NASA, White House

Growing budget deficits may have scuttled an “inspiring” Obama space program

Tuesday night President Obama will give his State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress. Some have wondered if he might sneak a brief mention of space into the speech because the administration disclosed today that former astronaut Mark Kelly will be at the speech, sitting in the First Lady’s box. Of course, the primary reason why he’ll be there has little to do with his NASA career but instead because of his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who announced Sunday she would resign from Congress this week in order to devote more time to her post-shooting rehabilitation.

Another reason why it’s unlikely space would get much a mention in the address is that the administration may have something along the lines of space policy fatigue. This week’s issue of The New Yorker features a long article that takes readers behind the scenes of the Obama Administration, based on hundreds of pages of internal memos obtained by the magazine. The article takes a broad look at the administration acted and reacted to various issues, including, as it turns out, space.

The article notes that as a candidate for president in 2008, Obama “had promised a bold space program”, a reference to his space policy white paper the campaign released in August 2008. However, according to the New Yorker article, those plans foundered on projections of growing budget deficits. “Especially in light of our new fiscal context, it is not possible to achieve the inspiring space program goals discussed during the campaign,” a November 2009 memo (authorship unstated) advised the president. That sentence, the article noted, was in bold and underlined for particular emphasis. The result:

Obama was told that he should cancel NASA’s Bush-era Constellation program, along with its support projects, like the Ares launch vehicles, which were designed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. The program was behind schedule, over budget, and “unachievable.” He agreed to end it. During the stimulus debate, Obama’s metaphorical moon-shot idea—the smart grid—was struck down as unworkable. Now the Administration’s actual moon-shot program was dead, too.

Later, the article notes the president received a letter dated February 2, 2010—one day after the release of the 2011 budget proposal that announced plans to cancel Constellation, as Obama was advised the previous November—from a Virginia woman whose husband was working on the program. “I voted for you. I supported you. But I am very disappointed in you. You are not the President I thought you were going to be,” the woman, identified only as “Ginger”, wrote, after criticizing the president for cancelling Constellation while continuing to fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s response to his staff: “can I get a sense of how Ares fit in with our long term NASA strategy to effectively respond”. A few days later he got that information and then instructed an aide to “Draft a short letter for Ginger, answering her primary concern—her husband’s career—for me to send.” What the president was told, and how he decided to respond, aren’t disclosed.

30 comments to Growing budget deficits may have scuttled an “inspiring” Obama space program

  • BeanCounterfromDownunder

    Seems like confirmation of what has been pretty heavily discussed on this blog, simply that with no funding and continuing lack of solid plans and actions to reign in the debt spiral that the U.S. is in, there’s no money for inspiring or any other large scale space programs. SLS is dead, MPCV pretty soon, JWST still might not make it. Forget it people, back to the moon, asteroid or mars ain’t going to happen any time soon. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, there’ll only be the scamble to keep as many jobs going as possible. Make work only. Sigh!
    Fortunately I haven’t given up on the commercial efforts since that’s clearly where the real action is going to take place.

  • Joe

    While I am sure this is the spin Obama would like on this issue (and may be laying the ground work for more NASA cuts to come – say in SMD?), this is pure garbage.

    You could zero out or double NASA’s entire budget and it would be within the rounding error of the numbers discussed when dealing with federal budget issues.

  • “Ginger” is yet another example of what I’ve said over and over. A lot of these people think NASA is a guaranteed-for-life jobs program. She didn’t care about space exploration. She only cared about her husband having a guaranteed-for-life job.

  • Coastal Ron

    BeanCounterfromDownunder wrote @ January 23rd, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    …simply that with no funding and continuing lack of solid plans and actions to reign in the debt spiral that the U.S. is in, there’s no money for inspiring or any other large scale space programs.

    Well said.

    Instead of grandiose space plans, our political leaders need to focus on what we can do with what we have. And we have a lot, so it’s not like we can’t put something together that doesn’t break the bank but still gets us beyond LEO.

