The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Ares 1 illustration
The best solution to the pending job losses at KSC is to speed up development of Ares 1 and Orion to minimize the post-shuttle gap. (credit: NASA)

They were warned

Watching parts of the hearing on NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) held last Thursday by the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, one was tempted to think of Mel Brooks’s immortal lines in the movie Blazing Saddles: “We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen!” After all, Congress was warned in 2004 that the Space Shuttle would stop flying after 2010. This obviously would involve some job losses at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). While some people would be able to transition from the shuttle to future space systems, other people would lose any hope for future employment there. These people are highly trained and exceptionally skilled, but their skills are centered around a nearly thirty-year-old space transportation system.

In human terms this will mean that somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 people are facing unemployment at a moment when the US economy is not generating many new jobs. That many of these jobs are in the electorally critical state of Florida makes the politicians’ position all the more difficult. While some of this was unavoidable, after the Columbia disaster there was no way that NASA was going to be able to keep flying the shuttle until 2020 or later as it had once planed to do.

That many of these jobs that will be lost with the shuttle are in the electorally critical state of Florida makes the politicians’ position all the more difficult.

The gap between the Shuttle’s retirement and the Orion/Ares operational debut was always going to exist. It has grown from three to five years due to what the chairman of the subcommittee, Mark Udall (D-CO), called “chronic underfunding.” The blame for this cannot be attributed to just the Democrats or the GOP, and neither the White House nor the Congress have a very good record on this issue. The worst single event was probably the fiscal year 2007 continuing resolution, which effectively cut NASA’s overall budget just at the moment when the agency was ramping up shuttle operations and beginning serious work on the VSE. Almost as bad was the failure last year to pass the billion-dollar “plus up” proposed by Senators Barbara Milkulski and Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Speaking for the consensus achieved at Stanford workshop in February, former astronaut Kathyrn Thornton said, “NASA has not received the budget increases to support the mandated human exploration program as well as other vital parts of the NASA portfolio including space science, aeronautics, technology requirements and especially Earth observation given the urgency of global climate change.” This just reiterates the well-known fact that for at least three decades NASA has been ordered to do too much with too little. It was feared that the workshop would savage the current NASA program and would present the Congress with a set of new ideas that would upset the political apple cart and force the agency to waste time and effort defending its current polices. This did not happen due to the intellectually robust nature of the VSE and its “sustainable and affordable” approach.

That supporters of a government agency feel that it does not have enough money to do its job hardly qualifies as an Earth-shaking revelation. NASA’s advocates have been doing a slightly better job over the last three or four years than they have in the past. This is partly due to the existence of the VSE, which firmly commits the US to getting beyond low Earth orbit, and partly due to better leadership at NASA and elsewhere. Yet this has not been enough, so far, to avoid the coming train wreck. It is probably too late to stop the job loses at KSC, but not entirely impossible.

If Congress, the administration, NASA, and the rest of the scientific community were to decide that the current economic crisis demands an emergency effort to protect America’s scientific and technological “crown jewels” they might want to think about a supplemental appropriations bill that would do something about this.

This summer, thousands of students in the hard science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects will be looking for work. The government and US industry have encouraged these men and women to persist in their studies with the implicit promise that there would be jobs—not necessarily lucrative ones, but work that is satisfying and challenging. If things go on as they are, those jobs will not be there. A supplemental bill that would give NASA the extra funds needed to shorten the gap and to pay for some of the science programs that were once planned would be a way to keep faith with the young scientists and engineers who are beginning their careers.

The bill could also include funds for new medical research and for new materials and other technology programs. A total of seven or eight billion, of which two or three billion would go to NASA, would go a long way towards bridging the problem. The name Herbert Hoover gets tossed around a lot these days. In American political folklore he is famous for doing little or nothing to overcome the Great Depression. He refused to step outside the conventional thinking of his time, as he and Congress raised taxes and tariffs and cut the overall budget, thus making a bad situation worse. Today the reluctance of Congress and the Administration to consider going beyond the sacrosanct budget process, may lead to a new chapter in our nation’s storehouse of folk tales.

If the Congress wants to save those jobs it will have to act soon. Keeping the shuttle flying for one or two more missions will only postpone the pain. The only durable answer is to increase the national commitment to the VSE.

Richard Gilbrech, the NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said that NASA is now studying the possibility of accelerating the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to give the US an alternative way of sending cargo and crews to the ISS. This may help to shorten the time that the US will depend on Russia for access to the station, but it will do nothing to stop the job losses at KSC, which politically is the most sensitive issue.

One of the biggest persistent problems with the US space program is the disconnect between the timescale the politicians operate on and the one that, by its nature the space industry must use. The VSE is a multi-decade project that needs urgent funding now in order to stay on track or, with any luck, to move forward a little faster than planned. However we all know that every two years we have elections and that every single year the Congress and the White House must agree on a new budget.

The only way around this was to make the VSE a program that operates on a sustained and affordable “go-as-you-pay” basis suggested by the Aldridge Commission in 2004, but that approach will not save the jobs in Florida. If the Congress wants to save those jobs it will have to act soon. Keeping the shuttle flying for one or two more missions will only postpone the pain. The only durable answer is to increase the national commitment to the VSE.