At the Space Access ’08 conference in Phoenix on Friday, Charles Miller, a member of the board of directors of the Space Frontier Foundation, gave a presentation with a provocative title: “The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) and the Retirement of the Baby Boomers: Is this the Beginning of the End? or The End of the Beginning?” Miller took aim at one of the core assumptions behind the planning for the VSE and its implementation, dating back to the budget projection “sand chart” from January 2004: that NASA’s budget would grow at roughly the rate of inflation for the foreseeable, if not indefinite, future. Current administrator Mike Griffin, for example, has said on a number of occasions that budget growth that keeps pace with inflation would be sufficient to allow humans to land on Mars by the mid-2030s, among other things.
The problem with that assumption, Miller said, is that the budget is facing a major crunch in the relatively near future, as the Baby Boomer generation retires and starts putting increasing fiscal strain on programs like Social Security and Medicare. “Mandatory” programs, like those, now account for 53% of the overall federal budget, compared to 26% in 1962, according to OMB data released last month with the President’s FY09 budget proposal. Discretionary spending, which includes NASA as well as the military and many other agencies, has seen its share of the budget pie shrink from 68% in 1962 to 38% now. Those discretionary programs will continue to be squeezed, Miller believes, particularly once Boomers start retiring en masse around 2010.
“There’s going to be blood on the floor for a wide variety of programs, and it’s going to include NASA,” Miller predicts. “A conservative projection for NASA’s real budget in the long term, for 50 years, needs to take this into account, and should consider significant reductions in the top-line NASA budget.”
In such a scenario, it seems unlikely that the Vision would continue in anything like its current ESAS implementation. That is likely to be true regardless of who becomes the next president, as he or she will have to grapple with the same fiscal realities. “I think it [ESAS] is going to probably die in the next administration,” Miller said. Which begs the question: what should replace it?
Miller said that the goal of going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond can be preserved if one of three conditions can be met: cheap, reliable access to space (CRATS) is achieved; we find an “economically-driven strategic reason” for investing in space; or we address high-priority national security objectives. All those things can be achieved, he said, if the US develops a “reusable space access industry” that includes not just launch vehicles but other infrastructure elements like propellant depots, orbital transfer vehicles, and the like. Such an industry could make civil, military, and commercial space affordable and sustainable even in a severely constrained budget environment.
Miller proposed at the end of the talk to start preparing for “the end of the beginning” with a “National Reusable Space Access Summit”. This event would bring together the major players to develop a “National Reusable Space Access Strategy”, and come out with a short consensus statement that would be the basis for future discussions with government leaders. “I’m throwing this out here to start a discussion,” he concluded.