The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.

The Ying and the Yang of a Space Exploration Crisis

During an economic crisis, space exploration takes a back seat. Perhaps it should be a priority...

During an economic crisis, space exploration takes a back seat. Perhaps it should be a priority...

So, what should the US administration do with the space program during an international economic crisis?

A: Make cutbacks, save money and ride out the storm.
B: Boost science and research funding, invest in innovation to provide a viable future investment.

If you chose A, that appears to be the root of NASA. If you chose B, that reflects the recent decision by the European member states to fully-fund the European Space Agency for 2009. It is the ying and yang of space funding policy. On the one hand, there is politically motivated (short-sighted) budget cuts regardless of the importance of the endeavour. On the the other hand, there is the “investment in the future” mindset.

Granted, we are talking about two very different space agencies. NASA is a government agency, ESA is a multinational organization. NASA is politically motivated, ESA less so. NASA’s budget dwarfs the ESA budget. These may be important factors, but the President-elect transition team should be looking beyond US shores for an answer to the current space exploration crisis.

So why a “crisis”? Am I jumping on the media hyped world in crisis scenario? After all, we have the mortgage crisis, the economic crisis, the Iraq/Afghanistan crisis, environment crisis, stock market crisis, healthcare crisis, employment crisis… the list is endless. However, not once have I ever heard that there was an impending “space exploration crisis”, or even a “science crisis” (I’d argue the science crisis has been rolling for the past decade in the West – misinformation rules. Case and point the Evolution/Creationism debate… debate? There’s a debate?).

A crisis is often viewed as a short-lived event that will eventually be fixed. The housing markets will recover (in one way or another; note “recover” and not “boom”), we’ll eventually get troops out of Iraq, the stock markets will continue to wax and wane; in short, the things that are causing the most panic right now will eventually right themselves. History has shown that us humans, although vulnerable to economic panic, have the recurring ability to bounce back to equilibrium. Sometimes it can get messy, but we usually get through it.

However, a space exploration crisis isn’t quite as simple.

Political Impetus

Apollo 8 launches - The most powerful launch system ever used. Intimidating (NASA)

Apollo had a strong political impetus. What does Constellation have? (NASA)

President-elect Barack Obama has hinted many times that he intends to cut NASA’s budget in some way. At first it was to pay for education reform, a worthy cause, but now it seems that NASA’s plan to get man back to the Moon, and then Mars, was hopelessly flawed from the start. Obama’s transition team are noticing the cracks and they will have to react. NASA cannot build an entirely new launch system and fund an aggressive manned planetary exploration campaign without a huge injection of capital. As the Apollo Project taught us in the 1960′s, there needs to be a huge political impetus to free up funds for manned spaceflight. Back then, the impetus was Communism and the Cold War. Today, what is the political impetus? To get man into space because “it’s there”? To show the world the US space agency can still make the planet vibrate with the biggest and most powerful rocket system built by man? To explore space because that’s what we should do? Unfortunately, President Bush’s vision for manned spaceflight isn’t backed up with the promise of increased funding, and that is what is required to make Constellation work.

If the US had a viable enemy to demoralize, it would be a slam-dunk for NASA when asking for a cash injection. The argument would be: We need a strategic base on the Moon, and we need to build an infrastructure in space for the first manned mission to Mars. This would have the political goal of “beating the other guy”. As my grandfather used to say, politics is a game of “my stick is bigger than yours.” And William Berry would be 100% right.

Take the Iraq war for example. To stem the actions of international state-funded terror, President Bush set forth a campaign of “shock and awe” to intimidate this faceless evil. It wasn’t the fact the Allies had the technological advantage of dropping bombs through toilet windows in downtown Baghdad, it was the overwhelming firepower by which we hinged our plan of victory. Did it work? Well, yes, for a short time. As to why the region is still in a mess five years on? I’ll leave that debate for history to decide.

The point is, the White House and Congress requires a goal to be achieved to free up funds. Until that happens, NASA will just be “another government agency”. Currently, no other nation can match the US in technological or strategic advantage. The USA is the world’s only superpower, her strength is global, with military bases spread throughout every continent. When you sit in the #1 spot for long enough, you can afford to be a little complacent, but just be aware competition for that #1 slot can appear from nowhere and could snatch a critical strategic advantage from you at any moment.

Alas, should NASA’s budget be eroded any further, that strategic advantage could be low-Earth orbit and, potentially, the Moon. It’s one thing dominating the globe, but if China or Russia leapfrogs the US for a dominance in the Solar System, it could spell disaster for the world’s only superpower and could spark a situation more reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961. Think about it, rather than having nuclear weapon silos appear off the coast of Florida, other nations could operate with impunity in the space above the US. This might not be a reality now, but who knows what is going to happen in ten years.

Political Incentive for Manned Access to Space

Ares I on its Cape Canaveral launch pad (NASA)

Ares I on its Cape Canaveral launch pad. Probably not in 2015 (NASA)

Whether we like it or not, politics is deeply ingrained in the mindset of space exploration. Fortunately there is an emerging commercial motivation behind the exploration of space, but the key to a nations success in space is still in the hands of government agencies. Government-funded agencies are subject to political decisions, so world events and international relations directly influence our endeavours in space.

NASA’s future is on a knife-edge and this could severely damage the US future in space. To depend on another nation for manned access to the space station beyond 2010 is not a solution to the Shuttle decommissioning, it is a quick fix with huge problems. Delaying (or cancelling) the completion of the Constellation Project would be a disaster to the future of the US, and not only in space. There will be severe ramifications for a lack of space exploration development; economic, political and sociological, many of which we will not be able to predict until they happen.

