The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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The rhetoric in Congress about the NASA budget proposal has been heated, but how much has it done to advance the debate about the future of the nation’s space program? (credit: J. Foust)

The need to elevate the debate

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It’s only the middle of June, but it’s shaping up to be a long, hot summer in Washington, and not just because of the miasma of heat and humidity that has descended on the nation’s capital in the last couple of weeks. Since the White House released its 2011 budget proposal on the first of February, there has been a hot debate in the space community about the future of NASA, in particular its human spaceflight efforts given plans to cancel Constellation and focus more on technology development and commercial services to enable future human space exploration beyond Earth orbit. That debate has generated a lot of heat, but precious little light, about those critical issues.

The debate about the White House’s plan for NASA has generated a lot of heat, but precious little light, about some critical issues.

That debate has largely played out—at least in public view—in fusillades of statements and debates at hearings. Rhetorical skills have been on full display in those statements and hearings, although how much light they have shed on the underlying issues is questionable. That has been amplified to a degree by the Internet, where champions of Constellation and defenders of the president’s plan participate in online discussions where the exchange of ideas is often drowned out by the exchange of invective.

This was on full display last week when NASA notified Congress of a nearly $1-billion shortfall on Constellation after the agency found that contractors had not been previously notified to maintain reserves to cover contract termination costs. Because of that, the agency was slowing down work on much of Constellation, including the controversial Ares 1 launch vehicle. Such a move should generate questions on whether the agency was properly interpreting the Antideficiency Act, a law that prevents the authorization of work beyond the appropriated level of funding, as the justification for maintaining contract termination reserves: was this an incorrect interpretation of the law, or had NASA been acting incorrectly in the past when it advised contractors that such reserves were not needed?

Constellation supporters, though, assumed the worst and went on the attack. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, criticized the move on harsh language, saying in a press release that the move was evidence that NASA and the Obama Administration were trying “to subvert the Constellation program” (to emphasize that point, she used “subvert” or “subverting” three times in the same release). Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) claimed in a separate release that the move was “an affront to the hardworking NASA and contractor workforce” and that it was evidence that “the Administration has mismanaged this program.”

They maybe right that this is a deliberate effort by the administration to circumvent language in the 2010 appropriations bill that prevents NASA from terminating elements of Constellation. It might also be a clever, and entirely legal, tactic by the agency, taking advantage of a long-overlooked contractual requirement. But the public reactions by members of Congress appear less designed to get to the bottom of those issues but to instead use them as opportunities to restate their views about Constellation and the FY11 budget proposal—views that, for most members, have changed little, if at all, since the beginning of February.

“I am utterly dismayed by watching the public policy debate that has followed the release of the budget,” Greason said last month.

NASA and the administration have not helped matters, though. They have been more reactive than proactive since the fumbled release of the budget proposal (see “NASA’s need to win hearts and minds”, The Space Review, March 8, 2010). They have also been slow to release information, such as how they plan to reinstate the Orion spacecraft, originally cancelled in the FY11 budget request but then reinstated by the White House in April as an ISS lifeboat. While NASA administrator Charles Bolden has given a price estimate for the Orion crew return vehicle version, $4.5 billion, he told Senate and House committees last month that the agency would soon submit a revised budget request reflecting the Orion change; that revision has yet to be submitted. Last week the leadership of the House Science and Technology committee, clearly impatient about the lack of information, wrote to Bolden, asking for that revised budget submission as well as other specifics about how the new Orion variant would be developed by no later than this Wednesday, the 16th.

Some clearly believe that it’s time for the Congress and White House to focus on more substantive issues in the debate over the future of NASA. “I am utterly dismayed by watching the public policy debate that has followed the release of the budget,” Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace and a member of the Augustine Committee, said in a luncheon speech at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago on May 28th. That dismay, he said, was not because he considered himself “a partisan” for any particular solution, but because of the shallow level of debate he had witnessed to date.

“There are serious problems that face this country, there are serious problems that face our civil space program, and there are serious problems that face our aerospace industry,” he continued. “Those problems have to have solutions found. I am fairly agnostic on what those solutions might be.”

“The discussion has to be taking place in terms of the difficult choices that we have to make. That is not what I see when I watch Congressional testimony,” he said. “We need better than that.”

Indeed, the debate has been largely about the symptoms and not the overall problem. Congress and others have debated whether Constellation should be cancelled or salvaged, whether commercial providers should be entrusted with launching astronauts, and what will happen to all the people currently working on the Space Shuttle and Constellation should the former remain on track for retirement and the latter cancelled. Less frequently debated, though, are more fundamental issues: why have a human space exploration program, what should its goals be, and how much are we willing to spend on such efforts given the greater fiscal pressures facing the nation.

In the overall picture, the debate about NASA is pretty tame compared to bigger hot-button issues ranging from health care to immigration reform. But just because that debate is rather mild and non-partisan (some Democrats have opposed portions of the White House plan while some Republicans have supported elements of it), it does not mean that the space community can—and should—do better. The decisions that will be made by authorizers and appropriators in Congress in the coming months may reshape the agency and its future direction significantly. That makes this time perhaps the best opportunity in years for a discussion on the fundamentals of space exploration, and in particular human spaceflight. For now, though, that isn’t happening.