WASHINGTON — In the middle of a budget crisis that has kept the federal government partially closed since Oct. 1, former NASA officials argued that the time has come to push for increased spending on space exploration.

“Our community has to fight for a reinvigorated space program, even when budgets are tight,” said Doug Cooke, who was NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems when he retired from the agency in 2011. 

Now an independent consultant based in Gettysburg, Pa., who has lobbied on behalf of Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, Cooke spoke Oct. 8 during a panel discussion at the American Astronautical Society’s annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. 

The meeting, held at the University of Alabama in Huntsville near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, went on as scheduled in the face of the government shutdown, even though key NASA officials, including Administrator Charles Bolden and human spaceflight chief William Gerstenmaier, canceled their appearances. Panel discussions Oct. 8 were webcast.

“Attendance the first morning was just under 200, so we were down at least 100 compared to last year,” James Kirkpatrick, executive director of the American Astronautical Society, wrote in an Oct. 10 email. “The missing attendees were primarily NASA personnel, but we did have some cancellations due to the absence of NASA speakers on the program.”

The von Braun symposium typically draws what former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale referred to in the meeting’s keynote address as the “old-line”: traditional space contractors who have had a hand in major NASA projects dating back to the agency’s founding in 1958. The paradigm held for the sixth von Braun symposium, despite new-space touches such as coffee breaks sponsored by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Panel discussions Oct. 8 were headlined by representatives of the companies working on the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule NASA is developing for crewed missions to lunar space next decade. Marshall is managing construction of the rocket from Huntsville, while the Johnson Space Center is overseeing Orion from Houston.

Both SLS and Orion are derivatives of vehicles designed for the Constellation Moon-exploration program created by the administration of then-U.S. President George W. Bush and canceled in 2010 by President Barack Obama. 

Among those who spoke at the von Braun symposium was one of Constellation’s chief architects, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Griffin, who ran NASA from 2005 to 2009, scoffed at the idea that NASA is operating in a budget-constrained environment.

“We are in a willpower-constrained environment,” said Griffin, who is now the Huntsville-based chairman and chief executive of science and engineering services contractor Schafer Corp. Griffin noted that 50 years of NASA spending, adjusted for inflation, was approximately equivalent to the roughly $800 billion stimulus bill signed into law in February 2009.  

Meanwhile, Cooke and another former NASA manager took shots at the “flat-is-the-new-up” mantra that has become prevalent among government-relations executives in Washington in the age of across-the-board sequestration budget cuts.

“Flat is not healthy,” said David King, who left his job as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in 2009 to join Dynetics Inc., a Huntsville-based company that counts NASA and the U.S. Army among its biggest customers. 

“Let me tell you what flat is,” Cooke said. “Flat is flat with no inflation, and we do have inflation. The calculation on inflation is about 2.8 percent a year,” meaning an agency budget that stays the same year-over-year is “just like a bank account, but the interest is going the wrong way and compounding over time,” said Cooke. Buying power is diminished.

“Even if we got a 2.8 percent inflation increase every year, it would make a big difference,” Cooke added.

Despite the rallying cries of the three former NASA officials, the top lobbyist for launch services provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) said he foresaw nothing but continued austerity in NASA’s budget. “Sequestration, I believe, is here to stay,” Mark Bitterman, ULA vice president of Washington operations, said during another von Braun symposium panel. 

Bitterman speculated that “the new norm” for NASA would be about $16.5 billion, roughly what the agency received under a stopgap spending bill that was signed in March and expired Sept. 30. That bill held NASA to the across-the-board cuts — the sequester — mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The View from the Trenches

Besides former NASA officials and Washington-based government-relations people, technical executives with some of the agency’s biggest contractors also spoke at the von Braun symposium. These industry representatives — all of whom have some role on either SLS or Orion — described their strategies for operating within the confines of what one of them described as NASA’s “cost box.” 

“Now with our NASA partner, all of us are squeezed into a cost box,” said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of civil space for Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver. 

Crocker, who has been working in civilian space programs long enough to remember the drastic reduction in NASA spending that followed the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s, said the solution “is not all about just doing one thing or doing the other thing,” such as a wholesale transition to fixed-price contracts from a cost-plus-fee structure that leaves room for project costs to grow. “There’s systems problems we all need to address,” he said.

Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of space advanced programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., said industry’s contribution could involve “attack[ing] the manufacturing process in a number of different ways.” 

Additive manufacturing, sometimes called 3-D printing, is one of these, Van Kleeck said. “We want to build within the company a core competency of additive manufacturing,” she said. “It will make components [and] engines cheaper.” Then, after seeing to the manufacturing process, “you attack the business and the management processes,” Van Kleeck said.

Kim Doering, manager of Dynetics’ Space Systems Division, gave a practical example. Dynetics is working on concept studies for side-mounted boosters that could be used on future variants of SLS to increase the rocket’s carrying capacity from 70 tons to low Earth orbit to as many as 130 tons. 

At a project review earlier this year, Dynetics had “25 people in the room and a handful of the NASA contract folks,” said Doering. Ordinarily, “we would … have 300 or 400 people in a review … but really, there were a much smaller number of people who truly needed to be there.

At the end of the review, “NASA had to accept it only took 25 people, and they got all they wanted,” Doering said. 

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...