Unfortunately, NASA lacks the political incentive to push into space. Simply telling Congress that it is essential to maintain (and indeed advance) manned spaceflight is not enough. As a manned spaceflight advocate, I’d argue that it is a priority to get man back to the Moon and then onto Mars, for the long-term survival of our species (I’m not a big fan of putting all my eggs in one basket, i.e. Earth). Alas, this isn’t how politics works. Such a proposition will be viewed with complacency and short-term (4-year) thinking. How would such an endeavour help the current administration? Not a lot, but as a long-term goal of survival, we need to find ways to unlock funds allocated to more pressing concerns.

Manned exploration, and colonization, of the Solar System is mankind’s next step of evolution, but without recognition of the benefits to the US and mankind as a whole, NASA’s budget will always be up for review and eroded until a political answer is found.

Let’s just hope it’s not too late for NASA, and let’s hope Obama’s transition team can see past the mismanagement allegations blighting the space agency. I hope the value of manned spaceflight is realised for the long-term health of the economy (as ESA has pointed out) and the long-term survival of mankind.

For more on NASA’s transition turmoil, check out my Universe Today article What About the Space Exploration Crisis? NASA Budget Could be Cut to Save Money.

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14 responses to “The Space Exploration Crisis

  1. Great post Ian!

    My greatest fear however is not that the US will be setback due to economic woes (as we are in a lot better shape than most of Europe, China, Russia, Japan, etc.) but rather all of the current (and aspiring) space powers will delay launching (and building) a lunar colony due to economic woes.

    As far as I can see it, no lunar base equals no Mars colony, as many politicians (both the US and internationally) are hesitant about reaching out to the red planet (as it would be a lot more expensive with a lower return of investment–at least in the short term).

  2. Hi Darnell!

    I actually think that the political motivation especially for China far outweighs the economic risk. Although most of her population is below the poverty line, China will keep pushing for an extended manned presence in space. Looking at the accelerated progress they’ve made since 2003, I’m waiting for the announcement that they have assembled the crew for a lunar landing! Well, perhaps not yet, but the next decade will be very telling… Isn’t it odd how everything seems to be converging on the next 10 years?

    Oh well… I’m just hoping NASA doesn’t get too hammered in this round of cuts, I think it’s guaranteed that something will get cut…

    Thnaks for stopping by mate!

    Cheers, Ian

  3. I am sorry to say I expect the US to continue to fall behind in space exploration…History is just repeating itself.

    All empires rise to power and expand their territories. In the case of America we were going into space since it was the only unclaimed real estate. But like all the other great powers of the past the expansion is forced to stop due to “social spending” at home. America’s expansion ended in the early 70′s when the Apollo missions were canceled to pay for expanding Social Security, Medicare, Welfare….

    History will show American hit it peak in 1972-1974 and started its decline due to out of control, wasteful government spending that continues to this day.

  4. The fact is that someone will be out there trying to push forward with the future of humanity… and even though i live in America, I can’t necessarily say that Americans would be the best people to colonize space and beyond. Perhaps its not such a bad thing.
    As you said, the problem is funding. Though the ESA is dramatically under-funded when compared to NASA, they are still able to make progress. Perhaps the budget restriction will help them to think more economically, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
    NASA has been famous for inventing new products and methods, but that was the 60′s. In the modern world, leave the research and development to the private companies, and let NASA do what it was designed to do. Get man off the planet.
    Great article Ian! :)

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  6. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is how the bureaucrats in the government see NASA. To them, it has long outlived its original purpose which was to get to the Moon before the Soviet Union. With its mission fulfilled, it exists on their good graces and since they care nothing about space exploration, they see cutting NASA’s budget as telling the kids to put the toys away and go do their homework.

    It’s sad when lawyers and cynical pragmatists can boss around creative scientists and researchers, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what we have.

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  9. Thanks for writing and posting this. I think this next decade is crucial; either humankind will begin its move off this planet and it will be possible for humans to thrive in civilized style, or we will regress inwards, refusing the energy and resources of space, retreating to expensive energy, poverty, and war over dwindling resources, until the next big rock takes out the remnants of civilization.

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  11. I have a problem with the hidden assumptions of this article. There are two related assumptions which I think warrant examination. First, the assumption that the Constellation program will advance US space exploration and that space exploration is extremely important. Second, that everything gets better with more funding.

    Here’s an illuminating question. In a century, what do you want the US’s activities in space to look like? I doubt that you wish things to look like they currently do. Namely, that most activity in space is government funded and that this funding consumes a couple percent (including military spending) of the US budget and generates at best one percent or so of US economic activity. Or that all exploration is conducted from Earth’s surface with a few visits here and there to space.

    For me, I see it in more or less purely economic terms. As long as space activity including exploration depends on government funding, then it is going to continue to languish as it has for the past 50 years. The only way to grow a US presence in space is to find ways to make money in space that doesn’t rely on government funding. In other words, private enterprise in space is self-funding.

    Here’s the problem. The current Constellation plan does not create many opportunities for private enterprise and it closes the most important opportunity, launch services. Ares I competes directly with the Delta IV and the Atlas V. For that reason alone, I oppose the Ares program.

    Further, the Ares program is poorly thought out as a project. The Ares V, the heavy lift vehicle that could lift more than the Saturn V (of the Apollo program) is the meat of Ares development, but even prior to the delays in development it wasn’t scheduled to start flying till 2018. That’s because a bunch of cost and unnecessary development is frontloaded in the Ares I (whose schedule has slipped four years in the past three), and gives plenty of time for the program to be canceled before anything genuinely productive can occur.

    In other words, I don’t think the costs and benefits of the Constellation program have been properly considered in your story. It’s not clear to me that Constellation actually has positive benefit due to the Ares I and its damaging effect on the US space launch industry.

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