What does the GOP takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives mean for space?
Bill Adkins, principal, Center for Space Strategic Studies
Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner proposed during the campaign to roll back federal spending to 2008 levels. In previous years, NASA’s budget has been spared from budget freezes while other non-defense agencies have seen their budgets flat-lined, but the game is changing. The current FY11 budget may be NASA’s high-water mark for a while. If NASA’s budget is reduced to 2008 levels — basically a 10% cut back to $17.3 billion — it will put a lot of pressure on NASA to address fundamental questions about the size and scope of what the agency does. The House may have trouble getting the Senate to go along with such cuts, but the budget hawks seem to be growing in strength in the Senate as well. A key question is whether the new Congress will view NASA as an investment in the nation’s future or a drain on the economy. Support for most NASA programs is pretty strong, but that strength has not been tested in the kind of environment we seem to be heading into. The protracted debate over human spaceflight has made the Exploration program particularly vulnerable. The question then becomes, can NASA develop a worthy human spaceflight program if budgets are cut? It certainly won’t be easy or painless, and the Augustine Commission had its doubts. It may be counter-intuitive, but a little budget pressure may actually provide clarity to the choices the agency faces and hasten the process of focusing on solutions, but it’s a delicate balance. Cut too deep and the country risks losing irreplaceable capabilities.
Marcia Smith, founder and editor, Spacepolicyonline.com
The Republican takeover of the House is not good news for NASA. It’s not that Republicans don’t like NASA. As far as I can tell, just about everyone in the United States loves NASA. But they love NASA more in good economic times than in bad, and these are really bad economic times. The message from the election is not just that America is angry at Washington, but that Bill Clinton is still correct — it’s the economy, stupid.
If Barack Obama wants to get re-elected two years from now, he will have to join the bandwagon to cut federal spending that resonated so loudly with the electorate Nov. 2. The $6 billion increase over 5 years he included for NASA in his FY2011 budget request was always just a proposal and it is difficult to believe that it can survive the current economic and political climate.
As for Congress, the 2010 NASA authorization act did what most compromises do, split the difference. Not only will the government subsidize the commercial sector to build a transportation system to take people to low Earth orbit (LEO), but it will also build a government system to take people to LEO and beyond. That was unaffordable even with the president’s $6 billion proposed increase; it surely is unaffordable now.
NASA’s Earth science program has been a political football for a long time. Many Republicans do not believe that climate change is human-induced and question why NASA needs to invest so much in Earth science research. The president’s requested increase for NASA’s Earth science program may encounter rough seas ahead instead of the smooth sailing it enjoyed this year.
What does the election mean for NASA? Probably a continuation of being asked to do too much with too little coupled with extended uncertainty about what human spaceflight program the country wants NASA to pursue and how much taxpayers are willing to invest in “commercial” endeavors. In short, Groundhog Day.