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Democratic and GOP Lawmakers Agree That NASA Is Underfunded

By | February 18, 2008

      Griffin Repeats That NASA Must Buy Space Transit From Russia, And Expresses Concern That U.S. Will Lack Manned Space Capabilities For Half A Decade, From 2010 Shuttle Exit To New Craft In 2015

      Budget Has Little Cushion For Unexpected Costs; Next-Generation Orion-Ares Spaceship Is Given Lean Funding In Fiscal 2009

      Democrats and Republicans, people in both the legislative and executive branches, and independent observers all agree on one point:

      NASA is underfunded and unable to continue providing a robust manned space program, science and research activities, aeronautics and more at a level worthy of a first-rank superpower nation, the United States.

      Among other things, that may mean that NASA will have to lay out large sums to buy space transportation services from Russia, instead of the money being spent on having NASA or private U.S. commercial companies provide those services, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told lawmakers.

      He said that Congress must move promptly, by summer to next January, to approve funding to buy transport services from Russia, because Russia requires a lead time sufficient to have Soyuz space vehicles ready when needed in the next contract period. The current $780 million contract expires in 2011, and must be renewed, he said

      At the same time, Griffin displayed no enthusiasm for the deal. To the contrary, he wishes the United States could shake its addiction to Russian space transit services.

      "I yield to no one in my firm belief that we need to minimize our dependence on the Russian Soyuz and protect against proliferation of weapons technology to our adversaries," Griffin told the committee members. "It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that. I have been outspoken to the point of bluntness on this matter since being confirmed as administrator in April 2005. I deplore the posture in which we find ourselves.

      "It is unseemly in the extreme."

      That said, however, what’s the alternative? Griffin asked. There is none, and he expressed gratitude to Russia that it is willing to provide an indispensable link for the United States to the space station, an artificial moon in which Americans have sunk an enormous investment.

      "There is no other viable option" to buying services from Moscow, he said. "We are, today, reliant upon the Russian Soyuz for the sustenance of the International Space Station," and that fact in inescapable, Griffin explained.

      So lawmakers concluded that the NASA budget is underfunded, and it also envisions spending hefty sums on Russian missions.

      There is bipartisan consensus agreement among committee members that the White House budget proposal for NASA in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, won’t fix the underfunding problems.

      Concerns about inadequate funding for the space agency budget plan cascaded forth in a hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee (HSTC), the authorizing panel for NASA.

      Take, for example, the views of Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee chairman.

      "I believe that the [Bush] administration has to date failed to provide resources to NASA that are adequate for what it has asked NASA to do and what it agreed to" have NASA do, in prior legislation, Gordon said.

      "And that’s not just my opinion," he continued. "If you review our committee’s hearings over the past several years, you will find bipartisan expressions of concern over the mismatch between NASA’s tasks and the resources it’s been given."

      To underscore that point, the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, said the overall NASA budget plan for fiscal 2009 — and especially the funding level suggested for contractors to develop the next-generation U.S. spacecraft — "is very, very lean, with little margin to cover unexpected cost increases."

      If Constellation Program costs of developing the Orion-Ares spaceship system rise substantially, either Congress will have to provide more money to cover the cost increases or the United States will face an even longer time when it won’t have a manned space program, according to Hall.

      From October 2010, when the existing space shuttle fleet is mandated to retire, until 2015, when the first manned Orion-Ares flight lifts off, the United States — the only nation that put men on the moon — won’t be able to take even one of its astronauts to low Earth orbit.

      Rather, NASA will have to depend on an increasingly hostile Russia to provide transport services, or on now-nonexistent commercial firms and space planes they are attempting to develop, or on allied nations.

      Hall voice unhappiness with that grim prospect, and suggested that gap in U.S. space capabilities could be shortened.

      "It is vitally important that NASA continues to keep the Constellation program on schedule to meet a 2015 launch date, if not sooner," Hall said.

      "And it is essential that we minimize, to the greatest degree possible, the amount of time [in the gap between shuttle flights and Orion-Ares] that the U.S. goes without a manned space-launch capability.

      "The prospect of being entirely reliant on our international partners for access to and from space is one that could have serious implications for America’s space supremacy."

      Some lawmakers in Congress would like to see funding for a pincers move to shrink the gap by continuing to fly shuttles past the 2010 retirement date, and to accelerate the first Orion-Ares manned mission to 2013 from 2015.

      However, that isn’t in the cards, at the moment.

      When Space & Missile Defense Report asked Griffin whether he supports such funding moves to shrink the gap, he only responded that such moves, and the funding they would require, "is not in the administration plan" for the fiscal 2009 NASA budget.

      All the fiscal 2009 NASA budget plan will permit will be retiring the shuttles in 2010 and a first manned flight of Orion-Ares in 2015, he noted.

      He repeated his earlier estimate that it would cost about $2 billion total to accelerate the first manned flight of Orion-Ares to 2013 from the current target of 2015, or about $100 million cost for each month earlier the maiden flight launches from the pad.

      But that doesn’t mean Griffin is happy about the situation, where NASA must buy space transportation services from Russia, allies or commercial firms, instead of being able to take its own astronauts into low Earth orbit.

