It was a missed deadline that was hardly noticed. Monday was the day that, under federal law, the White House was supposed to release its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal. But the Obama Administration did not release its budget proposal on the first Monday in February, as was the case last year. Officials with the Office of Management and Budget say the FY14 budget will be released next Wednesday, the day after President Obama gives his State of the Union address.
However, not many people are thinking about the 2014 budget when spending for 2013 remains unresolved, more than four months into the fiscal year. Attention is now on the March 1 deadline to deal with across-the-board automatic spending cuts, aka sequestration, a deadline that’s already been pushed back from the beginning of the year. Now, though, there’s a growing belief that the sequester, or something like it, will go into effect at the beginning of next month. National Journal reported last month that senators of both parties think sequestration could go into effect given unwillingness to either accept revenue increases or redistributed spending cuts. And POLITICO, in a piece today on the effect of such cuts on defense spending, concluded that currently “bets are on the automatic cuts taking place.”
If sequestration does go into effect, it would mean for NASA a cut of over eight percent for its various accounts (science, exploration, etc.) How those cuts would be distributed among various programs within those accounts remains unclear, as NASA has divulged few details. Speaking at the American Astronomical Society meeting in California last month, John Grunsfeld, the NASA associate administrator for science, indicated that planning for the original sequestration deadline of January 1 started less than a week before. “We never got flow down of what the sequestration would have meant,” he said, before Congress passed legislation to push back the sequestration deadline to March 1. The agency then went back to working with the administration on the FY14 budget proposal, he said.
Grunsfeld did say at the time that he made it a priority with NASA’s science program to protect funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, noting that it had been previously identified as an agency priority. But the lack of information about sequestration planning has created plenty of speculation about how those cuts would be implemented, such as in NASA’s planetary sciences program. An OMB memo to agencies last month provides only general guidance for sequestration planning, emphasizing finding “the most appropriate means to reduce civilian workforce costs” and identifying cost savings in grants and contracts, while working to “reduce operational risks and minimize impacts on the agency’s core mission”. As we get closer to the end of the month, better understanding what those sequestration cuts might entail will become more of a priority.
Friday was the 10th anniversary of the Columbia accident, and a few members of Congress—but only a few—as well as President Obama marked the occasions with columns or other statements about the accident. Those comments shared solemn sentiments about anniversary, but offered a spectrum of views about the future.
In his statement about NASA’s Day of Remembrance (available on NASA’s website but not showing up on whitehouse.gov), President Obama noted the Columbia anniversary, as well as the previous Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents, but mostly looked ahead. “The exploration of space represents one of the most challenging endeavors we undertake as a Nation,” he said, adding that “it’s imperative America continues to lead the world in reaching for the stars while giving us a better understanding of our home planet.” His statement then briefly described NASA efforts “that will eventually put Americans on Mars.” Among the items he cited was “the biggest booster since the Apollo-era Saturn V [that] is well on its way to launching a new American journey into deep space.” Of course, when the Obama Administration rolled out its proposed NASA revamp in its FY11 budget proposal—released on the seventh anniversary of the Columbia accident—that heavy-lift booster work was set to be deferred for five years.
Friday’s Orlando Sentinel featured a pair of op-eds from members of Congress tied to the Columbia anniversary but primarily focused on the future. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) largely laid out NASA’s current plan, including develop of the Space Launch System and Orion as well as commercial crew initiatives. “I’d say NASA’s future is bright,” he concludes. Nelson, chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, does note plans for a NASA reauthorization bill this year, but suggests it will not deviate much from the plan for the agency laid out in the 2010 bill: “the road map from the 2010 plan will continue guiding the agency.” He adds that he plans to “lead an update of space legislation to further enable private companies to meet our nation’s needs,” but offers no specifics.
However, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) called for more substantive changes to NASA in his Sentinel op-ed, including “divesting” NASA of “anything that can reasonably be placed in another agency,” such as Earth science. “We should prioritize technologies that give us the biggest bang for our buck, including solar-electric propulsion and cryogenic propellant storage and transfer,” he argues. He throws in calls for NASA efforts to clean up orbital debris and study near Earth objects. “We will never re-create Apollo, the product of many complex variables, but the truth is we don’t really want to re-create Apollo,” he states near the end of his piece. “This time we want to colonize the solar system, building settlements on the moon, in deep space, and on Mars.”
Rohrabacher also, unsurprisingly, expressed his support for commercial space transportation, but another House member noted safety concerns she had. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said in an op-ed in The Hill that NASA must ensure “safety is not compromised in the process” of developing new systems. “[W]e cannot let our enthusiasm for the efforts of private enterprises — albeit ones that are getting significant taxpayer funding — to develop vehicles that could one day fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station lull us into a false sense of complacency,” she wrote, citing a recent report by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) that she said offered “troubling indicators” that compromised safety is a possibility.
“The best way to honor the crewmembers of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 mission is to remember the hard lessons learned from that tragedy. Space travel is risky and is not yet mature,” Johnson writes in the conclusion of her op-ed. “I will work steadfastly with my fellow members of Congress to ensure that we pursue a meaningful human space flight program for our Nation, one that can continue to inspire Americans to look to the future, yet one that is grounded in NASA’s decades of experience, expertise, and hard-earned lessons.” And one that, presumably, can fit within the stricter fiscal constraints NASa is likely to experience in 2013 and for at least the next several years beyond.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven person crew. A lot has been, and will be, said about the accident itself and its aftermath. The accident, though, also ushered in an era of uncertainty in space policy, particularly in regards to human spaceflight, that arguably still persists to this day.
The accident, of course, immediately derailed the plans to quickly finish assembling the International Space Station, plans that created schedule pressure later identified as a contributing factor in the Columbia accident. Less than a year later, though, it looked like we had that certainty back, in the form of President George W. Bush’s speech in January 2004 unveiling the Vision for Space Exploration. We would return the shuttle to flight, use it long enough to complete the ISS and then retire it, and then bring in a next-generation crew transportation system that would return humans to the Moon by 2020.
It didn’t work out that way: while the vision was in place, the funding didn’t follow, particularly for NASA’s chosen approach to implement that new transportation, Constellation. “I think the previous administration’s plans to go to the Moon was a great vision, but only poets plan strategy without a budget,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, put it at the recent Baker Institute forum on space policy. “The Obama Administration, quite frankly, was right to pull the plug” on Constellation, she concluded.
But the Obama Administration’s plans, rolled out three years ago today, also met with opposition, resulting in the compromise enacted in the form of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that October. And even those plans look questionable today, thanks to changing fiscal environment. In that fiscal year 2011 budget proposal released exactly three years ago, the administration projected NASA’s budget to grow from $19 billion in FY11 to just under $20 billion in FY13, and on to nearly $21 billion in FY15. Today, with the FY13 budget still not resolved, $20 billion looks like a fantasy: anything around NASA’s FY12 appropriation of about $17.7 billion would be considered a major victory. Another gap between strategy and budgets is looming.
It’s easy to trace the chain of events back to the Columbia accident, but it’s also fair to ask how different events would have been without the accident. At first glance, it appears there would have been more certainty, especially in the near term: NASA would have continued with the assembly of the ISS at its planned brisk pace, completing the station much sooner. But after that? Things are less clear. At the time of the accident, NASA was embarking on the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), an effort to develop a second-generation reusable launch vehicle, but was also investigating ways to extend the life of the Space Shuttle to perhaps 2020. Would NASA have continued SLI, or would it have suffered the fate of previous RLV development efforts? And how long would NASA have tried to keep flying the shuttles? When, and how, would plans for human spaceflight beyond LEO emerge?
