The new Congress is going to face some very ugly budget choices, and be looking for savings wherever it can. There is little doubt that NASA will face serious scrutiny, even after the turmoil of the past nine months, since the Obama administration ineptly rolled out its budget request in February. While it’s a small slice of the pie (about half a percent in the current bloated federal budget, though many mistakenly imagine it much larger), it has very high visibility. Also, a great deal of mythology swirls around it, which is one of the reasons that good space policy has historically been hard to come by.
A best-case scenario may be a roll-back to 2008 levels ($17.3B, or a 9% reduction from the FY2011 request of $19B), as the Republican leadership has suggested as at least a first step in getting the overall budget under control. A worse one is a cut back to $15B (as rumors indicate will be the recommendation of the Deficit Commission), a 21% reduction. The worst, at least for those who favor manned spaceflight, is program cancellation entirely, though this is unlikely given international obligations for the International Space Station.
But in any event, something is going to have to give, and the current Congress, particularly the House, was unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary for NASA to have budgetarily sustainable plans, with demands for the “Space Launch System” — an unneeded heavy-lift vehicle — and business-as-usual at the agency, in which it continues to attempt to develop and operate its own unique systems to get its astronauts into orbit despite the many decades of failure to do so, at very high cost.
While the dominant cause of this is pork in the districts and states of authorizers and appropriators, it’s not the only one. Part of the mythology of the agency is that it is somehow important to national security for NASA to have its own unique means of getting astronauts into space. Some (and even some who should know better, on the Hill) imagine that it’s literally true, in the sense that there are secret military missions performed by NASA astronauts (there aren’t). Others see it as symbolic, harkening back to Apollo when it was a matter of international prestige in an existential Cold War with the Soviets. Either way, they cannot countenance the thought of NASA astronauts as passengers in commercial vehicles, though they do it with airlines every day, as do troops heading to fronts of wars.
But in the nation’s current fiscal straits, such indulgences are no longer affordable, and they hold us back from real progress. A year ago, the Augustine panel pointed out the disconnect between such NASA plans and the available budget, and the problem has only grown worse in the interim, despite the willingness of the Congress to ignore it with the NASA authorization bill it passed in late September.
Now that they are taking over the House, it is time, with respect to human spaceflight, for Republicans to grow up and start acting like the conservatives, fiscal and otherwise, they profess to be.