    SLS is dead

    Not yet, but don’t give up hope… ;-)

  • Coastal Ron

    Joe wrote @ January 23rd, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    [Obama is] laying the ground work for more NASA cuts to come

    I think you need to learn how the budget process really works – the President proposes, but the Congress disposes. Congress is the one reducing NASA budget these days, although considering our economic situation, I’m OK with proportional cuts.

    You could zero out or double NASA’s entire budget and it would be within the rounding error of the numbers discussed when dealing with federal budget issues.

    It’s an attitude like that that likely contributed to our current budget situation – a $Billion is still a $Billion, no matter how big the budget is. You may call it a rounding error, but I bet most taxpayers wouldn’t.

    It was also attitudes like yours that contributed to the cancellation of the Constellation program, since no one, including NASA Administrator Griffin, seemed concerned that the budget was ballooning. That’s why I wouldn’t be too sad if they cancelled the JWST too, since we need future programs to be fearful of cancellation if they don’t stick to their budgets.

    We need to lower the cost for science & exploration, not keep raising it.

  • Robert G. Oler

    This is the stuff that to me is fairly discouraging about Obama…it is not that he recognized a turkey program and bailed on it. Ares/Cx was a lemon run by idiots and no one was going to make lemonade out of it.

    What is annoying is that Obama is that there is an inspiring program that can be done…with what we have RGO

  • Robert G. Oler

    Joe wrote @ January 23rd, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    You could zero out or double NASA’s entire budget and it would be within the rounding error of the numbers discussed when dealing with federal budget issues.>>

    So if the amounts are small then bad performance is OK? Do you really believe that? Goofy RGO

  • Greg Smirnoff

    First, if the dollars are identified only as an expense and not as an incubator for industries and economies, then the cost is not being identified properly. Of course NASA does a poor job at this.

    Second, if our big projects are always way out of line in terms of expense and schedule, as is JWST, and Orion, then NASA has a technical and management problem. (Maybe thats the same problem as in (1)). NASA becomes non-believable.

    That is where we are today.

    At least JWST is stretching the frontier. Orion is not. Orion is trying to reproduce 45 year old technology and capabilities. Leave it to NASA HSF to try and reinvent the wheel at tremendous and unnecessary expense.
    Orion is not supportable, not maintainable, and if you look at supportable and maintainable methods, its totally unnecessary. Just a complete waste, and to boot its poorly implemented.

  • red

    “it is not possible to achieve the inspiring space program goals discussed during the campaign”

    A couple hundred million per year to revive the robotic precursor line and send exploration scouts to the lunar surface, NEOs, and Mars would be inspiring. Look at how inspired the Moon advocates are with the LRO/LCROSS results!

    A couple hundred million per year more to make commercial crew viable would be inspiring. Imagine 3 or 4 independent U.S. services delivering crew and cargo to the ISS, and branching out to do satellite servicing, private crew trips, etc!

    A couple hundred million per year more for exploration technology development using “skin in the game” partners to create and demonstrate capabilities like advanced solar-electric propulsion, propellant depots, inflatable habitats, AR&D space tugs, advanced ECLSS, aerocapture, and so on would be inspiring. These can all be used before they appear in human exploration missions, and do not burden NASA with a long-term infrastructure to maintain in the meantime. Once demonstrated in space, let the U.S. military, commercial satellites, and so on use the advanced solar electric propulsion. Let commercial users benefit from the availability of propellant depot technology. Let commercial space habitat vendors benefit by demonstrating inflatable habitat technology, while at the same time providing a different market for commercial crew/cargo. ISS could benefit from this as well. Let ISS benefit from ECLSS demos – they may pay for themselves via lowering ISS supply requirements. Let the U.S. commercial satellite industry and government agencies benefit from the introduction of space tugs. Let planetary science use aerocapture. All of this vigorous space activity enabled by the technology demonstrations would be inspiring, and would also address a lot practical economic, military, environment, science, and other problems.

