There’s been lots of news about space exploration lately, but it has little to do with spacecraft flying anywhere. Rather, there’s much legislative maneuvering and political bickering about spacecraft that may never get built or launched.
NASA just unveiled its design for a powerful rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, which may bring— if adequate funding and any definite missions materialize — astronauts to explore asteroids or Mars.
The impetus for this rocket was congressional pressure. First the Obama administration scrapped the Bush administration’s Constellation project of renewed lunar exploration, and as the Space Shuttle Program began to end. In response, lawmakers pressed for a new heavy-lift rocket that, far from incidentally, would preserve some NASA and contractor jobs, particularly in states such as Texas and Florida that are heavy with space facilities.
There is tremendous uncertainty about future space funding and whether any future administration — or for that matter, the Obama administration — will take seriously the President’s stated goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars at some later time.
Given such uncertainty, NASA has taken a cautious approach to SLS, relying on elements of Space Shuttle and Constellation technology and proposing initially a relatively modest version of the rocket and only later the real McCoy if funding allows.
NASA unveiled the design after missed deadlines sparked congressional subpoenas of agency documents. Moreover, controversy about what SLS might cost heated up recently when a figure of $62 billion (through 2025) appeared in the Wall Street Journal, spurring a rejoinder by SLS backers Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Texas) and Bill Nelson (D.-Fla.) that this was a “wildly inflated” number leaked to undermine the project.
One sign that the Bush administration’s Constellation project would never be completed was that President Bush rarely, if ever, mentioned the project in public after the initial announcement. It would not be surprising if President Obama shows a similar reticence about SLS, and if the project eventually is quietly scrapped.
In other space news, the James Webb Space Telescope, the political travails of which I wrote about recently for FrumForum, has gotten a reprieve — for the moment — from a Senate subcommittee after being zeroed out by a House subcommittee. The telescope’s fate awaits a vote on the Senate floor and negotiations between Senate and House.
Securing the future of space exploration in the current fiscal environment will require policymakers to show more creativity than they have shown so far. It is not just innovative technologies that are needed to advance the space frontier but innovative funding and institutional arrangements. One possibility would be for the government to issue space bonds, securities with values linked to space exploration and development.
Another would be for NASA to greatly expand its focus on issuing monetary prizes to organizations that achieve specified targets in space exploration. Mars exploration proponent Robert Zubrin proposes one such system of prizes, culminating in a $20 billion award for a human mission to Mars and back, in his book The Case for Mars, which recently came out in a revised edition.
A sign that a mission to send humans into deep space will actually take place is if a president speaks about it (more than once) and embraces some plausible way of funding it (other than leaving the heavy lifting to future administrations). Large-scale, multi-decade space projects cannot be fueled just by the enthusiasm of legislators from sun-drenched states that happen to have a large share of space infrastructure.