ICYMI: Let the Games Begin

August 31, 2011

When presidential candidate Barack Obama first mentioned his stance on space policy, he spoke of the NASA budget as a perfect offset for additional education spending. Later, when he realized that he had to win Florida, he changed his tune. But it came as little surprise to those of us watching this issue that the first NASA budget he submitted to Congress effectively dismantled the nation’s human spaceflight program. And it should come as no surprise to us now that, despite his signature on the NASA Authorization Act of 2011 and subsequent appropriations legislation to provide funding for the nation’s next steps in space, the administration continues to flaunt congressional intent and law, refusing to move forward on any sequel to the space shuttle.

President Obama canceled Constellation, the program that would have followed the space shuttle, in favor of randomly funded science, technology and commercial space ventures, without a clear path forward or even a destination for our astronauts. As a result, America is left with no clear vision for human space exploration, and billions of taxpayer dollars will be wasted. 

Congress rejected this path, putting forth its own plan for a more cost-effective heavy-lift vehicle (the Space Launch System, or SLS) and a crew capsule (the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV) with the capability to return humankind to low Earth orbit and the international space station, and then move beyond to real exploration — the Moon or an asteroid and, ultimately, Mars.

The president signed this plan into law, twice. Yet somehow we are shocked — shocked! — when Obama’s NASA continues to use delaying tactics and financial reprogramming tricks to diminish SLS funding. This administration has done everything in its power to undermine our nation’s human spaceflight program and the thousands of dedicated employees who have spent their lives in the quest to keep America the greatest spacefaring nation in the world.

To be clear, Congress has authorized and appropriated $1.8 billion for SLS to date. Yet less than $200 million has so far reached the program office assigned to design and build the new rocket.

Meanwhile, this administration has set a new standard in bureaucratic obstructionism. It continues to order architecture studies that fail to deliver anything substantially different from earlier studies (good engineering never really changes); to deliver incomplete reports to Congress, even under subpoena, although the materials are readily available; to order alternate cost estimates, although cost estimates are typically done in concert with the architecture studies themselves; to misdirect the inputs to an “independent” cost analysis, although other credible cost inputs remain available; and to shift the blame for program delays to other offices of the White House, although these delays could have easily been avoided.

Ultimately, this administration, which was clear in its opposition to human spaceflight even prior to the 2008 elections, is determined to ensure that the rocket it agreed to build will never be affordable, by undermining the SLS’s mission and raiding the rocket’s funding for other purposes. In fact, more than $340 million appropriated for SLS is today being spent on anything but the rocket.

The administration’s actions go beyond simple mismanagement of the program. They amount to a smear campaign, with convenient leaking of derogatory and misleading information to the press, to undermine public support for the program. On Aug. 5, the Orlando Sentinel cited internal NASA documents detailing a $38 billion estimate for a “new NASA moon rocket.” This estimate is entirely out of line with previous projections and good management practice. Even if correct, such documents would normally be extremely sensitive and available only to NASA leadership. Their release offers yet another example of the tiresome Washington game of leaking a highly biased story in order to set the terms for an upcoming debate. Fortunately, Congress understands this, and has submitted a formal subpoena for the factual data.

What is the source of these inflated estimates? The $38 billion estimate was most likely developed using unrealistic schedule estimates, overly taxed budget allocations and suboptimal development sequencing and with NASA overhead being disproportionally charged to the exploration budget line — in other words, a mismanaged program. The inflated numbers and the overall negative tone of the article indicate the intention by the administration to redebate the president’s failed fiscal 2011 budget proposal, which Congress has rejected.

The only way to reach that $38 billion total is by slowing SLS to a snail’s pace, well below the authorized and appropriated funding levels, and far below the “critical mass” that every well-executed program needs. And this is exactly what was done. NASA’s internal documentation shows the SLS budget assumed by the administration would spend only $1.2 billion per year through 2025, far below the $2.65 billion peak authorized in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and the $1.8 billion appropriated by Congress in 2011. 

But as the program stretches out, it still must absorb its share of the cost of running NASA, an agency with 10 centers and some 24,000 employees (including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory). These fixed costs consume approximately $7 billion per year. This is what it costs to own our national space agency. These internal taxes, when applied to a program that has been slowed to a crawl, maximize cost growth at the expense of hardware development. Under the administration’s scenario, the entire exploration budget would be capped at $3 billion for the next 13 years — including SLS, MPCV and ground operations. Within that allocation, NASA’s $1.2 billion capped-budget approach results in only one test flight of a 70-metric ton rocket in 2017, without the critical upper stage, and a four-year gap until the next 70-metric ton test flight in 2021, with one flight every other year thereafter. Under this plan, NASA essentially never completes development of the 130-metric ton rocket specifically mandated by the 2010 Authorization Act and appropriations law.

Let me be clear: While flagrant and outrageous, this is and has always been the administration’s goal.

If we assume a more realistic funding profile, one that is consistent with existing law, we can deliver a human spaceflight system that is affordable, realistic and will continue to keep America pre-eminent in space with the return of human spaceflight by 2017.

If NASA were to adopt an approach that funds SLS at $1.6 billion per year (well within authorized and appropriated amounts), such a program would enable:

  • A test flight of a 70-metric ton rocket in 2017 (core plus solid boosters — no upper stage).
  • A deep-space-capable SLS (130-metric tons with upper stage) by the end of this decade with flights each year thereafter.
  • A lower-cost, higher-performance booster stage — selected through full and open competition — ready in the 2020 time frame.

There are some true heroes at NASA who are clearly focused on affordability and sustainability. They should be commended for their innovation and their approach, which is closer to what Congress approved and the president signed into law.

Unfortunately, this administration is focused on killing human spaceflight by the death of a thousand cuts. Its plan wastes money, unnecessarily targets NASA’s highly skilled work force, jeopardizes future national security and, most importantly, cedes U.S. space leadership for the next two decades. The mischaracterized $38 billion estimate and the uninspiring schedule estimates that go with it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if NASA continues to dither. Meanwhile, the work force and the industrial base are being decimated by the administration’s political poker games and general lack of leadership.

There is an old saying that when you have the letter of the law on your side, argue the law; when you don’t have the law on your side, argue the spirit. Where NASA is concerned, the Obama administration has neither — and doesn’t seem to care.

Let the games begin.

Michael D. Griffin, a professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, was NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009.

To read on the Space News website, click here.

To see video of recent remarks made by Mr. Griffin on this subject, click here.