In a conference speech Tuesday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden warned against trying to redirect NASA’s exploration plans, while also cautioning that those plans have to fit in an environment where Apollo-era budgets aren’t realistic.
“We made a decision. Some people in this room don’t like it. But we’re on our way, and you can either go with us, or figure out how to start all over again, and everybody in this room, I think, knows what happens when you start all over again,” Bolden said during a question-and-answer session after his keynote speech at the Humans To Mars Summit in Washington Tuesday morning.
What would happen, Bolden argued, is that the progress that NASA has made on its current path over the last several years would be lost, such as the successful development of commercial cargo systems for supporting the ISS and ongoing development of commercial crew transportation systems, which he said freed up NASA to focus more on exploration systems that would eventually allow humans to go to Mars. “We are farther down this road than we have been in a long, long, long, long time. If you don’t want to admit that, I can’t help you.”
“So, get over it, to be blunt,” he said. “This is the path we have chosen. Help us get it right.” That path can be “tweaked,” he acknowledged, but constant changes would result in no progress. “We can do this, but I need your help.”
In the same talk, though, he cautioned that any long-term goal of sending humans to Mars would have to fit into budgets not much larger than those today, and nothing like the Apollo era, when NASA received several percent of the federal budget. “We are not going to get four percent of the federal budget,” he said. “If you are serious about wanting to go to Mars, start thinking about reality, and reality is the budget. We are not going to get four percent of the federal budget to go to Mars or any other place.”
NASA’s plans, he said, required only “modest” increases in budgets but, as in past presentations, Bolden and other NASA officials didn’t quantify how much “modest” was, other than it was less than those much larger Apollo-era budgets. “If you feel we’ve got to have the Apollo-era funding levels, then forget it right now. Don’t spend your time at this conference, because you—we—are not going to get there.”
The rest of the Q&A session, as well as Bolden’s prepared remarks, covered familiar ground about NASA’s exploration plans and related issues. He reiterated, as he has since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, that NASA’s partnership with Russia was still in good shape. “I am cautious, but I am cautiously optimistic,” he said, noting ISS operations were unaffected in the Georgia crisis in 2008.
He also put in another plug for full funding for NASA’s commercial crew program, revisiting a contentious hearing with a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month, when Bolden and members argued about whether Congress fully funded the commercial crew program. He said that, in fiscal year 2011, NASA asked for $500 million for commercial crew but received only $312 million in the final appropriations bill. “I don’t care what Congress says or what staffers say or anything, $312 million is not $500 million,” he said. “We have never gotten what the President has asked for for commercial crew.”
“We really need the support of Congress,” he added, “and it’s my intent to get down on my hands and knees, and beg and plead, and help them understand that this nation needs our own capability to get humans into space.”