What If?: NASA and the Budget Woes

(Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Guest author Jeannette Remak is the founder of Phoenix Aviation Research. She is a military aviation historian, researcher and author. In addition to writing articles for the Atlantic Flyer and the Air Force Association, she’s also published a number of books including her most recent book, “NASA and the Shuttle Shuffle.” She is also an accomplished artist, with her paintings a part of the U.S. Air Force Art Collection

I think all of us out there play the game of “What if?” Our space program is currently going through a bad case of the “what ifs.” What if NASA doesn’t get more money for the budget? What if the Russians won’t accept the contract on the table for $70 million to train and haul our astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station? The biggest “what if” has to do with the 2014 budget for NASA. What if there just isn’t enough money to keep our manned spaceflight program alive or any other NASA program for that matter?

As we look around at other nations, including China, Japan, North Korea and Iran, they are all working on their space programs and sparing no expense in doing so. Yet, the United States is not. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, is asking a big “what if” concerning NASA’s 2014 budget and how to sustain the U.S. space program.

In a recent interview with Aviation Week, Sen. Mikulski said, “NASA’s mission faltering or sputtering really can blow the whole program.” Why is that? The 2014 budget allows for $17.7 billion in funding and NASA is hoping desperately that Congress might cut them some slack and award them something more substantial.

Artist concept of SLS launching (Photo Credit: NASA)

Artist concept of SLS launching (Photo Credit: NASA)

NASA is trying to build the Space Launch System, which is a heavy lift rocket that will allow us to leave low-Earth orbit and head the United States space program out towards the moon or an asteroid capture. Back in the days of the Apollo program, and partly to fulfill the legacy of beloved President John F. Kennedy, money flowed like water into the NASA coffers. We were able to build the magnificent Saturn V rocket that hurled us to the moon. Today, we struggle to complete the preliminary design work for the SLS. NASA would need a minimum of $800 million to allow competitors to stay in the race and build a possible commercial vehicle that would allow the United States to get to the ISS on our own without the help of the Russians. However, some in Congress would like to see some of those funds switched over to other programs like the SLS.

The poor logic to that move is that while we may have a heavy lift vehicle some day, the Ares I capsule that should have been aboard that heavy lift rocket has been canceled. What would we fly on that heavy lift vehicle? Should we continue to support the NASA Commercial Crew Program, which may one day provide us with a vehicle capable of getting astronauts to the ISS, but nothing more. Or should we direct those funds toward the Orion space capsule, which is designed to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit and into deep space. Looking back at how the Apollo program was directed, NASA held in their hands the money and the wherewithal to get to the moon. And yes, they got there on time!

The Space Shuttle Program, while a successful program in many respects, cost money to upkeep. Yet, money was reallocated from the safety program—as we found out after the Columbia disaster—to support the construction of the ISS. Just what sort of problem do we have here:

  • Is NASA unable to manage its money, leaving Congress reluctant to grant more?
  • Is NASA caught in the middle of pork barrel politics?
  • Is there mismanagement between Congress, NASA and the Bureau of Budgets?

The list could go on. However, what needs to happen is NASA needs to be allowed to restructure itself so that it can maintain the programs necessary to keep the United States in the forefront of space exploration. NASA is attempting to work with a “stone knives and bearskins” budget that allows them to only minimally maintain what programs they do have running. The budget doesn’t allow NASA much in the line of speculation or exploration. It doesn’t allow NASA to keep to the high standards it is used to. The Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand the need or nature of the U.S. manned space program, and that is putting this country in peril. There are sharks like North Korea and Iran, and they are circling the waters with heavy lift rockets for their fledging space programs, while the United States is nowhere near completing the SLS.

With an expanded budget, NASA would be able to bring their portfolio of missions back to a sustainable level. Our manned spaceflight program would be able to stand on its own once again. Instead of having to spend money to hitch a ride to the ISS, NASA would be able to control its own destiny in taking part in the ISS fully. NASA would once again be able to sustain the most important part of American history. NASA needs to be reestablished as the premier agency it once was and be able to sustain its robotic and research programs that allow it to go beyond the ISS and out into real space. Attention needs to be paid to raising the pittance of a budget that NASA is receiving, to allow it to dream and make those dreams a reality instead of wasting time scratching for every dime at budget time.

It is time to fund NASA reasonably and with thought to allow the United States to surpass every nation in space as we once did. We need to make space a priority again, and not just a backhanded thought.