On Wednesday afternoon the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, issued their proposal for reducing the federal budget deficit though a combination of discretionary spending cuts, mandatory spending savings, and tax reform. In particular, they identified $200 billion in “illustrative savings” in FY2015, $100 billion each in defense and domestic discretionary spending. Item number 24 (of 58) is the only one dealing directly with NASA:
Eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to spur the development of American commercial spaceflight. This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights. Eliminating this program would save $1.2 billion in 2015.
The wording of the statement suggests that the co-chairs may not fully understand the purpose of this “subsidy”: it is not for “training of the potential crews of such flights”, but instead to help fund the development of those systems, for use by NASA for ISS crew access as well as potential provate markets. (The $1.2 billion figure is also questionable, since it’s based on the administration’s original request that has since been altered by Congress in the authorization bill signed into law last month. If anything, though, the number is likely to be higher than $1.2 billion in 2015 assuming the full $6 billion is eventually appropriated, given the smaller figures authorized versus the White House proposal for 2011-2013.) How much traction this plan will get from fellow members of the commission, let along the White House and Congress, remains to be seen, but it does suggest that commercial spaceflight advocates will need to sharpen their arguments about why spending federal dollars on commercial vehicle development is a wise investment.
Update: the Commercial Spaceflight Federation did respond late Wednesday to the commission’s proposal, effectively playing what could be called the Russia card. “Commercial Crew will in fact result in substantial cost savings to the U.S. taxpayer,” said CSF president Brett Alexander. “Eliminating Commercial Crew would result in total reliance on Russia to get to the Space Station and result in the loss of thousands of high-tech jobs here in the United States.”