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While people debate the future of Constellation given the new direction for NASA in the FY2011 budget proposal, other elements of the budget support continued research on the ISS. (credit: NASA)

NASA’s breakdown or breakthrough?


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The new fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA, released last month, has caused immediate controversy. Most of the attention has been placed on the future of space exploration and the ending of very expensive projects. However, the budget proposal has been overlooked in other aspects. The future of NASA is up in the air. A new strategy has been proposed, and while for some the future is uncertain, for others it is a great opportunity for research and knowledge acquisition. The reactions after the NASA budget request was released have focused on the future of space exploration without regard of the science funding needed to get it done in the first place, as it has also been requested.

Throughout 2009, NASA administrator Charles Bolden and the White House conducted a series of investigations regarding the future of the space agency. Three different commissions were set in motion to conduct investigations: the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee (known as the Augustine Committee), the Institutional Readiness Project (IRP) for organizational changes, and a recently released report on Assessment of Selected Large-Scale Projects by the United States Government Accountability Office.

The reactions after the NASA budget request was released have focused on the future of space exploration without regard of the science funding needed to get it done in the first place, as it has also been requested.

All three reports lead to the recently proposed budget. The budget proposal sent by the President has created turmoil in the media, in Congress, and in the general public. Most of the attention has been devoted to plans to cancel the Constellation Program, started in 2004 by President George W. Bush through the Vision for Space Exploration. This means an end to the Ares rocket construction and the Orion crew capsule. Over $9 billion has already been invested in the project and a sudden cancelation has created concern and instant debate regarding the presidential proposal.

Following the mentioned reports, the Obama administration proposes to continue with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, as originally planned, and to extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020. With this, the US will not have a vehicle to send humans to the ISS other than through the Russians, while waiting for the development of rocket technologies by the private industry as proposed in the budget.

An immediate rush of opinions arose the first week of February concerning the dismantlement of the Constellation project. The future of human space exploration is the primary issue of Congressional attention to date. To cancel Constellation, after $9 billion invested in it, and get nothing but a test flight using old technology, and to have an unproven path towards outsourcing NASA’s future in human space exploration is not to be taken lightly. It is hard to steer the wheel radically like the present administration intends to after such an enormous investment has been thrown away.

However, NASA’s budget proposal for FY2011 includes much more than to scrap Constellation. Little attention has been placed on other aspects of the budget proposal. The investment placed on the ISS is actually a major issue. Assembly of the ISS is scheduled to be completed this year. It can and will be used to its full potential. Members of Congress should also pay attention to the science that will be practiced inside the ISS. It has been said that the future of space exploration is at risk, but the research practiced in zero gravity environments is also a big contribution to space exploration, as NASA noted in a press release last month:

The continued use of the station will open the window for more studies that can only be done in the unique environment of space. Specifically, scientists can discover how cells reproduce and differentiate in microgravity with applications to areas such as tissue generation and wound repair. Also, there are opportunities for more human physiology research to learn about systems such as heart, muscle and bone, which can benefit space explorers and ill or injured patients.

Studies of fluid physics that benefit from lack of buoyancy in microgravity will provide new understanding of soft matter, supercritical fluids and two phase flow. Technology tests will advance areas such as robotics, life support and spacecraft servicing.

Station construction began in Dec. 1998 and will be completed during 2010. Once complete, the station will transition to a new “full usage” phase, where continuous scientific research will be conducted aboard the multinational orbiting laboratory.

On February 3, the same day that a House committee first debated the budget proposal, a meeting held by the representatives of the International Space Station Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB) reaffirmed the interest in maximizing the utilization of the Space Station and the beginning of intense scientific, technological and educational labor. Just a day after this meeting, a press conference was held at Kennedy Space Center showing the results of the Advanced Plants Experiment on Orbit - Transgenic Arabidopsis Gene Expression System (APEX-TAGES) investigation on the ISS.

But the development of basic science research is a key issue in space exploration. A rocket is not the only thing needed to explore other planets.

These experiments and the ones to follow on the ISS would benefit by the FY2011 budget. Though it is an international enterprise, a principal supporter of the ISS is the United States. But not only is science being favored on the ISS. The budget proposal includes a big boost for Earth sciences as well. Further research on climate change will be funded, including a number of new satellites and the replacement of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite lost in a launch failure last year. Also, the president requested an extra $30 million to restart the production of plutonium-238, a major energy source, especially for deep space missions. Plutonium-238 production was stopped more than 20 years ago. NASA will also develop an Advanced Radioisotope Generator that would reduce plutonium consumption.

Thus, NASA’s budget is not only about cancelling Constellation and instead developing technology with private companies, it’s about a huge boost to science. And this extra funding for research should also be seen in the light of a general increase in science budgets for 2011. Funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative will receive a five-percent increase from FY2010 budget request ($1.7 billion). The National Institutes of Health will receive a $1-billion raise to $32.1 billion, the largest increase proposed in the last eight years. The Secretary of Defense will spend $2 billion on basic science research. The National Science Foundation will get a $500-million boost to $7.4 billion, plus $20 million to start the $434 million National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

While Congress and the media have overlooked this other side of NASA’s FY2011 plan, the budget discussion will be centered on the bold decision involving the development of technology for human space exploration through the private sector, and the end of the Constellation program. These are difficult issues for the future of space exploration, no doubt. But the development of basic science research is a key issue in space exploration. Probes that will explore the solar system, the zero gravity experiments on the ISS, and well-funded research on the ground are basic to complete the knowledge needed for deep space human exploration as well. A rocket is not the only thing needed to explore other planets. Human space exploration will not be forsaken, and the request for basic science research funding is critical to fulfill further space exploration.

Complete scrutiny of the FY2011 NASA budget is needed. Congress and the media must focus not only on the end of Constellation, but also must take seriously the requested increase in research funding. To let the Constellation program go is a hard thing to swallow, but the time to retire the Space Shuttle is due and a decision on the ISS had to be made, especially if, after a very long wait for its completion, it had arrived to its maximum potential for research purposes only to be ended in 2015. But, most relevant of all, the Ares rocket can’t be successfully delivered on time, and the original aim of the Vision for Space Exploration to land on the Moon by 2020 was impossible to achieve as the Augustine panel concluded.

The new path proposed by the president will be continuously debated, but a complete and thorough analysis of the budget request including the science boost is needed. To fulfill a successful human exploration program NASA needs more than just a big rocket. Basic research is as fundamental as the technology to get to Mars. A change of strategy—with a controversial turn to outsourcing, yes—but a bet on science as well. So perhaps it is not a breakdown for NASA, but a breakthrough that has taken a very long time to happen. This aspect of NASA’s FY2011 budget request should not go overlooked.


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