CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
April 23, 2011 – 9:15 p.m.
Grounding an American Dream
By Keith Perine, CQ Staff
Government programs rarely die. But they do fade away. Look no further than NASA’s human spaceflight venture, a perennially underfunded enterprise noteworthy for being high up on public opinion survey lists of optional government expenditures for years.
Nobody’s ready to declare that the U.S. manned spaceflight program is over for good. But it’s about to take a break that could last for years. The scheduled April 29 launch of the space shuttle Endeavour is the next-to-last voyage for the aging shuttle fleet. The final flight, of the Atlantis orbiter, is planned for June. While NASA supporters in Congress are pushing hard for a replacement vehicle and have engaged the Obama administration in what promises to be a long argument over NASA, no one knows when a NASA astronaut will leave Earth again on an American spacecraft.
This fade-away took its own sweet time — more than three decades. Indeed, even as the public watched in wonder as the first shuttle shook the earth, lifted off and reached orbit exactly 30 years ago this month, policy makers were questioning the basic purpose, the value and especially the cost of the human spaceflight program.
The old doubts did not sideline the program. Instead, it suffered from benign neglect at the hands of Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses alike, as well as the public. But, now, while the program may be fading, the fights over it will not, as members of Congress cling to shuttle-related projects in their districts, and as politicians continue to see manned space flight as a source of national pride and economic competitiveness.
Ever since the Apollo program ended almost 40 years ago, NASA’s spaceflight efforts have been hamstrung by tight budgets, buffeted by competing political priorities and twice marred by catastrophes from which the agency took years to recover.
The agency’s budget has been fading away, too. It peaked in the mid-1960s, when it constituted about 4 percent of the overall federal budget. But it fell quickly after that, and it has hovered at around 1 percent of the total budget since the mid-1970s.
Everyone has liked having a spaceflight program — but not enough to spend the kind of money required to sustain an endeavor as expensive, complex and dangerous as pushing humans beyond the atmosphere.
“It’s not dear enough to us to open the public treasury to the tune of about 5 percent of the federal budget,” says Roger Launius, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
“Everybody thinks space is a good thing to do, but it’s expendable in tough economic times,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a national security professor at the Naval War College.
For more than a year, President Obama and Congress have been at odds over the future direction of the spaceflight program.
Last year, Obama proposed what he considers a less expensive alternative, a wholesale shift away from government-run spaceflight toward a privatized system. Rather than paying for costly facilities to maintain costly equipment, the agency would simply be a customer, paying for seats and cargo bays on privately maintained spacecraft to fly to the International Space Station.
Grounding an American Dream
He proposed canceling the Constellation program, the agency’s effort to develop follow-on spacecraft for the shuttles, saying in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center last year that this was the best way of ensuring that NASA could invest in new technologies with an eye toward launching ambitious exploration missions.
The administration sees a future in space too. It has set the goal of launching human spaceflight missions beyond the moon by 2025 — perhaps to an asteroid — and sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s. But it’s not clear how or when those goals will be met.
NASA’s strongest supporters in Congress, many of them from states that stand to lose jobs from Obama’s approach, pushed back hard to keep NASA in the human spaceflight business.
At a House committee hearing a few weeks after Obama submitted his proposal, Rep.
NASA’s allies made sure that most of the funds included in the agency’s fiscal 2011 budget for space exploration will go toward NASA’s continued development of a new rocket and capsule for human flight. But earlier this year, the agency said a similar amount in a 2010 NASA authorization bill wasn’t enough.
To be sure, NASA does other things besides human spaceflight. Its satellites study the planet, and its telescopes and unmanned spacecraft peer far into the galaxy. But the manned spaceflight program has accounted for a big part of the agency’s budget, and it is what has captivated congressional backers and the public for decades.
“Nobody throws a parade for robots,” says Johnson-Freese.
The Apollo program, which put men on the moon, concluded the first act in manned spaceflight. But “there hasn’t been a second act for space,” says Howard McCurdy, an American University professor with an expertise in space policy. “It’s been a one-act play so far.”
Following on Apollo
The Apollo mission had a very different tenor than any other NASA spaceflight effort.
The order to go to the moon came from President John F. Kennedy. It was clear and specific in its goals, although its purposes were many and included beating the Russians at the height of the Cold War and making the young president look bold and daring.
“The reality is the Apollo program was part of a broad-based mobilization effort in the United States to best the Soviet Union in the Cold War,” Launius says. “It was viewed as war by other means, in the same way foreign aid was viewed as war by other means.”