    All together, this wouldn’t take a lot of funding, whether it came from a NASA budget boost, SLS, MPCV, JWST, or whatever. However, it isn’t going to happen without making the case and standing ground. An otherwise inspiring proposal that is given up on because fighting for it is too hard isn’t inspiring.

  • red

    “can I get a sense of how Ares fit in with our long term NASA strategy to effectively respond”.

    That’s easy. Imagine NASA is a canoe, and Ares is a 500-pound anchor. Now drop the anchor through the floor of the canoe.

    Unfortunately, SLS is much the same – maybe just a 400 pound boat anchor, but attached to a smaller NASA canoe.

  • CharlesHouston

    President Obama did agree to end the Constellation program but then has reversed his position quietly (he is now cooperating with Congress, a switch for him). The Ares booster has morphed into the SLS, and the Orion changed its name and is now the MPCV. What has changed? Managers were fired and new ones were promoted. Likely the SLS will wither away but in the meantime we will spend billions on it. Likely the MPCV will fly but will be crowded out by the Dragon and CST-100.

  • @BeanCounterfromDownunder

    The interest on the Federal debt in 2011 was about $148 billion so the $648 million cut in NASA’s budget should have a huge impact in helping to reduce the national debt:-) But, again, cuts in NASA don’t help the economy, it hurts the economy!

    The MPCV and the SLS are not dead and are fully funded by Congress. Congress has a space program. Its the President that doesn’t have one. And because of his lack of leadership, NASA funding for commercial crew development was actually reduced by Congress.

    But its clear that both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress were ready to increase NASA’s budget by the $3 billion recommended by the Augustine Commission if the President had shown any interest at all in NASA or any leadership.

    Unfortunately, the lady is right, Obama is no Kennedy!

  • Mark

    The excuse that Obama reneged on his promise to support space exploration is just crazy. The administration spent $900 billion on a stimulus package that stimulated very little except for debt and big government. Obamacare is slated to cost trillions. The Obama people are using the old dodge that the deficit prevents us from spending money on things they don’t like,. but does not get mentioned when it comes time to support spending they do like.

  • Joe

    Robert G. Oler wrote @ January 23rd, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    “So if the amounts are small then bad performance is OK? Do you really believe that? Goofy RGO”

    Then I assume you will not mind when a number of SMD programs (JWST perhaps) are cancelled.

    And I agree, you are “Goofy”.

  • BeancounterFromDownunder

    Marcel F. Williams wrote @ January 24th, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Cuts don’t hurt the economy Marcel, only spending without adding value does, which is what SLS and MPCV are, and why the U.S. is in the s..t that it is. It’s forgotten its capitalistic principles and now focuses entirely on jobs for jobs sake.
    There’s no hope for you if you don’t understand that, but then again, your posts clearly indicate your ignorance and wishful thinking so please consider my question purely rhetorical. LOL.

  • “The dream is over.” Obama hates the space program, if he liked it, Constellation could have been overhauled, like many other Federal programs.
    The Republicans are anti-NASA as well. At least we have our memories. Obama has hurt NASA more than Nixon did.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Joe wrote @ January 24th, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Robert G. Oler wrote @ January 23rd, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    “So if the amounts are small then bad performance is OK? Do you really believe that? Goofy RGO”

    Then I assume you will not mind when a number of SMD programs (JWST perhaps) are cancelled.>>

    no I wont in fact I would urge immediate cancellation of JWST and a rethink of how to do the entire effort.

    JWST (which has been talked about a lot here) is a failed program. It is like SLS or all the other NASA Plans one dimensional.

    end it now RGO

  • Robert G. Oler

    JoeRusso wrote @ January 24th, 2012 at 11:06 am

    “The dream is over.” Obama hates the space program, if he liked it, Constellation could have been overhauled, like many other Federal programs.>>

    how would you have done that? RGO

  • The MPCV and the SLS are not dead and are fully funded by Congress.

