Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Charlie Bolden Responds to Budget Myths

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

As reported on, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spoke Tuesday at the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) flagship luncheon. Bolden gave "perhaps his strongest defense to date of the agency’s new plan announced a month and a half ago."

Click here to read the entire text of the speech.

Some excerpts:

At the highest level, the President and his staff as well as my NASA senior leadership team closely reviewed the Augustine Committee report, and they came to the same realization the Committee concluded: The Constellation program was on an unsustainable trajectory. If we continued on our current course, at best we would have ended up flying a handful of astronauts to the moon sometime after 2030. But to accomplish even that limited task, we would have had to make even deeper cuts to the other parts of NASA’s budget, terminating support of the ISS early and decimating our science and aeronautics efforts. Further, we would have had no money to advance the state of the art in any of the technology areas that we need to enable us to do new things in space – no money to lower the cost of access to space, no money for closedloop life support, no money for advanced propulsion technology, no money for radiation protection. The President recognized that what was truly needed for beyond LEO exploration was game-changing technologies; making the fundamental investments that will provide the foundation for the next half-century of American leadership in space exploration. In doing so, the President put forward what I believe to be the most authentically visionary policy for real human space exploration that we have ever had.

Regarding Constellation:

Some have argued that the Constellation program was the symbol of American leadership in space. I think they have been misled. An unsustainable program, as described in the Augustine Committee Report, with no funding planned to support the ISS beyond 2015 and no definitive, funded plans for a heavy lift launch vehicle necessary for exploration beyond low Earth orbit can hardly be considered a symbol of American leadership in space. U.S permanent human presence in space and our
international human spaceflight partnership would have ended or been totally dependent on the Russians for the foreseeable future. That is not American leadership in my book. Under the new plan, however, we will ensure continuous American presence in space throughout this entire decade, re-establish a robust and competitive American launch industry, start a major heavy lift R&D program years earlier, and build a real technological foundation for sustainable beyond-LEO exploration. That to me is real leadership, and our international partners already recognize it.

Regarding the alleged lack of a destination:

I often hear the criticism that under the President’s plan we have no destination. This is also not true. The ultimate destination in our solar system for our exploration efforts is Mars, but we don’t have the technological where-with-all to safely get humans there yet. In order to reach this destination, we need a robust research and development program to help us provide the capabilities that will make this goal attainable. When NASA’s transformative technology development and demonstration programs are underway, the commercial sector will be moving rapidly to develop crew and cargo capabilities for U.S. based transportation to LEO. Commercial providers have long carried our most valuable payloads to space for the nation and have been integral to every human spaceflight mission since the beginning. My guess is that the American workers who have successfully built and launched the Atlas V 20 times in a row would disagree that US commercial spaceflight is untried or untested.

On scientific discoveries already realized by the International Space Station:

Already we’ve gleaned information about Salmonella that has led to a candidate vaccine with human trials soon to begin. We’ve learned about methods of micro-encapsulation, a process of forming miniature, liquid-filled balloons the size of blood cells that can deliver treatment directly to cancer cells. We’ve learned about gene expression in plants and how that might enhance crops being grown in space. These are a few of the literally dozens of results that we’re just beginning to get and which we can look forward to in the years to come.


  1. I am not as optimistic as you. But I am suspicious of the recent commission and their motives. Their arguments about Constellation have some merit, but Constellation was under funded, so it was doomed to fail. However, I wonder how often we can afford to throw away $11.5 billon and 6 years of work, not to mention the engineers and their expertise that they will lose. Then there is the issue of future funding, what happens when the next administration comes in to power in 3 or 7 years? What is to say that they will not change priorities, decide that some program is unsustainable and throw everything away once again. We have a history of doing that. Or more likely they will underfund the program and force compromises in design, something that happened to the shuttle program.

  2. I understand what you're saying, but the reality is that budget directions change all the time, public and private sector.

    Just because you've thrown a lot of money down a hole doesn't mean you have to keep throwing money down that hole just to prove that you didn't make a mistake.

    At the last company I worked at, the CEO forced our I.T. division to buy an expensive application for $10 million even though I.T. recommended against it because it didn't meet our needs. The CEO apparently had a personal connection with the company, so I.T. was overruled.

    Because the application was a bust, I.T. wound up having to hire a phalanx of programmers to rewrite it, eventually spending $50 million -- all to prove that the CEO hadn't made a mistake.

    Now they're buying a different application to replace the $50 million boondoggle. So much for the private sector being motivated by efficiency.

    It would be nice if NASA had a guaranteed budget for future years, but that will never happen. Besides, NASA's cost estimates for projects almost always turn out to be meaningless. Some of that is the nature of their business, some of that is the space-industrial complex adding lard to the government contracts.

    I was reading a comment by a Congressional staff aide who said that most members of Congress don't believe any budget numbers NASA gives them. He also pointed out, as I have, that outside of the space centers nobody really cares. As he said, it's hard to explain to a farmer who's teetering on bankruptcy that the government doesn't have the money to help him because we need to send astronauts back to the Moon in 2030.

  3. "So much for the private sector being motivated by efficiency." That begs the question of how much cheaper it will be having private companies launch our astronauts. Because of the limited number of launches each year, I don't think you can support very many companies, so "completion" will be limited. And who is to say that they will not "lard up" the cost to launch just like the Russians have done for sending our people to the ISS. We either pay or we don't go.

    I think that you are making a case for not setting a goal to go to Mars. That is OK if that is what you believe and I think that is what Obama planned all along. Pelosi said early on that NASA would have to compete with other priorities. After she said that I knew what was going to happen. If that is what the situation is, then Obama should be honest about it, but they are politicians so that may be expecting too much.

  4. Regarding the private sector, I anticipated that would be your response. It's a valid concern.

    But I think the desire by the Obama administration to commercialize LEO access is that he knows Congress will not support growing the NASA budget to accommodate everything we'd like to do. In a perfect world, he'd build Starfleet and boldly go. But that's not going to happen.

    It's the federal budget process and blooming deficits projected in upcoming years that led Obama to recommend commercialization, in my opinion. We all know that Shuttle, ISS and Constellation fell behind and wound up costing a lot more in the long run because of underfunding in the short run.

    In that sense, Pelosi was right when she said that NASA would have to compete for limited dollars. NASA' budget is not sacred, other than perhaps elected representatives from space center districts, but they don't have the majority vote by far in Congress.

    I'm not saying we shouldn't go to Mars. I agree with what Bolden said that setting Mars as a goal is pretty much meaningless because we don't have the technology, and we're not even close. With the Moon, that was different -- it's a three-day trip away. Mars is six months each way.

    If it were me, the next step would be a permanent lunar colony, so we learn how to handle long-term human habitation on another world. We can use that to simulate what a long-term mission to Mars would be like.

    We know how to build LEO vehicles. We know how to build a heavy-lifter to get to the Moon. We think we know how to live long-term on another world, but we haven't done that yet.

    All that is fine in theory, but without the budget support by a majority of both houses of Congress we're just spinning our wheels. Unlike the 1960s, when we had the Cold War, we don't have the political will now to assure funding.

    So all that means is that NASA becomes a jobs program that doesn't really accomplish much in terms of human exploration beyond LEO.

    ISS scientific research is within the federal budget. I'm excited that we'll use it not just until 2020 but perhaps until 2028. For decades, we've talked a good story about scientific research in space, but we've never really just done it full-time. We worry too much about the vehicle. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with ISS technology unleashed.