Saturday, September 7, 2013

Boxer Rebellion

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

Today's International Space Station has its roots in an earlier proposal called Space Station Freedom.

Proposed by President Ronald Reagan during the 1984 State of the Union address, Freedom suffered from many of the same problems that affected the Space Shuttle and later the ISS.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits during the 1990s faulted Freedom for many of the same deficiencies that plague other NASA projects. Some examples:

NASA: Large Programs May Consume Increasing Share of Limited Future Budgets (September 4, 1992) “GAO found that: (1) the largest of NASA programs, such as the space shuttle, Space Station Freedom, and Earth Observing System, may require nearly all of the potential NASA appropriation by fiscal year (FY) 1997; (2) other budget areas may have large future funding demands; (3) NASA is reviewing its major programs with the view of reducing their cost and making appropriate adjustments to balance its overall space and aeronautics program with budget realities; (4) NASA 5-year planning estimates may be too optimistic in face of a 5-year domestic spending freeze; (5) major program growth may exacerbate the budget shortfalls and jeopardize funding for other NASA activities; (6) the NASA Vision 21 strategic plan does not accurately project the current programs' resource needs or likely future available funding; (7) Vision 21 is inconsistent with the executive branch's FY 1993 budget submission and several criteria mandated by Congress, but NASA is addressing the latter issue; and (8) NASA could improve its program status reports by including anticipated 5-year funding projections and life-cycle cost estimates in the funding section.”

NASA Program Costs: Space Missions Require Substantially More Funding Than Initially Estimated (December 31, 1992) “GAO found that: (1) 25 of the 29 programs reviewed required more funding than initially estimated; (2) the median estimate change for all programs was a 77-percent increase in space program costs; (3) general reasons given for differences in initial and current estimates included insufficient definition studies, program and funding instability, overoptimism by program officials, and unrealistic contractor estimates; (4) specific reasons for changes in estimates included program redesigns, technical complexities, budget constraints, incomplete estimates, shuttle launch delays, and inflationary effects; and (5) the content and schedule of many programs changed substantially between the initial and current cost estimates.”

Space Station: Program Instability and Cost Growth Continue Pending Redesign (May 18, 1993) “GAO found that: (1) the NASA cost estimate of $30 billion for the station did not include some cost elements attributable to the space station program; (2) some large NASA programs threaten to consume increasing shares of the agency's annual appropriations; (3) over $11.2 billion has been appropriated for the space station and related development through fiscal year 1993; (4) in fiscal years 1998 through 2000, all shuttle flights will be dedicated to assembling or using the existing space station design; (5) the space station program is not maintaining financial reserves to offset unanticipated program requirements, cost growth, and schedule delays; and (6) increased cost estimates for the current space station design exceed the reserves for the next 3 years.”

A 1991 artist's concept of Space Station Freedom. Image source: Wikipedia.

It was during this time that Barbara Boxer, an up-and-coming representative from Marin County, California, chaired a House hearing titled, “Costs of Space Station Freedom.” Not having skin in the game, Boxer called the hearing to question the station's ballooning costs and if its benefits would justify the expense. Representing the Republican minority was Christopher Cox, also a California from Orange County; Cox went on to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission under President George W. Bush.

I posted the hearing on YouTube (embedded above) for your perusal because I thought it was yet another demonstration of why government human spaceflight programs struggle to be viable. Put another way ... nothing much has changed in 22 years.

The hearing's second hour was dedicated to a panel of five scientists. Four of them not only opposed Freedom, but human spaceflight in general. Only one, Dr. Robert Bayuzick of Vanderbilt University, argued in favor of a long-term orbiting human spaceflight research platform. Unlike the other four, he had actual experience flying microgravity experiments on the Space Shuttle, so he knew the potential. Dr. Bayuzick passed away on February 8, 2013.

The lesson I took from this segment was that NASA has always struggled to articulate tangible benefits from its human spaceflight program. Not even NASA Administrator Richard Truly, who was grilled by Boxer in the third hour, could articulate benefits that would be worth the cost. President Reagan stated in 1984, “We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain.” But did anyone ever bother to prove that was true? Did anyone ever question the cost, and if the “peaceful economic and scientific gain” would be worth it?

That was the core question raised over and over by Boxer.

She made it clear several times during the hearing that she supported human spaceflight, but that support wasn't blind, nor did it mean giving NASA a blank check.

On July 31, I posted a blog article documenting five tangible medical benefits thanks to microgravity reseach. I have to wonder what Rep. Boxer, and the skeptical scientists, would have said if I could teleport to the hearing and tell them these benefits are not only tangible, but lots more are in the pipeline. How much would it be worth to find a cancer cure?

In an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits and sequestration, space advocates need to articulate direct and tangible benefits. Simply citing spinoffs isn't enough, because many of those might have happened anyway.

Barbara Boxer asked the tough questions we should be asking ourselves today. If we don't have the answers, then don't expect Congress to give NASA any more financial support than it did two decades ago.

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