    No, they’re not. They’re overfunded, in the sense that we are spending far too much on them (any amount over zero is too much), but they are underfunded in the sense that they don’t have adequate funding for them to actually ever succeed.

    But they preserve jobs in the right places, which is all that matters to the Congress.

  • Human landings on the moon are cheap with 2 Falcon Heavy rockets launching a Dragon and a Lunar Lander to meet in low lunar orbit. Cost is $400-Million per mission for SpaceX.

    Human exploration of Mars orbit is cheap using 1 Falcon Heavy Launch of a 2 megawatt solar-electric upper stage connected to a 8-ton Bigelow Sundancer-like module carrying 3 or 4 people. NASA is already funding the thin-film solar technology and electric engine technology needed for the 4 kg/kw specific power technical requirement. SpaceX manufactures its own solar panels, so they probably have already figured this out as well. Cost is probably under $500-Million for a mission to Mars orbit and back.

    The problem is that most of the available money is being spent inefficiently as national government’s tend to do.

    Why haven’t the Russians done anything in 50 years after developing 2 different 100-ton class heavy lift rockets, sending manned spacecraft (without people inside) successfully around the moon, and leading the world in rocket engine and rocket manufacturing technology for 50 years??

    Entrepreneurial and commercial thought is desperately needed. National governments are hopelessly lost with space exploration…..don’t expect Chinese government to do much better than U.S. or Russia.

  • Vladislaw

    Robert G. Oler wrote:

    “What is annoying is that Obama is that there is an inspiring program that can be done…with what we have RGO”

    Actually, I have to disagree with you on this one Robert. It doesn’t matter how inspiring President Obama is. In my opinion, the more inspiring a speech or program is that he gives, or proposes the worst it will likely turn out for him. The Republicans in the congress, and surely in the House, do not want inspiring out of this President, they want failure and are willing to cast votes that are actually in the Nation’s best interest if it means a defeat for him in the next election. This President will likely rack up an astounding 400 filisbusters his first term. Republicans have been willing to even fillibuster legislation they were in favor of under President Bush.

    Maybe in the lame duck it might change, if the President wins reelection, but I will not be holding my breath. The more inspiring this President tries to be, the more he is shot down by the opposition.

  • DCSCA

    The Obama Administration announced its ‘space policy’ nearly two years this April ago down at KSC. That box is checked, out of the in box, stamped, filed and done. Space is not a prioirty with the national and global economy facing defaults, recessions and depressions. Tough times for luxury items like civilian space programs.

  • DCSCA

    ‘Obama was told that he should cancel NASA’s Bush-era Constellation program, along with its support projects, like the Ares launch vehicles, which were designed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.’

    <- Lori Garver's fingerprints are on this one. The Garver-Griffin feud in a nutshell.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Vladislaw wrote @ January 24th, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Robert G. Oler wrote:

    “What is annoying is that Obama is that there is an inspiring program that can be done…with what we have RGO”

    you replied
    Actually, I have to disagree with you on this one Robert. It doesn’t matter how inspiring President Obama is. ”

    Look the GOP has been almost one can say unpatriotic in how it has dealt with The President. The House is run by idiots whose claim to fame is infamy and nothing is going to endear Obama or his policies to mental midgets.

    BUT thats not me. I voted for McCain but knew he was toast in October and we have one President at a time, on this board when the SCOTUS gave its Bush ruling I more or less said “Its over”.

    I would like to see Obama give a speech on his vision for The Republic in general but in specific on several issues including space politics. He needs to explain if he comprehends why a private space industry in a country that never had a national airline; is important. He needs to explain why overhauling the health care system is important. What it creates what it enables.

    The GOP today is run by a corporate elite that panders to a bunch of people whose mental state is best described as “primitive”. They have invented history, cannot deal with reality and long for a world that never existed. Who cares about them? Lead the rest of the country into the future. RGO

  • Vladislaw

    Robert G. Oler wrote:

    “I would like to see Obama give a speech on his vision for The Republic in general but in specific on several issues including space politics. He needs to explain if he comprehends why a private space industry in a country that never had a national airline; is important.”

