Yesterday, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech calling for a human mission to the Moon by the end of the 1960s, was an opportunity for a variety of retrospectives, not to mention comparisons to the current era of human spaceflight. One particular example of the latter was an op-ed in USA Today by former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Gene Cernan, who lamented the lack of vision they see from the current administration on human space exploration. It’s not the first time they have voice such arguments, and the op-ed is a more a restatement of their case that, in their words, “America’s leadership in space is slipping.”
However, perhaps the most interesting paragraph in their piece, one that points at a more fundamental problem than the state of current policy, is this:
The [Constellation] program enjoyed near-unanimous support, being approved and endorsed by the Bush administration and by both Democratic and Republican Congresses. However, due to its congressionally authorized funding falling victim to Office of Management and Budget cuts, earmarks and other unexpected financial diversions, Constellation fell behind schedule. An administration-appointed review committee concluded the Constellation program was “not viable” due to inadequate funding.
The first sentence is correct in that it refers to the endorsement of the Vision for Space Exploration and NASA’s implementation of it in authorization acts passed by Congress with little opposition in 2005 and 2008. The second sentence is also correct: funding originally projected for carrying out the Vision didn’t materialize either in presidential budget requests in later years of the Bush Administration or in the appropriations bills passed by Congress. Yet, they also contradict each other to some degree: if there really was “near-unanimous support” for Constellation, then fully funding it shouldn’t have been a problem, right?
What Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan miss in their op-ed is the current muddled situation regarding human spaceflight is not itself the problem, but instead a symptom of a deeper issue: space simply doesn’t have the same priority as it did 50 years ago, when it served as a proxy battlefield for the Cold War. It’s easy to “support” a program by passing authorization legislation that provides policy direction but doesn’t include funding; backing up that policy with the funding needed to implement has been much more difficult, as recent years have demonstrated. Moreover, it’s not likely to get any easier in the years to come as members of Congress seek to cut federal spending. The challenge today is either to come up with a new compelling rationale for human spaceflight that makes it a higher priority and thus wins support for additional funding, or to find new ways to make do with less.