Special Guest Blogger: Tom Bozzo!
Just don't get used to it. I'll probably be back tomorrow. Well, or else it'll be Slag or the TDEC.
Mission to Nowhere: NASA's Unpleasant Budgetary Arithmetic
Space buffs once greeted NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's nomination to head the agency with an enthusiasm not commonly associated with Bush political appointees. In contrast to the usual qualifications of crony or flunky, Griffin was, as one profile noted, an actual rocket scientist in his previous life. Prior to the NASA appointment, Griffin headed the department of Johns Hopkins U.'s Applied Physics Laboratory which, among other things, is responsible for the very worthy New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Six months ago, Griffin set out to reassure Congress that the Bush "vision" of returning astronauts to the moon and then sending them on to Mars wouldn't divert so much as "one thin dime" from NASA's space science programs. Ominously, if not surprisingly, this was only going to be possible in the branch of mathematics that enables the administration's 1-1=5 budget arithmetic.
There were a few other warning signs for the alert. The OMB page for the FY2006 NASA budget featured a picture of the launch of the pathbreaking X-43 hypersonic research aircraft, which shattered speed records for powered flight using air-breathing engines; the funding for follow-on phases originally planned for the X-43 program previously had been cut. It also declined to mention the termination of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which was to be the flagship robotic mission for exploration of the outer solar system for conditions that might harbor extraterrestrial life or shed light on the origins of life on Earth, but the funding was gone all the same.
Reality then dawned in the FY2007 NASA budget request, the hardcore spacers went berserk, and even the New York Times had to take notice of the about-face in as harsh terms as you'll see in an elite media lede:
Some of the most highly promoted missions on NASA's scientific agenda would be postponed indefinitely or perhaps even canceled under the agency's new budget, despite its administrator's vow to Congress six months ago that not "one thin dime" would be taken from space science to pay for President Bush's plan to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars.The NYT's math is a bit curious, as Bush budgets only project expenditures over a 5-year horizon, so there are only four years — FY07-FY10 — over which proposed future expenditures can be compared between the FY06 and FY07 budget requests. NASA's budget is organized around program "themes." Over those four years, the Bush FY07 budget would knock $300 million out of the "Universe" theme (including cosmology and planet-hunting missions), slash a whopping $4.3 billion from the solar system exploration theme (a 38% cut), and add only 2% to the "Earth-Sun" theme; the net cuts total $4.4 billion over the four budget years. Adding FY06 increases the cuts further, and FY11 is not a science bonanza.
The cuts come to $3 billion over the next five years, even as NASA's overall spending grows by 3.2 percent this year, to $16.8 billion.
As the Times noted:
Among the casualties in the budget, released last month, are efforts to look for habitable planets and perhaps life elsewhere in the galaxy, an investigation of the dark energy that seems to be ripping the universe apart, bringing a sample of Mars back to Earth and exploring for life under the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa — as well as numerous smaller programs and individual research projects that astronomers say are the wellsprings of new science and new scientists.Compare with the FY 2006 Budget statement:
The President’s 2006 Budget provides NASA with resources to pursue a program of exploration of the solar system and worlds beyond that not only will broaden scientific understanding of the Sun, Earth, and planets but also will inform decisions of where in the solar system human explorers should travel, the conditions they will endure, and the technologies necessary to support them... NASA will continue to operate prolific space telescopes such as Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer while planning for the next generation of spacecraft that will enhance our ability to find planets around other stars, peer deep into the history of the universe, and improve our understanding of its structure.Here's the '07 pitch for the JIMO cancellation:
The 2006 Budget terminated the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, the flagship mission of NASA’s space nuclear power program, because it was costly and not well aligned with the new focus on exploration. The 2007 Budget further trims the space nuclear program, which will continue as a research and development effort until its technologies are needed in later years.Expensive, yes. But "not well aligned with the new focus on exploration?" And funding cuts to a less-ambitious mission to Europa go unmentioned. Cue joke about the administration's relationship with "old Europe."
But, someone might say, maybe they should be funding robotic science missions, but at least they're going to get us to the Moon and Mars as a way of throwing some money at the aerospace/defense contracting community.
I say: Not so fast.
Somewhat less widely heralded is that the NASA budget plan also proposes deep cuts to themes that would enable technologies key to the long-duration human spaceflight required for interplanetary travel.
So the FY07 budget plan throws a large amount of "new" money at the re-invention of the Apollo program (previously reviewed by Slag)— $6.3 billion through 2010, an 83% increase over the FY06 projections — and enough money for a couple of blockbuster robotic probes at the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle in order to complete the International Space Station (were the administration only so concerned over its commitments to other countries regarding the environment and the treatment of prisoners of war!). But it does that in part by taking $3.6 billion from the "Exploration Systems" and particularly "Human Systems" research and technology themes over the next four years, a 50% cut overall and a 65% cut for the latter. What is the purpose of human systems R&T? Per the NASA budget document:
Programs within this Theme advance knowledge and technology critical for supporting long-term human survival and performance during operations beyond low-Earth orbit, with a focus on improving medical care and human health maintenance.In short, nothing you would need were you, say, to want to take long trips to the Moon or Mars.
So, to summarize for the less paranoid... Space science funding — whacked. Research for the President's own ostensible long-term space goals, however questionable — also whacked. Likely future pressure to keep a lid on discretionary spending by declining to restore these cuts once a domestic alternative to the Space Shuttle is available — enormous. While space science is arguably a better outlet for science pork than, say, ballistic missile defense, BMD is the religious icon for the ruling party.
That takes us back to Dr. Griffin. His CV includes stints working at NASA on the elder President Bush's Mars mission, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, and, before the recent APL stint, he was "chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, a private nonprofit enterprise funded by the Central Intelligence Agency to invest in companies developing leading-edge technologies." This is pretty high on the pixie dust. So perhaps Griffin is Bush's man for the job after all.
Until we get a vision transplant, though, it might be best to wish Sir Richard (and Burt Rutan) well.
Editor's Note: Any formatting glitches are strictly my fault.