      He drew agreement from committee members.

      "It is dangerous for the United States" to be dependent on Russia or other entities for such a fundamental, basic task, Gordon said.

      "We pay Russian space engineers for work that should be done by American engineers," he said.

      Leaders of the key HSTC space and aeronautics subcommittee also decried the weak financial support for NASA.

      For example, Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the subcommittee chairman, hit the Bush budget proposal for NASA as tight-fisted.

      "NASA faces significant challenges in carrying out the tasks that the nation has asked it to assume," Udall warned. "And those challenges have been made all the more difficult by the inadequate NASA budgets that have been sent over to [Capitol] Hill from the White House over the past several years. I had hoped that this [fiscal 2009] budget request for NASA — which represents President Bush’s last budget submission — would have reflected an intention by the Administration to finally address the impact of the previous shortfalls, yet in the main it does not.

      "The budget request has been described as a ‘stay-the-course’ budget. Unfortunately, that is all too accurate a description."

      Udall also noted that Bush set a daring agenda for NASA to return to the moon and then to send manned missions to Mars and beyond, but Udall assailed Bush for not fully funding that proposal.

      "This budget request continues the underfunding of the agency that became painfully apparent in 2004 when the White House announced a major human and robotic exploration initiative — including returning American astronauts to the moon by 2020 — while making a virtue of the fact that it was only adding a billion dollars in new money to NASA’s budget over the first five years of the moon-Mars initiative," Udall observed.

      NASA Needs Funding Increase

      Gordon said it is time for Congress to decide whether NASA should be given increased funding, especially as the United States is poised to elect a new president this November who would take office in January, a time of fresh beginnings.

      "I think that this Committee needs to take a hard look at where NASA is headed, and whether or not the course that the current administration has set NASA on is an appropriate one…and one that should be followed by the next presidential administration, whether it be Democratic or Republican," Gordon said

      "We need to develop a congressional consensus on what NASA should be doing, and equally importantly, on what level of resources we, this nation, is willing to commit to NASA."

      Gordon joined Griffin in lamenting and lambasting the half-decade gap when the United States won’t have a manned space transportation program, and expressed fears that the gap actually may turn out to be much longer than that, because of funding shortfalls.

      "In NASA’s exploration program, the [fiscal 2009] budget request provides no funds to reduce the looming gap in U.S. human access to space once the shuttle [fleet] is retired, in spite of widespread concern about its potential impact," Gordon objected. "Indeed, given the low levels of reserves allocated to the Constellation program over the next several years, it is hard to have confidence even in NASA’s stated 2015 delivery date for the [Orion-Ares] Crew Exploration Vehicle–a date five years after the shuttle is retired."

      The proposed NASA budget doesn’t provide any convenient pots of money in other space agency programs that can be raided to find money for the Orion-Ares effort and other exploration initiatives.

      Rather, the bare-cupboard reality extends throughout the agency, according to Gordon, including insufficient funds to continue operating the International Space Station, an uncertain funding picture for science programs, repeated and successive cuts in money for aeronautics work, a complete lack of funds past fiscal 2010 required to retire the shuttle fleet, no money for the Deep Space Network replacement, and more, he said.

      Moon Mission Needed

      Griffin also dismissed arguments of those who ask why the United States should return to the moon and establish a permanent manned camp there, since American astronauts have been to the moon several times, asking why NASA can’t just directly move on to a manned mission to Mars.

      Griffin said he is intrigued by the notion that "because we spent a few days on the moon [in all the Apollo missions together], that it is an uninteresting place … for all time." It has been, he noted, half a century since Americans visited the moon.

      Rather, he said, it would be foolish not to move in carefully calculated steps into the void of space, since the moon is but three days and a quarter million miles from Earth, while Mars is months and many millions of miles from the home planet.

      China is now exploring the moon with an unmanned orbiter craft, and it is set to place taikonauts on the lunar surface before the end of the next decade, "or before," Griffin said.

      In other words, China may have personnel ensconced on the moon "perhaps before we can return" there.

      Adding A Shuttle Mission

      Some lawmakers would like to add a space shuttle mission to the manifest of those scheduled to fly before the 2010 mandated retirement date, so as to have a shuttle to launch into space the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $1.5 billion multinational spacecraft that would seek clues to how the universe formed, including peering outward to find dark matter and antimatter.

      The huge device, which is so large only a space shuttle can haul it up to space, is finished and ready to go. But there currently is no shuttle mission with sufficient extra space in the shuttle payload bay to carry the device.

      Griffin said if lawmakers want to fund another shuttle mission, they must move rapidly, because makers of hardware required for shuttle flights are beginning to shut down their operations.

      "If Congress wants to add a shuttle flight, [the legislature] must tell me before the end of this year," or by next January, he said.

      Griffin isn’t signing on to extending the shuttle fleet flights beyond the 2010 retirement deadline, noting that it cost about $3 billion a year to operate the shuttles, and that money is needed elsewhere.

      Griffin also said he would be agreeable to a green light for aiding the Aricibo telescope, work on identifying Near Earth Objects, if Congress wishes to provide needed funding.

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