Grounding an American Dream
The men who undertook the Apollo missions were anything but robots. They were folk heroes whose names fell from Americans’ lips with the sort of ease that is now afforded only to movie stars and professional athletes.
It’s impossible to know whether NASA would actually have met Kennedy’s goal if he had lived. As it was, after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, the lunar program was enshrined as his legacy.
“The reason we did Apollo was because Kennedy decided it was in the country’s interest,” said John Logsdon, a George Washington University professor. “And once he was killed, it became a memorial to him and basically untouchable.”
Spurred by Kennedy’s vision, Congress invested heavily in NASA’s Apollo program. The agency was given a clearly defined goal, and the resources to match. In fact, it was the only time in which NASA’s spaceflight vision and its budget have aligned, the only time that the agency didn’t have to make decisions based on how much money it could wring out of Congress.
But it’s one thing to aspire to the heavens, another to reach that goal — and yet another thing altogether to actually shell out the money to stay there. After collecting 842 pounds of moon rock samples in several missions from 1969 to 1972, the Apollo program ended in 1972.
“After Apollo it’s just this shoestring, keep-things-moving kind of approach. There’s no long-term strategy, because the strategic purpose was gone,” Johnson-Freese says.
Origin of the Shuttle
When the world was watching grainy images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon in 1969, it would have been hard for anyone glued to a black-and-white television set to imagine that by 2011 the space agency would not have sent astronauts any farther into the solar system. And the notion that, four decades later, NASA would lose the ability to put humans into space at all would have been dismissed as laughable.
NASA had hoped to follow Apollo with an ambitious program of exploration and colonization. The agency envisioned space stations in orbit around Earth and the moon and on the lunar surface. As part of those overall plans, NASA proposed building a reusable space vehicle to ferry astronauts and cargo into space.
The proposal got scant attention from Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was embroiled in the Vietnam War and contentious domestic politics. After he succeeded Johnson, Richard Nixon showed little appetite for another costly, Kennedyesque space endeavor.
But the Cold War was still on, and it would have been politically unpalatable for Nixon to cede manned spaceflight to the Russians altogether, on the heels of the Apollo triumph. So at the beginning of 1972, Nixon signed off on the shuttle.
NASA had projected the cost of a reusable launcher and orbiter at $14 billion. Lawmakers balked at that price tag. So did Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget, which told NASA it would have to make do with $5.5 billion. That meant design changes, including two solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank.
Grounding an American Dream
To help sell the Nixon administration and Congress on the shuttle, NASA pitched the idea of a fleet that would travel to space frequently — as many as five launches a month by the early 1990s. The shuttle was positioned as America’s only way to get either astronauts or payloads, including military ones, into space.
The constrained budget and NASA’s ambitious plans for the shuttle forced the agency to make design decisions, partly to satisfy the military’s need for a “cross-range” craft that could fly east or west after re-entering the atmosphere.
“As advertised in 1972, the shuttle was going to be routine, inexpensive and safe,” Logsdon said. “And it was none of those three.”
Still, for the first few years of shuttle flights, NASA tried to portray them as routine. Democratic Sen.
A couple of weeks later, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was part of the crew for a Challenger flight. NASA planned to send up a reporter on a subsequent voyage.
But those plans, and the entire shuttle program, changed when Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch. Images of excited children in classrooms across America were replaced by images of the shuttle’s destruction, replayed over and over on national television.
The shuttle drew unprecedented scrutiny as a result of the accident, including a televised hearing by an independent commission and a damning report about the culture at the agency that produced a wholesale shake-up.
But as Kennedy’s death helped propel Apollo, the Challenger tragedy seemed to propel the shuttle.
As he mourned the death of the seven Challenger crew members, President Ronald Reagan felt the need to call for more, not fewer, shuttle flights. “Nothing ends here,” he said. “Our hopes and our journeys continue.”
The accident grounded the shuttle fleet for 32 months, and there was no more talk of teachers and reporters hitching rides. Before the shuttles started flying again, the Reagan administration decided that they also would no longer carry commercial satellites or military payloads.
And any romance attached to the shuttle fleet vanished on the cold winter morning when Challenger was destroyed.
The End of the Shuttle
The real turning point for NASA came in 2003, when the Columbia orbiter disintegrated over the United States during re-entry. A blue-ribbon commission that studied the catastrophe had little trouble identifying the cause: Superheated gases had entered a hole along the left wing caused by a piece of foam that had fallen off the external fuel tank during launch. But the board also drew another, equally damning conclusion: that the shuttle fleet to which NASA had devoted its spaceflight energies for 30 years should be replaced.
