NASA Avoids Accountant’s Axe


With the US’s attention firmly focused on the budget with calls to cut spending in every possible non-essential programs, supporters of the U.S. human space flight program were concerned that NASA would be on the frontline to take a hit. But Congress spared the space agency from prospective cuts and announced that NASA’s budget would remain at current levels, and its budget be $18.5 billion for 2011. It took the body months of vitriolic back-and-forth arguing that culminated in last-minute negotiations, including language that includes the building of a Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle.

NASA is at a historic crossroads as the agency has been directed to support smaller commercial space firms provide access to low-Earth-orbit (LEO) while the agency tries to send astronauts beyond LEO again.

The wording of the budget states that the Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle “shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously.” That’s different from the language in the 2010 authorization act, which calls for initial development of an SLS that can place 70-100 tons into LEO that would later be upgraded to a 130-ton capacity.

As it currently stands, NASA is dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. Russia has recently increased the cost of a single seat onboard the Soyuz to $63 million, making it even-more important that NASA maintains funding at least at current levels.

“We appreciate the work of Congress to pass a 2011 spending bill. NASA now has appropriated funds to implement the 2010 Authorization Act, which gives us a clear path forward to continue America’s leadership in human spaceflight, exploration and scientific discovery. Among other things, this bill lifts funding restrictions that limited our flexibility to carry out our shared vision for the future,” said NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden. “With this funding, we will continue to aggressively develop a new heavy lift rocket, multipurpose crew vehicle and commercial capability to transport our astronauts and their supplies on American-made and launched spacecraft. We are committed to living within our means in these tough fiscal times – and we are committed to carrying out our ambitious new plans for exploration and discovery.”

Lifted, finally, was the so-called “Shelby provision” from the 2010 appropriations act that prevented NASA from terminating Constellation programs.

7 Replies to “NASA Avoids Accountant’s Axe”

  1. Do you know anything about the “use-shuttle-pieces-for-new-rocket”-phrases? Are they also in the bill?

  2. While I see this as a positive commitment now, who’s to say NASA will be on track to develop a program for manned exploration beyond LEO in the future? What will happen when the next administration comes to power in 2012 and pressure mounts from certain political constituencies to slash the deficit? Obama’s latest speech demonstrated he is unable or unwilling to tackle the key factors that let to the current US budget woes (entitlements, inefficient medicare/medicaid programs, healthcare, poorly devised export programs and a bloated defense budget etc.). NASA will likely end up on the chopping block yet again. In my option, the agency’s optimum prerogative is to kick-start new technologies and missions that are too risky for the commercial players to undertake. This will never happen when every long-term programs without clear near-term benefits are perpetually under review.

    Luckily, manned space enthusiasts might have alternatives. SpaceX plans look encouraging. By the time NASA figures out it needs a cost effective heavy lifter, SpaceX might have their Falcon XX Heavy on the launch pad. The vehicle is planned to lift up to 140 tons.

    Personally, I’m more interested in what kind of telescopes such gear can launch into orbit or beyond. I find the case for manned solar system exploration dubious at best. There is little advantage in building space colonies, or inhabiting any of the hostile planetary bodies around Earth. The only benefit that can reasonably be argued is the technology developed from such project would benefit society. This is certainly true, however building something for no particular reason other than its romantic factors or it’s ability to generate new technologies seems like a non-prudent investment. Why is no one advocating for a Washington in the Arctic Ocean? Or a colony on Everest? Or any number of other pointless expenditures?

    As it stands now, the solar system is useful as a platform for scientific exploration. This can be accomplished cheaply without a manned space program. In the very long term, an argument can be made that resource extraction could potentially be cost effective. Again, by the time this is a realistic probability, manned extra-planetary intervention will likely be at a minimum – if not undesirable.

    That being said, I am not at all against planetary colonization. In fact, as many prominent figures have routinely noted, it will likely be necessary for out long term growth and survival. A case can be argued that the enlightenment and the resulting scientific/industrial periods that proceed it were partially a consequence of the access of Europeans to the resources of the New World. The United States and all the inventions and global changes as a result of this nation also tied to access to new lands and resources. All fair points. However, the key important aspect is that these new lands provided opportunities and resources useful to the settlers. They didn’t build New York in Nunavut for a reason.

