Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

In his comments in “Bolden: NASA ‘Doomed’ if Next President Dumps Journey to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden seems to suffer from amnesia of events over the last six years.

Bolden states that a new administration shouldn’t change NASA’s human spaceflight goals, yet glosses over the fact that the current administration ended the Constellation moon program with its 2010 budget submission. He appears incognizant that it has been only through annual efforts by Congress to reverse the administration’s proposed cuts in funding to the Orion and Space Launch System programs that any capability remains in development to even contemplate sending astronauts to any destination beyond low Earth orbit within the next decade. Lastly, Bolden appears to believe, mistakenly, that the administration can alone set the destination for the nation’s space program.

To understand where we are, a quick review is in order. From 2004 until 2010, the U.S. human spaceflight exploration program had a firm, if underfunded, plan as first codified by the Republican-controlled 109th Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, which legislated the creation of the Constellation program to take us to the moon and then to Mars. Three years later, the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress, in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, stated that “exploration of the Moon and other destinations in the solar system” remained the space exploration policy of the nation. The Obama administration on Feb. 1, 2010, proposed canceling the Constellation program and therefore any NASA means for reaching space, but by Sept. 29, 2010, after months of hearings, substantial bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate largely rejected the administration’s proposals and passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which created two exploration programs of record, SLS and Orion; designated cislunar space as the destination; and agreed with the administration’s proposals that the International Space Station be serviced via commercial cargo and crew. Even with the president signing the authorization, it took nine months, a congressional subpoena and the threat of issuing a contempt of Congress order before NASA began to more-or-less comply with the authorization act.

One of the administration’s goals in ending Constellation was to turn over its low Earth orbiting spaceflight activities to commercial space companies. It was the administration’s opinion that the commercial space companies would engage in activities for which NASA was previously responsible, and do so more efficiently. The experience has not matched the rosy 2010 predictions of the Obama administration.

In early 2011, because the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program had spent to its contract ceiling of $500 million, and with neither of the two contractors, SpaceX or Orbital Sciences, within another two years of sending anything into ISS, NASA had no choice but to bail out the COTS contractors with $239 million, nearly 50 percent over the original COTS contract. And today, with public records showing that the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program has been paid nearly up to the contract ceiling of $3.5 billion, and with not even half the launches completed, it’s looking increasingly as though a bailout of the CRS contractors will be needed at some point. Although Bolden calls COTS and CRS successes, one is left wondering how many more of his successes NASA can afford.

Given Bolden’s desire to pursue the “Journey to Mars,” it would seem only natural that the Orion and SLS programs, the only means currently in development for taking us beyond low Earth orbit, would be doing well since 2010. They are, but not for lack of effort by the Obama administration to underfund them — proposals that congressional appropriators each year reverse. Since 2012, annual White House proposed budgets for NASA have fallen short of authorized levels by 78 percent and 70 percent respectively for the Orion or SLS programs.

NASA also has annually withheld funding for the Orion and SLS programs for termination liability reserves, never mind that as programs of record they could not be terminated without authorization from Congress, something the White House knew wasn’t even remotely on the table. Because of the termination liability withholdings, the Orion and SLS programs annually have had access to only about 80 percent of their appropriated funding since their beginning. Nonetheless, Orion is on course to complete its Critical Design Review by December, and SLS completed its CDR last summer.

Since the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, the U.S. space program’s destination is “beyond low-Earth orbit to a variety of lunar and Lagrangian orbital locations,” that is, cislunar space. With the administration’s largely unsuccessful efforts in space policy over the last five years, Congress has received little from NASA to help it determine a more specific destination. One can hope that the next administration, after watching the fallout of the Obama administration’s space flailing, will work with, not against, Congress to forge a space policy more closely coupled with reality and more likely to lead to a space exploration plan we can all be proud of, such as resuming our trek to the moon and then Mars.

It is equally to be hoped that SpaceNews will do a more thorough job of pressing Bolden on his contradictory space views.

Jim Hillhouse
Austin, Texas