Here we are just a few weeks away from the release of the 2013 President’s Budget Request (PBR) and I can’t help but ponder the future. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get the feeling that Congress is dedicated to making sure the path NASA is on will succeed. And my fear is with the transition to the next President (assuming the current one doesn’t win re-election) the current plan will be scrapped once again and a re-direction of NASA will take place. Is the current path sustainable? Is a re-direction needed?
For those who have followed me on twitter the past few years and are readers of this blog, you know that I’m focused on manned space exploration and that’s what I pour my heart into. So, we have three aspects to consider regarding manned exploration; commercial crew, Orion/SLS, and exploration infrastructure to enable missions to moons, asteroids, and Mars.
Regarding Commercial Crew, if the purpose is to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle Program and first flight of Commercial Crew then why does Congress keep cutting the Commercial Crew Budget? The 2012 PBR asked for $850M to allow at least two companies continue developing their spacecraft and launch vehicle to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016. Now, with the cut to $406M the date is pushing back to 2017 or even 2018 for first flight. Does Congress lack the trust in the aerospace companies who either have been doing this for decades or have hired experts in the field who have been doing this for decades? It can be done. And safely. The only thing missing is the money to do it because as of today there simply is no market for Low Earth Orbit. But, once these companies succeed (thus proving the capability) then I foresee a great change in what happens in Low Earth Orbit. I’m not saying anything anyone doesn’t already know or think. But, the more we pull back from Commercial Crew the less chances of seeing a market develop.
I have to admit that Orion getting $375M more to do a test flight in 2014 amazes me from a process perspective. Here we are with a Commercial Crew Program that is responsible for funding at least two companies if not three on a yearly budget of $406M and Orion gets an additional $375M for a test flight on top of the $1.2B for 2012. I don’t doubt that most of the $375M will go to pay for the Delta IV and integration, but with a yearly budget of approximately $1B I think about what all we could do with that money. But, the bottom line is when NASA is responsible for running a program (like Constellation, Shuttle, ISS, etc) you are embedded in the processes that exist at NASA which runs the cost up. It would be great to see NASA go through Lean and streamline their processes to be more effective and timely. I think in the long run they would save a significant amount of money thus allowing it to be spent on additional capabilities and programs taking us to the stars. But, as with any government program when you mention streamlining or leaning out processes that means the elimination of people’s jobs because you have made things more effective. And, in this economy that is the last thing people (those working the jobs) want to hear or experience. I don’t blame them. In the end, it’s all a Catch-22.
If we did streamline processes what would that extra money be used for? I personally would want to put it towards exploration architecture. Once you have SLS (the rocket) and Orion (the spacecraft) you still need more to go Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO). Perhaps a Lunar Lander to visit the moon. A Habitation Module to go deeper into space to visit the Moons of Mars or Mars itself. There is still so much to be developed and so little money.
But then again I think I should be grateful we have the 2012 budget we do given the realities of the economy. It’s our job, the engineers to do our best and give the taxpayers the best value of every dollar.