    One day, we might be able to reach a suitable planet for colonization. This could heard a great new chapter in human development, and one worth pursuing. Yet none of the worlds in our solar system offer even the slightest possibilities that our own world offers us as a biological life form. If we are interested in space colonization, we need to think ultra-long term, for those distant planets that actually might offer us a biosphere tuned to our benefit. Forget about manned explorations to Mars – the place frankly sucks. Our soul-draining 6 month Canadian winter would be a blessing after a year on this dessert world.

    If anything SpaceX and other far-sighted companies might offer a chance to develop systems for such trips. Yet explorations of this nature are decades, possibly centuries away, requiring destinations we don’t know yet exist, and levels of investment and technology that border on the realm of fantasy. Nevertheless, the dream is worth the baby steps we can undertake today.

    If you’ve read this far, thanks. It is cold, windy and rainy here today. Consequently, days like today my are great days to let the mind wonder.

    1. “Our soul-draining 6 month Canadian winter would be a blessing after a year on this dessert world.”

      I just had a vision of mountains made of whipped cream and topped with maraschino cherries. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

    2. Uncle Fred, You make pertinent points.

      Glory space missions and talk of Colonization is somewhat pointless without the know how of creating habitats capable of sustaining meat bodies. Themselves biotic ecosystems.

      The ISS is often ridiculed for being a pointless bloated whale, however its a stepping stone to further understanding, regardless of the ambiguity and even derision about the usefulness of humans in space.

      What lacks is a vision of whats next from research performed on the ISS. However the research up there is not very public, (not a great many papers are published) nor have there been any announced discoveries. At best we hear about PR stunts and how the Toilet breaks down.

      However, it hardly seems plausible that Billions of Dollars are not generating (some kind) of results. But what are they and to what end. ?

      The maxima culpa of NASA is the lack of information transmission and the subsequent stymied public opinion of humans in space.
      But most lacking is the consumerist political philosophy behind space exploration, Disposable technology for short term gain without a long term road map.

      If I can suggest one, its simply this; Once we leave a gravity well there is no point in going back down one. To that end we need to develop space habitats, mini planets really. That is a vision that encompasses more then a technological challenge, its a social and societal challenge. Perhaps even a genetic one.

      Not much debate going on there, we are drunk on our visions of floating tin cans that can magically go faster then light. Its simply the wrong vision, an ideologue of human imagination without environmental context.

    3. Good points Uncle.

      Nice of Congress to catch up on killing the “Shelby” provision, but a key test of this budget’s fitness-for-purpose may be whether or not there is increased funding over the next three budgets to start concurrently developing the 130-ton payloads and missions so that the Senate Launch System doesn’t just rust, unused, on the pad.

  3. “We are committed to living within our means in these tough fiscal times – and we are committed to carrying out our ambitious new plans for exploration and discovery.” Charles Bolden

    This statement should be placed in stone all across America. It is precisely as I’ve said on numerous occasions throughout the many “Universe Today” stories.

    The government has absolutely no choice. Either the budget comes into line or America dies internally from its debts. This does not mean the future of America’s is hopeless, it just means doing the “hard yards” for a decade or so, then forging a way to sustainability of what American wants to achieve. If America wants to continue spending like a drunken sailor on live on borrowed money, its whimpering slow death with be deserved.

    So fair, the world does openly applauds the contributions that Americans have devoted to knowledge of the solar system and beyond, using its technology to benefit humankind development understand the universe. I personally think humanity has reached a stage where the whole world must start to contribute to maintaining and improving the whole future of humanity. It is now too big for any one country to now waste. To counterpoint, just don’t be fooled that even better things cannot be achieved when done cooperatively.
    So sure, if go it alone for the defence of your country, and take pride in achieving new goals. Good luck to you! Just don’t lose the game just because you squandered your financial future all for the sake of foolish pride.
    That’s what I think.

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