The 2009 budget request unveiled Feb. 4 by U.S.
President George W. Bush contains no major surprises in the space arena – at least none that weren’t telegraphed beforehand. There are notable shifts in certain activities, in some cases for the better. But there also are looming questions and issues that remain unaddressed in the spending plan.
The budget stays the course on NASA’s human spaceflight policy, which calls for replacing the space shuttle by 2015 and returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. The question is whether staying the course is good enough: there are bound to be unanticipated costs on the Constellation Program, which encompasses the hardware needed to carry out the initiative, while predictable expenses have been deferred.
Meanwhile, the lengthy delay in getting the latest space shuttle mission off the ground raises doubts about NASA’s ability to fly out the manifest by 2010; any significant delay will leave the agency with a huge expense it has not planned for.
NASA’s Feb. 1 announcement that it will seek funds to start two new Earth science missions in 2009 – part of a $500 million boost in that activity that will support three additional new starts by 2014 – is a bright spot. So was the concurrent announcement by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that it will build two climate-science instruments that were eliminated from its new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites in a 2006 program restructuring.
Both actions are in response to the National Academy of Sciences’
Earth science decadal survey that identified 20 missions the agencies should undertake by 2020. The good news is the White House was listening; the bad news is that with NASA science budgets expected to remain relatively flat for the foreseeable future, the additional funding for Earth observation will come out of the hides of planetary science and astrophysics.
On the defense side, the U.S. Air Force is requesting another increase for unclassified space activities, even as it puts the brakes to one of its biggest development programs, the Transformational Satellite Communications system, or T-Sat. This is due at least in part to a congressional directive to buy at least one more satellite in the predecessor constellation – the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system – which likely diverted money that otherwise would have gone to T-Sat.
Congress has long been concerned that the Air Force was courting trouble with an overly ambitious T-Sat schedule, which is understandable given the recent track record of space development programs. The Air Force responded with a sound risk-reduction strategy in which it sought to clear the major technical hurdles before beginning full-scale development of T-Sat, but Congress was not swayed. It is hard to blame lawmakers for hedging the nation’s bets, but ordering another AEHF satellite is not without consequences: Not only will stretching out T-Sat inevitably drive up its cost; it will defer a capability that is needed urgently
by U.S. forces throughout the world
Though it promises to be a very capable system, AEHF is no substitute for T-Sat. Congress and the White House need to settle on a firm schedule for T-Sat and commit the resources, both budgetary and political, to see it through.
On the positive side of the ledger is the Air Force’s revised strategy for maintaining its space-based missile warning capability. The budget plan includes money for a fourth Space Based Infrared System satellite and refocuses a parallel development effort on fielding a next-generation system. In its previous incarnation, the Alternative Infrared Satellite System, now known as the Third Generation Surveillance System, had the untenable mandate of simultaneously being both a high-tech follow-on capability and a stopgap replacement.
The Air Force’s newfound strategic clarity in missile warning is still lacking on a pair of Missile Defense Agency programs: the Space Tracking and Surveillance
System and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor. Plans for an operational constellation of missile tracking satellites following an on-orbit demonstration have been deferred for lack of funding – something that has been going on for years while hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually. Technological obsolescence, meanwhile, has diminished the value of the demonstration, which features hardware built during the 1990s. There are obvious advantages to basing missile-tracking sensors in space, but it is past time the Pentagon and Congress decided whether this program is really a priority. If it is, the nation needs to get on with it.
The Kinetic Energy Interceptor has been without a place in the missile defense architecture ever since a restructuring took it off of the deployment track. Originally conceived as a forward-deployed system that would destroy enemy missiles in their boost phase, the high-speed rocket
now is characterized alternately as a boost- or a midcourse-phase system – in the latter case an eventual replacement for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system booster. Given that the existing booster is new, however, and given the historical longevity of this type of hardware, now does not seem the most logical time to be spending several hundred-million dollars per year on a replacement.
Congress of course will have the opportunity to scrutinize the White House’s 2009 spending plan and make some needed adjustments. But rational course corrections are especially difficult in an election year, when political calculations are more likely than usual to trump merit in funding decisions, and when many lawmakers are too busy campaigning to give agency spending plans the attention they deserve. With a new president coming in early next year, it could be 2010 before there is any serious tinkering with the status quo, for better and for worse.