular among the presidential candidates. Weldon criticized the Republican candidates for not being forthcoming about their proposed space policies, according to the Sentinel:

“The best person with a space policy — actually, the only candidate with any kind of substantial space policy on their Web site — is Hillary [Clinton],” he said. “The Republican candidates need to wake up and smell the coffee.”

The Sentinel did contact two of the leading Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney; both offered general platitudes in support of space exploration and the Vision for Space Exploration that are unlikely to mollify Weldon.

15 comments to Weldon’s grand plan for a shuttle “soft landing”

  • “Weldon hopes that his bill will ‘force a national debate over the future of America’s space program’, in particular among the presidential candidates.”

    Yeah, I mean, pretty much every time a representative introduces a piece of legislation during a Presidential campaign, the candidates stop talking about their platforms and attacking their opponents’ positions so they can discuss the merits of the draft legislation. Happens all the time.

    [rolls eyes...]

  • Charles in Houston

    Oh Anonymous, you cynical doubter!

    Actually, if Rep Weldon could encourage a debate over space – both by the candidates and in the larger community – it would be very refreshing. It would be interesting to see what the other candidates proposed for a space policy, and how they reacted to Sen Clinton’s pretty coherent outlook.

    It is noteworthy that Rep Weldon’s bill proposed specific amounts for space science, return to flight, etc but is vague on the amounts to keep the Shuttle flying. In part I suspect that is because the accountants can allocate costs all different ways and “flying the Shuttle” could be expensive or could be inexpensive. We have some idea of what a mission costs, but all of the support costs could be booked under various programs.

    Charles

  • “Oh Anonymous, you cynical doubter!”

    While I probably do resemble that remark, I wasn’t being so much cynical in this thread as pointing out the very real fact that Presidential campaigns don’t have the time or interest to weigh in on the great majority of ongoing legislative proposals in Congress. Presidential campaigns have to spend their time talking up their candidate and platform and attacking the opposition and their positions, not evaluating legislative proposals. Weldon is either disingenious or stupid to suggest otherwise with respect to his proposal. And the vague, limp-wristed responses from the Guiliani and Romney campaigns reinforce the point.

    “It is noteworthy that Rep Weldon’s bill proposed specific amounts for space science, return to flight, etc but is vague on the amounts to keep the Shuttle flying. In part I suspect that is because the accountants can allocate costs all different ways”

    No, it’s vague because if Weldon’s proposal properly budgeted for additional Shuttle flights, the total budget requirement for Weldon’s proposal would be $16-19 billion, not $10 billion. Just maintaining the Shuttle program costs $4-5 billion per year, not $2 billion.

    Other than dreaming and hope, I don’t know where Weldon’s staff got that $2 billion figure. It’s goofy.

    And none of that includes the costs of Shuttle recertification in 2010, per the CAIB. Recertification will add many billions more to that $16-19 billion for Weldon’s proposal. Call it $25 billion total for round figures. That’s the real and likely cost of Weldon’s proposal.

    “and ‘flying the Shuttle’ could be expensive or could be inexpensive.”

    No, the costs of the Shuttle program are very well known after a quarter century of operating the program and they are largely fixed. Regardless of how many times the Shuttle flies in a particular year, the costs of maintaining the capability — keeping the NASA and contractor workforce paid, maintaining the facilities, etc. — are $4-5 billion per year. This was true even in the years after the Challenger and Columbia accidents, when there were no Shuttle flights.

    “We have some idea of what a mission costs, but all of the support costs could be booked under various programs.”

    Under Goldin and prior NASA Administrators, that was partly true. But since O’Keefe transitioned NASA to full cost accounting, the Shuttle budget is largely representative of Shuttle’s true costs. The same holds true for all of NASA’s programs.

    Go to the following website (add http://www):

    .nasa.gov/news/budget/index.html

    click on the link for 2008 Budget Request > Agency Summary, and scroll down to the third page in the PDF. There’s a summary table there for the NASA budget. Towards the bottom of the table is the Space Shuttle line, which comes to slightly more than $4 billion in both FY 2007 and FY 2008. Even if we assume that more Shuttle budget is hidden in other line-items, that figure is only going to go up, not down.

    That figure begins to tail off in FY 2009 and FY 2010 to $3.6 billion per year. But that’s only because of the 2010 shutdown. Take away the 2010 shutdown, and the figure will jump back up to $4 billion-plus.

    Hope this helps… FWIW.

  • reader

    if Rep Weldon could encourage a debate over space – both by the candidates and in the larger community
    Ive been thinking about this a couple of times, i.e. the fact that more fundamental discussion about “why” in the space policy is sorely lacking, and often pointed out around the blogs, but ..
    Whom would you folks actually like to see on say, Larry King debating it ? Mike Griffin would be a necessary punching bag ;), of course, but who else, to represent all sides of the discussion ?
    Elon Musk would sound like a good figure, then definitely somebody from the science uber alles crowd.
    A few regulars from here would be a good fit as well. A good debate of course is the one where everybody isnt foaming at the mouth, so it rules out quite a few voices amongst the space cadets.