The Columbia accident put NASA’s human spaceflight efforts on a wandering path, from the Vision for Space Exploration to the Obama Administration’s plans to the current-day uncertainty of just what NASA will be able to afford to do. However, the accident didn’t cause that uncertainty so much as trigger events that have since been carried by an underlying uncertainty, one that arguably existed even before the accident, of just what NASA’s human spaceflight program should be doing, and why.
Responding to what is at least a somewhat manufactured controversy, a key senator said Tuesday that he will continue to support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift launch vehicle. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told the Huntsville Times that he will “continue to fight hard to ensure that taxpayer dollars are invested wisely in SLS so that we maintain our nation’s leadership role in human spaceflight,” according to a statement furnished to the newspaper. Shelby’s statement was apparently prompted by a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday that called on canceling the SLS and turning over all space transportation systems to the private sector. Shelby noted that “the so-called commercial space industry is funded in large measure by taxpayers through NASA.”
In addition to covering Shelby’s comments, the Times also reported on the “public debate over killing” the SLS, including debate here (even if, in his haste, the reporter misidentified one of the people participating in the comments.) Yet, there’s little, if any, evidence that the Obama Administration is willing to act on the proposal in the original WSJ op-ed to cancel the SLS and expend the necessary political capital to get past SLS supporters like Shelby (who, in addition to being the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he plans to serve as ranking member of that committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee, with oversight of NASA’s budget.) However, even without an explicit administration effort to kill SLS this year or later in the president’s second term, pressure from sequestration or other budget-cutting initiatives could put the SLS on a collision course with commercial crew or other NASA programs.
The Senate passed on Monday HR 152, a $50.5 billion appropriations bill to cover damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last October. The House passed the bill earlier this month after a previous disaster relief bill died in the previous Congress. Included in the bill is $15 million for NASA’s “Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration” account, to cover damage to NASA facilities caused by the hurricane. The bulk of that money is expected to go to the Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast, which experienced heavy rains and storm surges as the hurricane moved up the coast (some will go to the Kennedy Space Center.) Space News reported that Wallops officials have estimated repair costs at $26 million from the storm.
In an essay in Monday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Walker and Charles Miller make a pitch to President Obama: complete the job he started in his first term in handing over space transportation entirely in the private sector. “Just as the government does not design or build automobiles, ships, trains or airplanes, NASA should not be designing, building or launching rockets to go to low Earth orbit,” they argue.
Specifically, they want the President to kill the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket that emerged from the 2010 compromise about the administration’s policy, saying that those launches should be turned over to the private sector. “The U.S. private space industry has now succeeded beyond the imagination of most politicians,” they argue, citing successes with the commercial cargo and the fact that private industry actually has more experience in developing new rockets (Atlas 5, Delta 4, Falcon 9) than NASA. A “full privatization” of space transportation would make American industry more competitive, reduce costs for the DOD and NASA, and allow the space agency to focus more on cutting-edge technologies, they claim.
“Why spend approximately $20 billion to build an unneeded SLS super-heavy-lift rocket, for instance, when existing commercial rockets can carry payloads more often, efficiently and cheaply?” they ask near the end of the op-ed. One issue, of course, is that the SLS will launch payloads heavier than any existing commercial rocket. (That could be mitigated though multiple-launch architectures and the development of propellant depots, although Walker and Miller don’t go into that level of detail in the piece.) The other, bigger issue, is the political fight that would ensue if President Obama decided to cancel the SLS, upending the existing compromise reached in 2010 that includes support for SLS as well as commercial crew. Would the White House, dealing with bigger issues from the “fiscal cliff” to gun control, be willing to spend the political capital needed to push through Congress what Walker and Miller propose?
Thursday evening the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University hosted a panel titled “Lost in Space: The Need for a Definitive U.S. Space Policy.” (The event was webcast, and the video of the event is on the institute’s website.) The panel was predicated on the belief that the US doesn’t currently have a clear national space policy, particularly when it comes to guiding NASA’s activities, and sought to “discuss the need for and the elements of a definitive national civil space policy.” At the end of the over 90-minute event, though, the panel came away with no clear answers of what that “definitive” space policy should be.
