What NASA Doesn’t Know
SpacePolitics reports on the op-ed piece in Thursday’s Orlando Sentinel by former Senators Jake Garn and John Glenn [That’s former astronauts to you, bub. – ed.] and (current) Senator Bill Nelson. The three take the Bush administration to task for not providing “appropriate guidance and funding” to support NASA’s Vision for Space. The claim they make is that the administration is ignorant – “[W]e suspect it can be explained by Bush not knowing all the facts about what the real impact of NASA’s annual budgets has been since the loss of the Columbia in 2003.”
The three believe he’s not aware that NASA has not been reimbursed for the costs returning the shuttle to service after the Columbia accident, forced to come up with the $2.8 billion by raiding other programs. They believe Bush doesn’t know that the budget requests for the Vision his administration has submitted -have been on average a half-a-billion per year less than he projected- when the Vision was unveiled in 2004. He may also be unaware, they claim, that his directive in his 2004 speech about the Vision calling for completing the station and then retiring the shuttle by 2010 “has been turned into a mandate to end the shuttle program in 2010, whether or not the space station is finished.” (See some earlier discussion on differing interpretations of this deadline.) And, they say, Bush isn’t aware his budgets are creating a five-year gap in “U.S. human-spaceflight capability” (correct only if we exclude any US commercial alternatives that may arise during the Shuttle-Constellation interregnum.)
Others, like Rand Simberg have consistently insisted that with Constellation (the successor to the Shuttle) NASA has been pursuing the wrong mission with the wrong vehicles (actually, his statements are much more subtle than that characterization). Clark Lindsey essentially agrees, claiming that NASA had better options that it didn’t choose.
My worthless opinion is that NASA did not (does not) know how constrained it is by simple politics. The administration can propose all the budget it wants for NASA, but nothing that substantially exceeds recent baselines is getting past a Democrat Congress. Or a Republican Congress, for that matter. The good will and (fabulous) PR generated by Phoenix, Spirit, Opportunity, Cassini, and other missions does not rub off onto either the Shuttle, its replacement, or the Space Station in the publics mind, each for good, but different reasons, and right now the public’s priorities are elsewhere.