WASHINGTON — Ending NASA’s human spaceflight program could save the United States roughly $73 billion between 2015 and 2023, according to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Pulling the plug on human spaceflight was just one of 103 politically challenging policy options the CBO analyzed in its latest examination of options for decreasing federal spending or increasing federal revenue during the next decade.
The nonpartisan agency, created in 1974 under then-President Richard Nixon to provide Congress with objective, nonpartisan and timely analysis of budget matters, presents arguments both for and against abandoning human spaceflight.
“The main argument for this option is that increased capabilities in electronics and information technology have generally reduced the need for humans to fly space missions. The scientific instruments used to gather knowledge in space rely much less (or not at all) on nearby humans to operate them. NASA and other federal agencies have increasingly adopted that approach in their activities on Earth, using robots to perform missions without putting humans in harm’s way,” the CBO wrote in its Nov. 13 report, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023.”
“A major argument against this option is that eliminating human spaceflight from the orbits near Earth would end the technical progress necessary to prepare for human missions to Mars (even though those missions are at least decades away). Moreover, if, in the future, robotic missions proved too limiting, then human space efforts would have to be restarted. Another argument against this option is that there may be some scientific advantage to having humans at the International Space Station to conduct experiments in microgravity that could not be carried out in other, less costly, ways,” the report said.
The CBO report, which also looks at savings that would be realized from cutting the size of the federal workforce, ending railroad subsidies, canceling the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter program and shrinking the Navy’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines, comes as a House-Senate budget committee faces a Dec. 13 deadline for coming up with a plan for heading off $109 billion in sequestration-related spending cuts due to take effect in January.
NASA and the rest of the federal government have been funded since mid-October under a stopgap spending measure that expires Jan. 15. If the Republican-led House of Representatives and Democrat-led Senate fail to enact new spending legislation by then, federal agencies would be forced to shut down all but essential services, as they did for the first 16 days of October.