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NASA Needs $1 Billion More Yearly To Offset Threadbare Programs

By | March 12, 2007

      NASA has been fiscally eviscerated, so that even when science and research programs are robbed of vital funds to finance manned space exploration programs and their hardware, those latter programs still are in poverty.

      That was the conclusion of two experts who testified before the House Appropriations Committee commerce and related agencies subcommittee.

      To heal the financial bloodletting that NASA has suffered, the experts testified, Congress should restore the $670 million loss inflicted on NASA in its current budget; add about $1 billion a year to NASA budgets for the next five years; and build legal walls between the manned space flight programs on the one hand and the science and research programs on the other, to prevent the latter from being raided monetarily by the former.

      Also, NASA should be on record as committing itself to certain missions such as a flight to Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to hide vast subterranean oceans capable of sustaining life.

      And the aeronautics program, which fosters aviation safety, should see its budget doubled.

      If Congress does this, “you would have put us back on track,” said Lennard A. Fisk, chairman of the National Research Council Space Studies Board and a University of Michigan professor. His views, he said, were his own.

      In response, the subcommittee chairman said Fisk was convincing, but the trick would be to get the money.

      Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman, noted that Congress, in setting budget levels, operates under an annual budget resolution.

      “The gentleman makes the case,” Mollohan said. “We just need the money.”

      Fisk responded that if funds aren’t provided, then at least there should be a clear public understanding of the damage that shortfall causes. “I cannot think of any part of the agency that is not underfunded … for its mission,” he said.

      Mollohan agreed that if more funds aren’t found for NASA, it will create “a sad scenario.”

      Fisk said the routine response to funding shortages has been to delay programs and drag them out, meaning that NASA, in its budget, must “shove a lot of things to the right” into later years.

      Financial shortfalls and even devastation are rife throughout NASA, according to Fisk.

      For example, in human space exploration programs such as the future Orion crew exploration vehicle and the Ares lifter to take the vehicle into space, Fisk lauded the vision of flights to the moon, Mars and beyond as “a bold plan.”

      It was a grave mistake to abandon the Apollo program in 1972, he said.

      And centuries from now, it is clear that the United States will “have become a true spacefaring civilization, with routine human flights throughout our solar system, and perhaps beyond,” he said.

      So if earthlings are to do that, the only question is when to begin and which nation will lead, he said.

      “I would argue that now is a good time, and we should be the leaders,” he said.

      But instead, he warned, “we are failing in our efforts to resume the human journey into space.”

      He examined NASA budgets since fiscal 2005, when the vision of expeditions to the moon, Mars and beyond was announced, and found those funding plans wanting.

      Since 2005, the budgets have not “been equal to the projected cost of this program,” and that is especially troublesome since he sees the estimated cost levels as low-balled and rosy.

      Don’t repeat mistakes of the past, Fisk cautioned. In the late 1970s, the space shuttle program was underfunded, “which forced technical decisions that resulted in a vehicle that, although capable, was less reliable and far more costly to operate than initially anticipated.”

      It’s time to stand up and make a choice, Fisk told Congress, saying NASA is “at a major decision point in the human exploration program to return to the moon.”

      In making the choice, “we need to decide if we are truly committed at this time to human expansion into space, which I hope we are, and commit the resources necessary to be successful,” he said.

      He counseled against a fiscal move where other segments of the NASA budget such as science and research would be “cannibalized” to fund the space exploration program.

      Similarly, Raymond S. Colladay, an aerospace consultant who formerly was president of the Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] Astronautics unit, said that while NASA is doing a superior job in balancing myriad competing priorities that each seeks funds, it still is true that “all the important missions in the agency [are] in a very tight budget situation.” He also spoke for himself.

      He noted that prior funding shortfalls in development of the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the Ares rocket to lift Orion into space “will result in a multi-year hiatus in human space flight, creating problems in sustaining the workforce, focus and public interest needed to achieve the current vision for space exploration.”

      NASA last year chose his former firm, Lockheed, to develop Orion.

      As well, the science programs are “forced to curtail planned new missions, and there are critical funding limitations in life and microgravity sciences and Earth observations,” he said.

      “In aeronautics, the program is half its former size.”

      It is critical that NASA science and research programs proceed, because corporate America has in large part eliminated such programs in favor of fattening profits, according to Colladay. The United States now is coasting on the benefits of research 10 to 15 years ago, and if money is spent on pursuits other than science and research now, “we are eating our seed corn,” he said.

      Colladay said that in managing the many conflicting funding needs for the vast array of programs in the space agency, NASA “has a good track record in laying out a plan and following it.” But the agency can only do so much if continues to receive inadequate support.

      “This highlights the need for budget relief at the top line,” he said, Washington-ese meaning that the total amount of money for NASA must be increased, rather than attempting to rob Peter to pay Paul by shuffling the same amount of dollars among programs.

      Summing up, Fisk noted that the nation can afford to support space programs far better. While at one time NASA spending may have equaled 1.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product each year, Fisk said it now is less than half that share.

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