Editorial: An Extended Season of Futility

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With the passage of a continuing resolution Dec. 21 that funds most U.S. government programs at 2010 levels through March 4, Congress capped a year of legislative indecision that will ensure that NASA continues to waste tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars on dead-end development projects while shortchanging others that have been accorded priority by the White House and the scientific community.

This is not entirely the fault of lawmakers, who were blindsided by plans, unveiled in February by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, to dismantle Constellation, a space shuttle replacement and lunar exploration initiative that had been approved by two previous Congresses and had already received nearly $10 billion in taxpayer investment. The ensuing battle over the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program was to be expected given the equities at stake, but lawmakers have done little to clarify things. That, coupled with partisan gridlock exacerbated by the midterm elections, has left NASA with no clear direction other than to continue spending money until further notice.

Among the beneficiaries of the open-wallet program is the Ares 1 rocket, which was intended under Constellation to launch the crew-carrying Orion capsule but in all likelihood will never be built; Congress conceded as much when it left Ares 1 out of its 2010 NASA Authorization Bill, the only piece of NASA legislation to become law last year. That same bill directs NASA to continue work on a heavy-lift rocket that lawmakers have assigned very specific performance requirements despite the fact that it lacks a clearly identified mission. Nor is there any funding for such a mission, not even in the authorization bill, which sets notional spending guidelines for programs but does not actually appropriate money. The bill also supports the president’s plan to cultivate commercial crew transportation services to low Earth orbit, but the continuing resolution constrains NASA’s ability to begin making the necessary investments in that capability.

Meanwhile, NASA will be hard pressed under the continuing resolution to begin executing on a 10-year Earth science mission blueprint drafted by scientists to unlock the mysteries surrounding global climate change. The Obama administration has made climate change research a priority and requested $1.8 billion for NASA’s Earth science program in 2011, a roughly $380 million increase over 2010 that would have enabled work to begin on new satellite projects. NASA will have to make do with the much lower spending rate for at least the first five months of the 2011 fiscal year, with no guarantee of an increase come March, when a new spending bill will have to be passed to keep the government operating.

The current budget freeze also has negative implications for the nation’s weather forecasting satellite program following the dissolution last year of the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Satellite System. NASA is now developing the civilian Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) on behalf of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which requested $1 billion for the program but will receive just $382 million if the continuing resolution is extended for the full year. The White House was concerned enough about JPSS that it specifically asked Congress to boost funding for the effort in an omnibus spending package for 2011 that was being considered by lawmakers in mid-December but ultimately was abandoned in favor of the continuing resolution. As it now stands, JPSS is likely to incur cost growth while falling further behind the schedule originally devised for the legacy civil-military program.

With the new House majority party promising big spending cuts and girding for battle with the White House over broader national issues beginning with health care, the funding and policy uncertainties facing NASA aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. Passage of a final 2011 spending bill that includes the Earth science funding increase sought by the administration is difficult to envision in the current environment.

Meanwhile, the White House and Congress appear no closer now to putting NASA’s human spaceflight program on a sustainable path — one with realistic and worthy goals — than they were when the 2011 budget request was unveiled in February. Until that happens, NASA will continue to spin its wheels, spreading not enough money among too many programs, some without a future, thus prolonging the period during which the United States will be dependent on Russia for crew transportation to and from the international space station.

For civil space, the past year has been a case study in government paralysis at its worst. Clearly it is a situation that sooner or later will have to be resolved. But when it comes to making tough choices among competing priorities, all too often these days the decision is simply not to choose.