While the title of the panel appeared to address national space policy in general, it was clear that the emphasis of the discussion would be not just on civil space policy, but specifically on civil human spaceflight. “For an American astronaut, the road to space is really through Star City and Baikonur and Kazakhstan,” lamented George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center and moderator of the panel, in his opening remarks. “It will be that way for a long time to come.” (Abbey also claimed in his remarks that this July “it’ll be two years since an American spacecraft has been up to visit that station.” In fact, last year two American spacecraft—SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicles—visited the station, and by July at least one more Dragon, plus likely the first Cygnus cargo vehicle from Orbital Sciences, will have visited the ISS. None of them, of course, carry crews.)
As to how to change the current situation and create a more definitive national space policy, particularly for human spaceflight, the panelists offered a range of options, but also little optimism that things would change in the near term. “I’m not very optimistic, at least in the short run,” said John Logsdon, who described the current situation as “an uneasy and unsatisfactory compromise.” “The perception of the need is there, but it’s not a widely shared perception. And it’s hard hard to change things in our system of government.”
Neal Lane, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the latter years of the Clinton Administration, said he recalled complaints from the space community during his time there asking why the president didn’t make space a higher priority. “I think you could argue that no president except Kennedy has really placed the space program high enough on the list of priorities to be sustainable,” he said. “I still hold out the hope that, someday, our space program will excite the public to the degree that presidents and members of Congress will place it higher on the list of priorities. But it’s not happened yet, and it can’t happen in my view very quickly.”
To Rice University professor Eugene Levy, that long-running challenge to come up with a more definitive policy for human spaceflight in particular is not surprising. “The failure to articulate and mount a program of human piloted missions to deep space, rather than being a crisis, rather than being a bungle of leadership and political process, represents a triumph of rationality and success in the political process,” he argued. “No convincing case has been made for mounting a program of deep space piloted missions.” He added he’s not opposed per se to human space exploration, only that the reasons given don’t justify the expenditure in an era where NASA “is getting about as much of the national resource as it is likely to get on any time horizon worth planning for.”
One way to achieve a broader consensus for space policy is geostrategic considerations, offered Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. She said while there was no space race between the US and China, there is the “perception of leadership” that is at stake if there is no continued clear direction for national space policy. “The connotation of space is regarding the future. Leaders go into the future. And if we are seen as ceding that leadership to other countries, it will have larger geostrategic implications,” she said.
She and another panelist, former astronaut Leroy Chiao, advocated for more cooperation, rather than competition, with China. “For the United States to maintain its leadership position in human spaceflight,” he said, “that’s where we need to focus our efforts and get over the xenophobia and take the lead position in making it happen.” Johnson-Freese noted that if the US doesn’t increase cooperation with China, it risks being left out of future partnerships. “The danger of not working with China is that everybody else is,” she said. “I’m afraid we’re going to be standing there with our football and everybody else is going to be playing a different game.”
Of all the panelists, Mark Albrecht, the former executive secretary of the National Space Council in the George H.W. Bush Administration, took the broadest view, expanding his scope beyond human spaceflight and NASA in general to look at the broader national space enterprise. “We have a weak national policy” for space in general, he said, with no “overarching theme”; instead, he considers it more of a “guidance document.” He saw a number of problems with national space efforts today, from the military’s return to the “Milstar era” of very big, expensive satellite programs to diminished market shares for commercial satellites and launches by US companies.
Space policy excels, he argued, when it’s part of a broader national strategy, such as defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. “But right now, we don’t have a national strategy,” he argued. The only way to change space policy, he said, “is to have an overriding national policy for the United States for which a different kind of space policy would fit in.”
