Most of the space community spent this past Tuesday, January 14, examining the details of the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2014 that funds NASA at ann overall level of $17.65 billion. Overlooked in that analysis, though, was another event: Tuesday marked the tenth anniversary of the speech by President George W. Bush at NASA Headquarters that formally unveiled what became known as the Vision for Space Exploration, a space exploration policy that has since been superseded by the Obama Administration’s policy, but whose shadow still stretches across the agency and the broader industry today.
The anniversary itself went largely unnoticed in the media. “Remember When George W. Bush Wanted to Send People to the Moon Again by 2020?” read the headline of a National Journal article Tuesday, one of the only articles about the Vision’s tenth anniversary. It only superficially examined the life and death of the Vision, and in its original version claimed NASA received $86 billion in 2004.
An op-ed in USA Today by Rand Simberg a day later looked a little more closely at the history of the Vision, blaming the Vision’s demise on NASA’s implementation of it through the Constellation program. Despite the chaos of 2010, when the Obama Administration “did a poor job of explaining its plans,” Simberg believes NASA is back to realizing the original, broader goals of Bush’s policy of “opening the cosmos” rather than the more specific goals of the policy of returning humans to the Moon by 2020. “But it is a future based not on nostalgia for the expensive crash Apollo program of 40 years ago, but more on traditional American values: competitive private activities, with both public/private partnerships and independent entrepreneurial activities from Internet billionaires.”
One similarity between the Vision for Space Exploration and the Obama Administration’s policy is the focus on Mars as a long-term goal: while they differ on where to go in the near- to mid-term, both plans feature humans going to Mars. “With the experience and knowledge gained on the Moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” Bush said in his 2004 speech, without setting a specific deadline for such missions. Obama, in his April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center, was more specific: “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”
A decade after Bush’s speech, is NASA really any closer to being able to send humans to Mars? One group thinks so. In a statement Tuesday by the Mars exploration advocacy group Explore Mars, a group of experts recently concluded “a human mission to Mars is both feasible and affordable assuming policy consistency among international space agencies and levels of funding consistent with pre-sequestration levels and modest increases annually in line with inflation.”
That conclusion was based on the findings of a three-day meeting held in Washington last month by a working group of more than 60 experts from various government, industry, and academic institutions. That group endorsed six principles for human Mars exploration, including that it is technically feasible by the 2030s and that it should be “the priority for human space flight over the next two to three decades.” That means making use of the International Space Station, and making sure that future human spaceflight activities are “prioritized in a manner that advances the objective of initial human missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s.”
As for what constitutes affordable, the report accompanying the release says that means spending at least a little more than today. “Current flat budgets are not realistic and result in reduced buying power over time. Modest increases will be necessary to achieve adequate support of this and other NASA priorities,” the report states. ” Budgetary increases for inflation must also be included as a minimum, so that NASA and our international partners’ buying power can be maintained for the duration of this long-term program.” (emphasis in original)
That budget stability, though, is hard to come by, as the Vision for Space Exploration demonstrated. In the infamous “sand chart” released with the Vision in 2004 (see slide 14 of the FY 2005 budget presentation by then administrator Sean O’Keefe), the administration projected that, by fiscal year 2014, NASA would have a budget of about $20 billion, with about a third of that being spent on exploration programs. The actual FY14 appropriations bill gives a little less than a quarter of its $17.65-billion budget on exploration programs—and that budget has been widely praised by the space community as being better than expected.