Thursday, November 11, 2010

Something's Gotta Give

Erskine Bowles (left) and Alan Simpson propose cutting $1.2 billion from NASA's commercial spaceflight program in 2015.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a draft proposal yesterday, authored by its co-chairs, Republican former Senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff for former President Clinton.

The fact that such a commission has existed since February 2010 seemed to fly under the radar during the recent election campaign. Congress rejected the creation of the commission last January, despite President Obama's support for the legislation, so Obama issued an executive order to create the commission. The difference between the two is that if Congress had created the commission, both houses would have been required to vote on the final recommendations. Congress can ignore the Obama commission's report — and probably will.

Yesterday's draft report brought the predictable outrage from all quarters who don't want to see their favorite programs touched.

According to a CNN report:

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat, called the proposal "simply unacceptable," and two Democratic commission members voiced initial opposition while a third mixed praise with serious reservations.

Retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a deficit hawk on the commission, called the draft plan "aggressive and comprehensive" but added he hoped it could be improved, while conservative tax reform advocate Grover Norquist flatly rejected any tax increases to reduce the deficit ...

"Raising taxes is what politicians do when they don't have the guts to govern," Norquist said, while on the other side, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the commission leaders had told working Americans to "drop dead."

"The gap between the rich and the middle class has never been greater in our country. These proposals will only make the situation worse," added Democratic Rep. Janice Schakowsky of Illinois.

We're not here to debate the federal budget deficit, only to discuss how federal budget decisions affect space programs here in Brevard County. Even within that context, the draft proposal clearly takes aim at the Space Coast.

In a document titled "$200 Billion in Illustrative Savings", in a section titled, "Secure a Better Return on Taxpayer Investment," is this paragraph:

Eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight.The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to spur the development of American commercial spaceflight. This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights. Eliminating this program would save $1.2 billion in 2015.

Apparently the co-chairs are unaware that the NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo program was designed to reduce the cost of government space access by having the private sector assume responsibility for routine access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The co-chairs seem to think that NASA will be "subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights," which is totally wrong. The crews will be NASA astronauts trained by NASA. The agency simply buys a ride on a commercially owned craft.

Growing the commercial sector also gets NASA off the Soyuz spacecraft. When the Bush administration cancelled the Space Shuttle program in January 2004, then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe began negotiating with Russia for the U.S. to use Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. In 2009, the Russians raised the price per astronaut to $51 million, knowing we have no other option.

Obama appointed the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, commonly known as the Augustine Commission, which concluded that the Constellation program begun under the previous administration wouldn't have Ares I ready until at least 2017, so Obama proposed an investment in commercial space flight to accelerate its development and have a Soyuz alternative ready sooner than 2017.

The Simpson-Bowles proposal would seem to slow commercial development, meaning the United States continues to pay Russia for Soyuz flights, sending American space jobs overseas.

Other ideas that could affect NASA are proposals to "cut the federal workforce by 10 percent" and "eliminate 250,000 non-defense service and staff augmentee contractors."

Regardless of how one might feel about government versus commercial space access, the reality is that government space funding is low-hanging fruit to budget pruners. As I've written here many times, most polls show that although Americans like space exploration, they don't like paying for it. Majorities want the federal space budget reduced and the private sector to assume more of the cost.

Most taxpayers haven't a clue what the actual NASA budget is, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that there is no nationwide groundswell of support to protect or increase the government's space budget.

As we saw in this year's budget negotiations, the members of the Congressional space committees were more interested in protecting their district's pork than any overwhelming vision for the nation's spacefaring future.

This lack of vision, coupled with the inevitable federal budget cutbacks, doesn't bode well for the future of government-funded space flight.

That's all the more reason to accelerate commercial access. Get as many programs as possible off the government books, so they're no longer a target for budget cutbacks.

An independent panel announced yesterday that the James Webb Space Telescope will cost at least $1.5 billion more than current estimates and its launch will be delayed a minimum of 15 months. Click here to read the full report. To quote from the Executive Summary:

The problems causing cost growth and schedule delays on the JWST project are associated with budgeting and program management, not technical performance. The technical performance on the Project has been commendable and often excellent. However, the budget baseline accepted at the Confirmation Review did not reflect the most probable cost with adequate reserves in each year of project execution. This resulted in a project that was simply not executable within the budgeted resources.

Cost overruns like this will be reasons cited when it comes time for Congress to wield the pruning shears.

The Simpson-Bowles proposal is not the commission's final report, and won't be unless 14 of the 18 members support it. It won't be law unless Congress decides to approve their proposal and the President signs it.

Even so, space advocates must prepare for the inevitable reduction of government-funded spaceflight and start looking for alternatives in the private sector.

UPDATE 9:45 AM ESTThe Commercial Spaceflight Foundation comments on the Simpson-Bowles proposal.

“This proposed cut would have disastrous consequences for NASA and the Nation. Commercial Crew now represents the primary means of transporting U.S. astronauts to orbit following retirement of the Space Shuttle. Commercial Crew will in fact result in substantial cost savings to the U.S. taxpayer. Eliminating Commercial Crew would result in total reliance on Russia to get to the Space Station and result in the loss of thousands of high-tech jobs here in the United States,” stated Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Alexander added, “The bottom line is that elimination of NASA’s Commercial Crew program will cede human spaceflight to Russia. Commercial Crew is the fastest way to reduce the gap following Shuttle retirement, minimizing the time we are dependent on buying seats from the Russians. Some commercial providers have publicly committed to significant cost savings on a per-seat basis as compared to the Russian alternative.

“Moreover, the Deficit Commission also appears to misunderstand the very nature of the Commercial Crew Program. Rather than being ‘a subsidy to the private sector,’ the Commercial Crew program is fulfilling an essential national need by developing the next U.S. spacecraft to take astronauts to the Space Station, while stimulating markets beyond government as well. It is, in fact, a win-win for the American taxpayer.

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