Editorial: Short-sighted on Human Spaceflight

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U.S. lawmakers got it mostly right in recently passed legislation to fund NASA and selected other federal agencies for the remainder of the current fiscal year, the notable exception being commercial human spaceflight.

In providing $406 million for NASA’s effort to nurture privately owned astronaut taxis for the international space station, less than half the $850 million the White House requested, lawmakers ensured that these services will take more time to develop. In the meantime, NASA will have to keep paying Russia to ferry crews to and from the space station, at a cost of some $60 million per seat.

The so-called minibus appropriations bill, signed into law Nov. 18 by U.S. President Barack Obama, provides $17.8 billion for NASA overall, which is $684 million, or about 4 percent, less than the agency received in 2011 and $924 billion below the White House request. It is, nevertheless, as good as could be hoped for given the pressure lawmakers face to reduce federal spending.

The budget boosts funding significantly for the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s massively overbudget astronomy flagship, which the House had proposed canceling in its version of the 2012 NASA spending bill. It also keeps NASA’s planetary and Earth science programs intact; funding for those activities will be within 2 and 3 percent, respectively, of the president’s request.

The law’s passage eliminates the funding uncertainty that hung over NASA for much of 2011 — Congress failed to pass a federal budget until the fiscal year was more than half over — at least until Sept. 30. It’s unfortunate that passage of a spending bill more than a month and a half into the fiscal year in question is what passes for responsible federal management these days, but it could have been worse.

That said, Congress still doesn’t get — or refuses to recognize — that the president’s commercial spaceflight program is the shortest route to restoring the nation’s ability to launch astronauts to the space station following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in July. Even as they bemoan extended U.S. reliance on Russia for the service, lawmakers are shortchanging the one program with the chance of ending it. In both words and deeds, NASA’s leading congressional stakeholders have clearly revealed their top priority: ensuring that the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and its companion Orion crew capsule are funded to the tune of $3 billion per year, even though the combined system isn’t scheduled to make its first crewed flight until 2021.

Congress has reason to be skeptical of President Obama’s commercial crew strategy given the delays and cost growth on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, a precursor effort that is focused on space station cargo delivery. Also unhelpful are dubious claims by commercial crew proponents that the market justifies NASA support for multiple providers, in part because of the potential for non-NASA business. The space station’s crew rotation requirements likely can be met with three or four launches per year — the outpost’s crew capacity is limited and Soyuz isn’t going to disappear — which is not a lot when shared among two or more providers. If a market outside NASA materializes, that’s great, but no responsible board of directors would ever approve an investment plan based on that sort of speculation, and NASA shouldn’t either. NASA needs to drop the notion of seeding multiple providers from both its rhetoric and its planning — it simply isn’t realistic, particularly in the current budgetary environment.

But proponents of the SLS and Orion need to acknowledge a few realities as well. It’s easy to criticize the commercial cargo program for delays and cost overruns, but anyone who thinks SLS and Orion won’t suffer their own problems hasn’t been paying attention to government space programs for the last two decades. A 2021 first launch date for a crew-carrying Orion atop the SLS is very optimistic. SLS and Orion are better suited for deep-space missions than ferrying crews to the space station, which NASA is committed to support only through 2020, and the agency has yet to identify a firm astronaut destination beyond low Earth orbit, let alone funding for the other systems needed to make such trips worthwhile.

One can base a case for SLS and Orion on the premise — hopefully true — that NASA will send human explorers to deep space in the not too distant future and that these vehicles need to be funded today, lest the industrial capacity to build them be lost. But this does not require NASA to field SLS and Orion on the schedule mandated by Congress, and that schedule presumably is driving the budget for those programs.

A coherent U.S. human spaceflight strategy would focus first on restoring NASA’s capacity to ferry crews to and from the space station — a $100 billion facility that’s up, operating and underutilized — while stretching out SLS and Orion development by a few years, giving the nation time to come up with a firm plan and a budget for using them. Politicians are not known for seeing much beyond the next electoral horizon, but just a little less myopia on the U.S. human spaceflight program could carry it a long way.