On February 1st, 2010 NASA unveiled President Obama’s new vision for NASA that ultimately did not go over well with Congress (primarily because it was not vetted with them before hand), with America (due to the media’s hold on the wording that manned spaceflight was ending), and with many incumbent NASA workers (do I need to explain why?) Who did the new vision go over well with? It was a huge success with those who call themselves New Space, those who say they aren’t waiting for the government to go explore Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the moon, and beyond. There are some really interesting companies in this arena including Masten Space Systems, SpaceX, Google Lunar XPrize, and many others. Why did they like the new budget? Because it invested in them and their ideas. The new budget invested in Commercial Space to LEO being that of the International Space Station (ISS) and Research and Development (R&D) for the future. I think a future and interesting blog post will surround the idea of these companies who are branching out to do it themselves yet go after the government contracts, with SpaceX being a prime example with public statements being made that over half of their funding has come from NASA for the COTS (cargo delivery to ISS) program.
Fast forward to July 15, 2010 when the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously passed their response to Obama on the FY2011-2014 NASA Budget. The 99 page draft of the Senate’s budget was posted earlier in the week, but was marked up with quite a few amendments of which many were approved. I personally have not seen the individual amendments and you have an online link to where they are stored, please share them. A summary of the Senate’s budget was posted, but the full version has not been made available yet as far as I know.
Even though the Senate Bill still needs to pass another Committee and the full Senate and we have yet to hear much from the House side of Congress, I thought I would take the opportunity to comment on the Senate Bill because there is still time to craft and mold the future.
Regarding extending ISS to 2020 and adding an additional Shuttle flight, in my opinion these are both no-brainers and don’t require discussion.
What I will address is Commercial Crew, Heavy Lift & the Multi-Purpose Spacecraft, and Technology Development. The major flaw in Obama’s proposal was that he sacrificed current exploration beyond LEO by delaying them until no earlier than 2025 for R&D and technology development. Any successful company can share with you that their success is not just based on a current product or R&D. They invest in both. They are always investing in their future while executing their current product line. NASA too needs to take a good solid look at how they can best perform R&D and technology development for the future and execute exploration missions in the here and now. The Senate Bill is a step in the right direction, however the funding levels remain unrealistic in the current environment. Perhaps a future blog post will transpire on how NASA can change internally to save money and meet the goals and objectives of the future.
Why do I like the wording of Sections 402 and 403 in the Senate Bill? Because it continues the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev) through 2011, providing funding for companies to continue to develop their concepts for Commercial Crew and allows time for NASA to figure out how to run a Commercial Crew program from human rating requirements to procurement. Consider it the year of transition, and it is a year that both NASA and the Commercial companies will need in order to be successful.
Heavy Lift & Multi-Purpose Spacecraft
I did not understand why under Obama’s proposal NASA would study Heavy Lift alternatives and perform additional studies delaying the decision for what architecture would be used until 2015 (and the next administration) therefore delaying a built vehicle until the early 2020’s. So it’s actually a good thing that the Senate Bill provides for a Heavy Lift capability and to start working on it right away which means we can begin exploring in years rather than decades. In Section 302 of the Senate Bill it calls out for an evolutionary design of the heavy lift vehicle. The spacecraft, built upon the years of work NASA has done on the Orion vehicle to go to ISS and the moon will be evolved to add Mars, Mars’ Moons, and Asteroids.
While not funded at the original levels under Obama’s proposal, there is still funding for technology development and it remains to be seen by the time the final Senate bill gets passed for how much will be funded. Technology, including Research & Development is a vital component for the future. However not at the expense of current exploration missions.