The panel ended with no clear view about how to change national space policy (let alone broader national policy) or what to change it to, and no optimism that we’ll see any significant changes of any kind in the near future. “With economics and the fiscal cliff looming in the future, one of the options for policymaking is called ‘muddling through,’” said Johnson-Freese after making the case for a renewed geostrategic emphasis on national space policy. “And that’s where we are and that’s where we’re going to stay.”
The House Science Committee held a brief organizational meeting Wednesday to formally confirm its membership, rules, and subcommittee assignments. The Subcommittee on Space (as it is now simply known; all the committee’s subcommittees now have one-word names) is the committee’s largest subcommittee, with 12 Republican and 9 Democrats:
Chairman Steven Palazzo (Mississippi)
Ralph Hall (Texas)
Dana Rohrabacher (California)
Frank D. Lucas (Oklahoma)
Michael McCaul (Texas)
Mo Brooks (Alabama)
Larry Bucshon (Indiana)
Steve Stockman (Texas)
Bill Posey (Florida)
David Schweikert (Arizona)
Jim Bridenstine (Oklahoma)
Chris Stewart (Utah)
Donna Edwards (Maryland) (Ranking Member)
Frederica Wilson (Florida)
Suzanne Bonamici (Oregon)
Dan Maffei (New York)
Joe Kennedy (Massachusetts)
Derek Kilmer (Washington)
Ami Bera (California)
Marc Veasey (Texas)
Julia Brownley (California)
Several NASA centers are represented in the subcommittee roster. Stephen Palazzo, returning as committee chairman, has Stennis Space Center in his district. Bill Posey comes to the committee after redistricting put Kennedy Space Center in his district (he previously represented Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but not KSC itself), while Mo Brooks’s district includes Marshall Space Flight Center. Steve Stockman, returning to Congress after serving a term in the House in the mid-1990s, has the Johnson Space Center just inside his new district; it previously had been in Rep. Pete Olson’s (R-TX) district. Ranking member Donna Edwards’s district surrounds the Goddard Space Flight Center on three sides.
Edwards, the new ranking member of the subcommittee, welcomed her appointment to the position in a statement yesterday. “Having worked years ago on NASA’s Spacelab project, I look forward to the opportunity to develop a pioneering space policy that will uphold our international competitiveness, spur innovation in the United States, and build the jobs and workforce that have contributed so greatly to our economy, including in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District,” Edwards, representing Maryland’s 4th district, said.
In his opening statement, full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) included an new NASA authorization bill as a committee priority. “From reauthorizing NASA to advocating for robust research and development,” he said, “we have much to do.” The committee’s oversight plan goes into more details, including NASA’s human spaceflight program “it undergoes a period of uncertainty and transition following various Administration proposals.” In space science, the plan calls out for special attention unspecified “programs that exceed cost estimates to ensure they do not adversely impact the development and launch of other missions,” a possible reference to the James Webb Space Telescope. Other efforts “warranting further review” at NASA, in the eyes of the committee, “include costs associated with cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA’s approach to develop and fund a successor to the Space Shuttle, and investment in NASA launch infrastructure.”
That didn’t take long. Last week the New Mexico Legislature began its 2013 session, with a revision to the state’s existing commercial spaceflight liability indemnification legislation a top priority. Backers of the state’s $209-million commercial spaceport, Spaceport America, were concerned that without a revision of the law, expanding it to include suppliers and other companies involved in spaceflight operations, the spaceport’s primary tenant, Virgin Galactic, might pull up stakes.
It looks like, though, that a deal has been reached. State legislators said that a compromise has been worked out between Virgin Galactic and the state trial lawyers association, which had opposed previous efforts to amend the law. A revised bill will be introduced in the legislature as soon as today. The specifics of the revised bill haven’t been formally released, but it appears that it will extend indemnification to suppliers, although add a requirement that all companies carry at least $1 million in liability insurance in order to be protected. Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides told the Santa Fe New Mexico that he supported the compromise, which he said would give companies similar protections as those that already exist in other states.