  • [...] sums as necessary” to keep the shuttle flying two missions a year until Orion is developed (Space Politics). This comes to a total of about $10 [...]

  • Chance

    “if Rep Weldon could encourage a debate over space – both by the candidates and in the larger community – it would be very refreshing.”

    The debate needs to be on whether we need a piloted space program whatsoever. A robust debate on that would be refreshing.

  • Chance: The debate needs to be on whether we need a piloted space program whatsoever.

    Good luck. Maybe a decade ago, you could succeed, politically, in withdrawing from human spaceflight. There’s not a political chance in hell of that happening today. That said, starving the program via unwise decisions clearly is possible.

    My key piece of evidence for the above statement is all the talk that’s going on in politics on this very issue. Anonymous is probably right to be cynical, but it is also true that spaceflight has a far higher political visibility, and viability, today than it did, say, a decade ago. I’ve discussed what I think the reasons for that is before, so suffice it to say, it’s a different world now with people of my generation running the show. (That said, I’m rather dubious that this new-found interest will survive into the generations growing up today.)

    – Donald

  • more fundamental discussion about “why” in the space policy is sorely lacking…

    Don’t hold your breath. Many space fans would welcome a carefully restricted “debate” — one that took for granted the end of getting into space as far and fast as possible, and debated the merits of various means. But I doubt that many would welcome a truly fundamental, open-ended debate: the risk is too great that it might lead to a new consensus around “what’s the rush?”

    By the same token, the argument that “NASA and Big Aerospace are broken and can’t be fixed, direct the money to New Space instead” has a downside: if you get the public at large involved, they might just agree with you on the first part — but then conclude “hey, private enterprise means private investment, right?”

    IOW, be careful what you wish for.

  • reader

    but then conclude “hey, private enterprise means private investment, right?”
    If majority would agree to the first part and act upon it, i dont think finding private investment would become harder. Quite to the contrary.

  • If majority would agree to the first part and act upon it, i dont think finding private investment would become harder. Quite to the contrary.

    You should have been at the Space Investment Summit in San Jose… I think you would have found that your belief would not have matched reality.

  • Kevin M.

    Manned missions are grossly over-ambitious, the plan to return to the moon is pure idealistic politics. If the US can’t afford healthcare or produce jobs in the coming years, we have no right to be dreaming of “missions to the Moon”, much less Mars. Purely robotic missions are making great progress on returning on investment and finding cheaper methods to operate. Other than pure exploration, the only real motives driving us into space are security and military, and only if absolutely necessary. There is simply no further economic justification for manned science missions. The US is becoming a debtor country, and the concept of retaining global “superpower” dominance is also hallucinatory.

  • Kevin,

    Exploration doesn’t begin and end with scientific inquire. There is artistic exploration, and financial exploration. I make this point because, when you say “Other than pure exploration” you really saying anything.

    The truth is that manned spaceflight and robotic spaceflight serve 2 different purposes. Robot spaceflight is there for basic inquire and understanding. Manned spaceflight is there for development and utlization

    As for your claim that there is no economic justification for manned science missions, well, yes that true, but science isn’t the only reason to go into space.

    Sometime next decade, the explosion of private space enterprizes will cause substantial changes in the economy, much like the internet did in the 1990s.

  • Kevin: If the US can’t afford healthcare or produce jobs in the coming years, we have no right to be dreaming of “missions to the Moon”, much less Mars.

    This is true, or false, in either case. If we cannot afford to spend billions of dollars to explore the Solar System in person because there are higher priorities back home, we cannot afford to spend what is still billions of dollars (albeit fewer in an absolute sense though not necessarily so in a productive sense) sending robots. If we feel we should be spending our money on exploring the Solar System, either method is a tiny fraction of the Federal budget. The real questions come down to: should we be spending our money on this at all (yes, in my opinion), and if so, what will ultimately give you the best results for your money (long-term human expeditions with scientists on sight, in my opinion).

    Either we can afford to explore the Solar System or we can’t. If we decide we can, than we need to ask the last question above. I think we’ve been coming to the wrong answer, and we’re free to debate that. But, saying we sending clockwork robots to do basic reconnaissance has value while relatively detailed exploration like Apollo does not is absurd.

    – Donald

  • [...] Sean from Visual Astronomy let me know about his new blog. And so now you know too. Maybe the space shuttle won’t be ending flights so soon after all. Did you ever wonder how astronauts do their laundry in space? Pamela has the answer. And if you [...]

  • [...] area of Florida, has taken a strong interest in NASA issues in Congress. Most recently, he proposed legislation that would extend the life of the shuttle after 2010 as a means of closing the shuttle-CEV [...]

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