Grounding an American Dream
“Because of the risks inherent in the original design of the space shuttle, because that design was based on many aspects of now-obsolete technologies, and because the shuttle is now an aging system but still developmental in character, it is in the nation’s interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible as the primary means for transporting humans to and from Earth orbit,” the board announced in its August 2003 report.
Budget woes infected plans for replacing the shuttle as well. President George W. Bush responded to the post-Columbia commission’s report in 2004 with an ambitious plan, dubbed the Vision for Space Exploration. Under it, the shuttle fleet would be retired by 2010, and NASA would go back to sending astronauts into space in crew capsules on top of rockets. Robots would go to the moon by 2008, and humans would go by 2020, in preparation for further missions to Mars and other destinations.
NASA attempted to fulfill Bush’s vision with what became known as the Constellation program, including a set of rockets, a crew capsule and a lunar lander. But NASA’s assumptions about program funding didn’t match up with the money it got from Congress. Between the lack of funding and technical issues that arose in the design process, the deadlines for Constellation components slipped.
“The problem was that NASA, in the intervening years, was starved of money, and the new rocket wasn’t ready for flight by the time the space shuttle was being shut down,” said Nelson, who rode on the shuttle as a young congressman in 1986 and who is the spaceflight program’s most prominent congressional defender.
During its three decades of flight, the shuttles revolutionized space travel. They were the first reusable spacecraft. NASA used them to launch satellites, launch and repair the massive Hubble Space Telescope, and build the International Space Station. In the early years of the shuttle fleet, the orbiters were used to conduct scientific experiments in several fields, including fluid physics and astronomy. They sometimes carried a portable space laboratory, Spacelab, that was developed with the European Space Agency. The shuttles were able not only to launch satellites and other spacecraft but to retrieve them as well.
Obama inherited a spaceflight program in disarray. He commissioned another blue-ribbon study, known as the Augustine commission after its chairman, former Lockheed Martin Corp. CEO Norman Augustine. In August 2009, six years after the Columbia accident report, the Augustine commission concluded that the Constellation program had “faced a mismatch between funding and program content” since it began.
The commission recommended a series of options for human spaceflight rather than any single path forward. But it also flatly concluded that space exploration beyond low Earth orbit wasn’t possible under NASA’s fiscal 2010 funding level, and that the agency needed $3 billion more per year if it was to conduct “meaningful human exploration.”
Several months later, Obama roiled the space community with his fiscal 2011 budget proposal for NASA. The president proposed canceling Constellation and devoting substantially more money to funding independent efforts by the private sector. Obama also wanted to boost funding for technological research and development on things such as propulsion systems, to lay a new groundwork for future long-distance space exploration.
Obama’s critics often accuse him of being too fond of government solutions to the nation’s problems. But his fiscal 2011 budget proposal for NASA represented a wholesale shift away from government-run spaceflight to low Earth orbit and toward a privatized system.
Obama highlighted the shift in his April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center. He also defended his decision to cancel Constellation as the best option for ensuring that NASA eventually could launch ambitious exploration missions with finite resources. He declared that he was “100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future.” And Obama outlined his own lofty vision for future space travel.
“Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite,” Obama declared.
A new batch of companies has sprung up alongside the traditional NASA contractors to compete for “commercial crew” services. The leading such company, Space Exploration Technologies — SpaceX for short — was founded in 2002 by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. Last December, SpaceX became the first private company in history to launch a vehicle into low Earth orbit and recover it. (Private sector, p. 918)
SpaceX and another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., already have contracts with NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station after the shuttle fleet has retired.
Grounding an American Dream
But lawmakers aren’t convinced that SpaceX and other prospective commercial carriers are going to be able to ferry astronauts safely within the next few years. They have defied Obama by forbidding the agency to get out of the rocket-building business altogether. That’s too radical a departure from NASA’s path for the agency’s congressional backers to stomach.
Within several weeks after Obama’s dramatic proposal last year, Nelson and his Senate allies forced the president to make a major concession: Although Constellation would be canceled, NASA would retain development of two of its key elements, a heavy-lift rocket for traveling beyond low Earth orbit and a crew capsule.
NASA pledged to find the money for the new rocket and capsule within the president’s fiscal 2011 request. But lawmakers, particularly in the House, were skeptical.
“It does no good to cancel a program that the administration characterizes as ‘unexecutable’ if that program is simply replaced with a new plan that can’t be executed either,” said the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, Democrat Bart Gordon of Tennessee, at a May 2010 hearing.
