President's NASA Budget Proposal Signals Big Changes
It's not going to be business as usual. That is perhaps the only definitive thing we can say about President Obama's FY 2011 NASA proposal, released on Feb. 1. The proposal calls for completing the current Space Shuttle mission schedule even if it slips into 2011, canceling the Constellation program and scuttling plans to return to the Moon by 2020, shifting human space transport to commercial entities, extending the life of the International Space Station to carry out additional scientific research, investing in research and development with a significant emphasis on new technologies, cost reduction, and commercial partnerships, and focusing on education to prepare our workforce for further space endeavors.
What we do know is that, despite the uncertainty the industry has endured since the election, it's not over yet. This proposal has to make its way through Congress, where the battle is likely to be contentious.
Our assessment of the proposal is mixed.
There are some bright spots:
- The President's proposal gives NASA an additional $6 billion over the next five years, a step in the right direction and a relief in these times of belt-tightening and cutbacks.
- The proposal extends the life of the International Space Station, allowing us to take advantage of 30 years of planning and investment for significant scientific research. The Space Foundation released a white paper, The International Space Station: Decision 2015, last year advocating for extended ISS utilization.
- The proposal strongly encourages commercial space development and cooperation with a larger pool of traditional and non-traditional partners, placing increased emphasis on the importance of international partnerships in accomplishing NASA’s goals, which is good for long-term space advancement.
- There is significant emphasis on science and scientific research, with particular emphasis on long-term innovation and "transformative" technologies. This is a good sign in an era where the United States' position as a scientific power is waning.
- The proposal focuses specifically on education, which we hope will enable the U.S. to rekindle young people's interest and proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Space Foundation strongly believes in the value and power of STEM education to help stimulate job growth for future space and high-tech programs. We back our belief with a rich space-based education program that reaches across the full curriculum.
- Placing even more emphasis on earth science and climate change applications should have an even greater direct impact on people on Earth and should also serve to better demonstrate the tangible value of space exploration.
But, there are also areas of concern:
- The proposal has no clearly stated, easily grasped focus, which may prolong the general population's current lukewarm attitude towards space and cause us to lose even more ground in developing home-grown scientific strength.
- As the Constellation and Space Shuttle programs shut down and new programs get up to speed, there will be significant disruption as the work force shifts from one paradigm to another. Disruption can slow progress.
- Moving many critical functions, including human transport, to commercial entities raises many unanswered questions. The paramount concern is how safety will be monitored and ensured.
- Even with a generous budget increase, the budget remains too small for the U.S. to maintain its current level of space superiority over the long-term. This is underscored by the decision to cancel Constellation and Moon objectives, primarily because of underinvestment.
- The significant change in direction could cause space suppliers and international partners to question whether this direction could also be subject to change.
- While there is breadth in the proposal, there is no overriding inspirational goal - the kind of focus that can rally a nation behind space exploration. This could leave the programs open to cuts and degradation over time.
We have a long road ahead of us: first in Congress and then in the marketplace. The Space Foundation's goals during this time are:
- To help keep all involved entities talking and working together;
- To help explain and clarify issues for decision-makers and the general public;
- To offer education programs that build our national - and global - strength in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics;
- To help the nation understand the many economic and societal benefits of space exploration; and
- To advance space-related endeavors to inspire, enable, and propel humanity.
To see the NASA overview and related information, click here.