Because of the current economic downturn, it is clear that the
federal budget will be reduced, or at least increase at a much slower rate than in the past. There will be no choice. This will include the space budget. It will be hard economic times for all of us. But, it is possible that the end result may be a better, stronger space program. It is at least possible that we can make it so.
The American space program is dramatically expensive. In the last five years, we have launched 95 space missions (i.e., less than 20 per year). The total American space budget – NASA, Defense Department, the intelligence community, and a small amount for other agencies – is a bit more than $50 billion per year, or slightly more than $2.5 billion per mission. Of course, this figure covers a great many things besides space missions, but the net result is that the whole process costs too much.
Space is critical to our national security and important to science, education, commerce and our world standing. But, we must find a way to reverse the spiral of ever-increasing costs, ever-longer mission timelines, cost overruns, and schedule delays on our space programs. We have no choice but to finds ways to do a better job, more responsively, and, most importantly, for less money. It certainly will not be easy – witness the strong cultural backlash to Dan Goldin’s “faster, better, cheaper” – but it is possible.
Unfortunately, efforts to reduce space mission costs have not been particularly well received in the past. It is not because the approaches or the technology don’t work, since it is evident from worldwide experience that they do. It is because reducing cost is hard work, requires fundamental changes in how we do business in space, and has not been the highest priority in the
space program in the past. That must process change if our space program is to remain healthy and continue to provide the services that we have come to expect and create innovative new solutions to the challenges of the future.
Reducing mission cost, while still achieving broad mission objectives, is hard and there are no simple solutions. Nonetheless, it is clear from prior programs both in the
and worldwide, that space program costs can be reduced dramatically (i.e., by a factor of 2 to 5) without sacrificing reliability. Of course, the same spacecraft built the same way we built it last time will cost about the same or, in the ever-increasing space spiral, potentially quite a bit more.
Reducing space mission cost does not mean buying the same spacecraft for less, but rather achieving the broad mission objectives, or the most critical ones, for far less money. Specific solutions will depend on the particular organization or program, but there is no doubt that solutions are available if we choose to make lower cost approaches to space exploration and exploitation a real priority.
Many organizations will respond to reduced budgets by protecting their big, remarkably expensive programs at all cost, and, to do that, will immediately eliminate virtually all of the small, low-cost programs and “different” approaches to meeting mission needs. This is, of course, the wrong answer – the technological equivalent of eating our own seed corn and hoping that next year will be better. At the state level, this would be the same as closing all of the schools in order to fund more prisons.
We need to find solutions to reduce costs now, in the near-term (24 to 36 months), and in the longer-term (two to eight years). Of course, today space program procurements stretch out over decades, but that is a part of the problem that needs to be fixed. Many solutions have been well-documented, but have rarely been given real consideration in the past. (If you would like a list of references, send me an e-mail message at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It is at least possible that some good for the American space program may come out of the current financial crisis. We have no choice but to undergo the painful process of reducing cost. If we don’t, Congress will do it for us. It is possible that, having been forced to change how we do business in space, we may, in the end, create a better, more robust, more responsive and much lower cost space program with a larger, more diverse, more cost-conscious industrial base that can compete successfully in the world market. Or, of course, we may continue with business as usual, nibbling on the lilies at the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits. The choice is ours collectively.
Dr. James R. Wertz is president of Microcosm, Inc., Hawthorne, CA