Nelson and Texas Republican
Nelson and Hutchison pushed their bill through the Senate last August and persuaded reluctant House Democrats to clear it in September.
But even before it got its final fiscal 2011 appropriation figure, NASA issued a blunt warning in January that the funds authorized for the new rocket and capsule in Nelson’s bill were not sufficient. “The cost and operational capability of the systems must be sustainable over multiple administrations and multiple Congresses,” the agency told lawmakers. “Any designs selected also must meet the test of being realistic — not relying on assumptions of increased funding or other ‘miracles’ for attainment.”
Nelson, Hutchison and their Senate allies fired back in a joint statement making it clear that they expected NASA to stay on track this time. “The production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It’s the law,” the senators declared. “NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently — and it must be a priority.”
In the final fiscal 2011 spending bill, NASA got $18.5 billion— less than the $18.7 billion it received for fiscal 2010 and less than the $19 billion Obama had wanted. But in today’s climate, that counts as emerging unscathed. Lawmakers allocated $3.8 billion for space exploration, but they specified that $3 billion of that was to be spent on NASA’s new rocket and capsule.
NASA officials plan to deliver by June a final report to Congress about how it intends to develop that new equipment.
So human spaceflight — NASA style — remains in doubt now more than ever in the 50-year history of the space program. A critical question is: Do Americans care?
Grounding an American Dream
Historically, Americans have loved exploration and tales of exploration, real and fictional. Portrayals of humans on the moon preceded actual humans on the moon by at least a century, with Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.”
The fruits of the program — advances in science and engineering — are numerous. The Air and Space Museum in Washington is among the most visited museums on the planet.
But support for the space program, while always intense and consistent among certain groups, has been shaky when money is tight, with polls showing that the space program is seen as a place to cut.
Launius points to old polling data showing that the level of public support for sending men to the moon held steady, around 40 percent, from 1961 to 1995. But, he notes, public opinion polls in the 1960s, during the height of the space race, showed that spaceflight was always near the top of the list of programs Americans would cut in favor of other priorities.
A CNN poll from last August showed that things haven’t changed all that much: Forty-nine percent of respondents said the shuttle has been a worthwhile and important program, but 50 percent said the money would have been better spent on other things.
But that doesn’t mean the public would necessarily go along with killing the spaceflight program outright.
“Saying we’re not going to do this thing or we’re no longer going to do this thing is stepping back from our great-nation status, and I don’t think the public would go along,” Launius says.
“I think public fascination with spaceflight has fallen off, but I think that is a natural process,” says Michael Robinson, a history professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Robinson said that during American exploration of the polar regions in 1850s, the first expeditions were “unbelievably popular, and the first explorers were superstars; they were celebrities as popular as Neil Armstrong. But over time, like anything, when you’re exposed to anything over and over, you become kind of desensitized to it. So that interest falls off.”
For as long as men have been going into space, we’ve been debating whether there’s any real reason to send them there.
“I think you can only justify the cost of human spaceflight, particularly exploration to Mars, on the basis of expanding new frontiers, on the basis of non-quantitative, esoteric arguments,” says Lockheed Martin’s Augustine, adding, “Great nations take on great challenges, they do this kind of thing. But I don’t think you build an economic argument for it.”
Proponents also say NASA needs to keep its human spaceflight program so that the United States can keep being a leader in international space policy.
“I think that part of the urgency, if you will, is not a political race, but the fact that the world is developing and other people are going to be operating and working in space, and if we want to have influence over how the international rules develop and how relationships in this high-tech world develop, then we have to be there,” says Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
Grounding an American Dream
But even though the public is half-hearted at best about the spaceflight program, it would be tough for lawmakers to end it completely. While the program has been allowed to languish, its bipartisan supporters in Congress feel more passionately about maintaining it than other lawmakers do about ending it.
The Cold War is over, but NASA’s congressional backers still invoke the same kind of “us vs. them” argument, saying we can’t simply abandon manned spaceflight and allow other nations’ efforts, especially those of Russia and China, to proceed without us. “Space is America’s military high ground,” said Florida Republican
Much as it has for the last 40 years, that argument, an equal mix of national security and national prestige, will insulate NASA’s human spaceflight program from outright elimination. But a tough fiscal climate and a lack of sustained public interest in the program will leave the program where it has languished for decades: without a sustainable vision, and a shadow of its former self.
FOR FURTHER READING: Fiscal 2011 NASA appropriation, CQ Weekly, p. 865; House clears NASA authorization bill, 2010 CQ Weekly, p. 2296; president’s fiscal 2011 budget request, 2010 CQ Weekly, p. 1269.