    I understand where you are coming from now. I agree, I would like to hear speeches like that myself. I thought you were saying that by doing this we would get some movement in Congress, that is what I disagreed with. I just do not see the President getting much of anything anymore from the right.

  • @Oler:

    Look the GOP has been almost one can say unpatriotic in how it has dealt with The President.

    You’re run to talk.

    The House is run by idiots whose claim to fame is infamy and nothing is going to endear Obama or his policies to mental midgets.

    Your own grasp of those policies and the surrounding debate is pretty dubious, considering the guiding authorization passed with 66 more Democratic votes than Republican ones in the House under Democratic leadership.

    He needs to explain if he comprehends why a private space industry in a country that never had a national airline; is important.

    Why would he, when his star team you drooled over not little more than two years ago is offering full throated defenses of SLS?

    He needs to explain why overhauling the health care system is important. What it creates what it enables.

    He can’t, seeing as current law is already deviating badly from the ten year budgetary and economic performance baselines promised two years ago. Neither he nor anyone else would even try to project out to the following decade.

    The GOP today is run by a corporate elite that panders to a bunch of people whose mental state is best described as “primitive”.

    That corporate elite is financing your new, off-the-shelf lifters, so be a good boy and prostrate yourself accordingly.

    They have invented history, cannot deal with reality and long for a world that never existed. Who cares about them? Lead the rest of the country into the future.

    So you won’t be needing the aerospace industry in your new country?

  • Fred Willett

    Marcel F. Williams wrote @ January 24th, 2012 at 12:14 am
    …But its clear that both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress were ready to increase NASA’s budget by the $3 billion recommended by the Augustine Commission if the President had shown any interest at all in NASA or any leadership…
    In fact Obama proposed a $1B increase to the budget and Congress trimmed it out. You statement is simply wrong on the facts.
    The MPCV and the SLS are not dead and are fully funded by Congress.
    Er, no. Augustine pointed out that without an extra $3B a year a HLV could not succeed. And Booz Allen confirmed that the budget figures for SLS contain holes that will kill the program.
    But more importantly there is no funding to actually fly anything on SLS. Just this week NASAspaceflight had a wonderful article on all the plans NASA is developing to use SLS. But not once is there any mention of where the money is coming from. It’s all magic beans and golden eggs. Somehow, inspite of the tight economy NASA will suddenly be showered with money.
    Ah! Dreams! Gotta love ‘em.

  • Googaw

    “You could zero out or double NASA’s entire budget and it would be within the rounding error of the numbers discussed when dealing with federal budget issues.”

    That’s what every other bureaucrat says about their program too.

  • Fred Willett

    “You could zero out or double NASA’s entire budget and it would be within the rounding error of the numbers discussed when dealing with federal budget issues.”
    Having watched budget cuts in many countries on many occasions governments always try to spread the pain across departments and programs. Even small programs take a hit reguardless of the fact that their cut is peanuts in the bigger scheme of things.
    And all programs argue fiercely that their program is special, necessary and should not be touched.
    NASA will take a hit.
    It is inevitable. Plan for it.

  • Michael from Iowa

    The tragedy is that the administration’s original proposal for the space program was actually pretty good.

    - Shift more of NASA’s budget into technology R&D, focus on demonstrating key tech like orbital refueling, new propulsion, etc
    - Expand the commercial crew and cargo programs with the goal of eventually having most/all transport to low orbit being handled by private spaceflight companies.
    - Wait a few years to start work on developing a new public vehicle when newer technology is available. Focus on incremental goals for HSF eventually working up to Mars surface missions.

    Unfortunately, what the Administration proposed and what Congress approved were two very different space policies. Congress did what it always does – look out for its own interests first and settle for less than what could be.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>