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NASA Budget Would Be 70 Percent Higher If It Kept Pace With Inflation

By | August 4, 2008

      NASA 50th Anniversary Celebration Not So Golden In Budget Terms; Glenn Urges Increasing NASA Budget At Least $3 Billion Annually

      The budget for NASA, as it moves into a new lunar mission with the added goal of journeying to Mars, would be 70 percent greater if it were the inflation-adjusted equivalent of the space agency budget of 30 years ago, when the United States stood on the cusp of an earlier mission going only to the moon.

      The $17.6 billion that President Bush requested for NASA in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, compares to the $4.722 billion NASA budget of 30 years ago, in fiscal 1968, a year before astronaut Neil Armstrong took one giant step for mankind onto the moon.

      That $4.722 billion in fiscal 1968 would be $29.949 billion today, adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index, a Labor Department source interviewed by Space & Missile Defense Report said. That is a very conservative estimate, since prices of space hardware involving invention of cutting-edge technologies typically rise at a much more rapid rate than consumer prices.

      The funding gap would be even wider if one refers back to the peak year of NASA funding in the 1960s, the $5.933 billion outlay in fiscal 1966 that adjusted for inflation translates to $40.193 billion today.

      John F. Kennedy, after calling on May 25, 1961, for the nation to send men to the moon, then backed that up with a profile in courage, setting a plan in place to pour tens of billions of dollars into the effort. Those were gigantic sums in the 1960s.

      But Bush — after his 2004 speech sketching a goal of returning to the moon, then later establishing an outpost there, and finally journeying on to Mars — hasn’t called in his annual budgets for the money to fund that vision and at the same time finance other parts of NASA, such as the existing space shuttle program.

      A glittering array of luminaries testified before Congress last week that NASA is underfunded, striving toward a great goal that can’t be reached without far more resources.

      They expressed dismay that from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2010 until the next-generation U.S. spaceship system Orion-Ares flies its first manned mission in 2015, the United States faces half a decade when it can’t get even one astronaut off the ground.

      John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth in the Mercury program in 1962, who later became a senator from Ohio, said that "I never thought I’d see the day when we’d be buying a ticket from the Russians" to gain access to space, terming that "the wrong way to go for the world’s greatest spacefaring nation."

      Looking at the lofty ambition of the United States to go to the moon, Mars and beyond, and comparing that to the threadbare NASA budget and the half-decade gap when there will be no U.S. manned space flight capability, Glenn said the NASA budget should be some $3 billion higher. He ruefully quoted others who said that "a great plan without resources remains a dream."

      Glenn noted before the House Science and Technology Committee that $3 billion would be equivalent to one-thousandth of the $3 trillion federal budget.

      It also would be a pittance compared to the $490 billion budget deficit, he observed. And $3 billion a year for NASA would be minor compared to the $10 billion a month spent in Iraq, he said.

      For $2.8 billion to $3 billion a year, Glenn said, NASA could resolve perhaps the most daunting of its challenges: a half decade when the space agency of the wealthiest nation on Earth won’t have a manned space program, and will be unable to take even one of its astronauts into low Earth orbit.

      During that time, astronauts will have to hitch rides with the Russians on missions to the International Space Station, unless private space travel firms make unexpected breakthroughs on manned spacecraft.

      Even NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has termed this half-decade gap, when the U.S. manned space program will disappear for five years, "unseemly."

      Unfortunately, the gap was set in stone before Griffin arrived at NASA, in days when Sean O’Keefe was the administrator.

      An analyst, science writer, historian and space travel expert Robert Zimmerman in June dismissed O’Keefe as a "bean counter" who would have let the Hubble Space Telescope die years early, needlessly.

      Griffin, in contrast, is a straight-talking leader who helped to ensure a rescue mission going to the Hubble, which will lift off in October, Zimmerman said. (Please see Launch Schedule in this issue for details.) Zimmerman spoke before the Explorers Club in New York City.

      Glenn observed that O’Keefe responded to the lack of Bush funding for the Orion-Ares Constellation program by ransacking many other NASA programs.

      "The changes announced by Administrator O’Keefe basically eliminated most research projects with colleges, universities and corporations unless those projects were specifically and directly connected with the moon/Mars objectives," Glenn said. O’Keefe at the time "said there would be not only no increase in funding, but there would even be a research cut of $1.2 billion over a five-year period."

      As a former astronaut, Glenn comes from an era when NASA was amply funded, responding to a daunting challenge from the Soviet Union, which stunned the world with its pioneering space program.

      If policymakers so decided, NASA could have such full funding support today and in the future, Glenn said.

      "Additional funding of $2.8 [billion] to $3 billion per year could keep the [space shuttle fleet] in operation until our new Constellation program equipment is ready," so that the U.S. space program wouldn’t be grounded for half a decade, Glenn said.

      Further, he said those added funds could help to restore, at least partially, the International Space Station (ISS) scientific research programs that have been curtailed for lack of funds.

      Perhaps just as important, Glenn argued, continuing space shuttle flights beyond 2010 would have another huge benefit, because that would provide continued employment for thousands of highly skilled engineering and launch teams who otherwise face job losses.

      The crisis would hit especially hard at contractor personnel in central Florida, near Kennedy Space Center.

      Those job losses will begin this year for Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] employees. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      Glenn expressed exasperation that during the gap in U.S. manned space flight capability, the United States wouldn’t even be able to send one astronaut to the space station, even though it was built with a gigantic American investment of funds.

      "With completion of the ISS, we will have invested just over $100 billion — $100 billion — and our colleague nations will have spent $12 [billion] to $15 billion to build and equip this most unique laboratory ever conceived," he said. "We should be doing everything we can to maximize its scientific utilization and extend its life, instead of just the opposite," Glenn told the lawmakers.

      "For the richest nation on Earth with a budget of $3 trillion to make a $100 billion-plus investment and then not utilize it may be viewed as penny wise, but [it] is pound- foolish," Glenn said.

      As an example of pinch-penny shortsightedness, Glenn pointed to the Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, a $1.5 billion scientific experiment designed to go to the space station. But, for lack of space on the shuttles, the AMS investment will be wasted, and it will sit on the ground, useless. Some lawmakers are pressing to add at least one shuttle mission to take the AMS to the station.

      "With the cutback in shuttle launches, the program has been put on what amounts to a permanent hold," Glenn noted.

      By not supporting the space station with shuttle flights, some leading spacefaring nations that are partners on the space station now are considering shifting to other nations to join in cooperative space ventures, Glenn said.

      Leaders in some of those nations feel the United States pulled the rug out from under them when it decided to shut down the shuttle missions long before Orion-Ares would be available as a replacement, Glenn said.

      He also raised another disquieting thought for the lawmakers with oversight of NASA programs: the expectation that Orion-Ares will have its first manned flight in 2015 is "dependent on our new equipment working perfectly," which sometimes isn’t the case with enormously complex space systems.

      The gap when the United States has no manned space mission capability, he observed, could turn out to be much longer than five years.

      Glenn: Why Go Back To Moon To Construct A Waystation?

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