Billion Wise, Multi-Billion Foolish

I hope that the Deficit Commission is better informed on the 99-plus percent of the federal budget that is not NASA than it is about the space agency and space policy. In their release today, they write:

NASA plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to spur the development of American commercial spaceflight. This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of potential crew of such flights. Eliminating this program would save $1.2 billion in 2015.

The reason it is unclear to them is that the commissioners apparently understand neither the purpose nor the specifics of the program. They clearly can’t have actually talked to anyone at NASA or anywhere else who does. It is not a “subsidy to the private sector” any more than giving Lockheed Martin a multi-billion cost-plus contract to build the Orion crew vehicle is. It is the purchase of fixed-price milestones in the development of a capability to get NASA personnel to orbit, at much lower cost and much sooner than they could do so themselves. That it enables a new, high-technology, wealth-generating (and tax-revenue-generating) industry to offer such rides to others (and thus creates a new American export capability with which to help our trade balance) is a beneficial side effect, not the purpose, and it has nothing to do with “training of potential crew.”

With this recommendation, they are actually in effect advocating the end of NASA human spaceflight, because the remaining budget isn’t big enough for the agency to develop its own vehicles in the traditional NASA manner, despite wishful thinking on the part of the authorizers in Congress. If this is the commission’s goal, it’s one worth debating, but the commissioners should understand the implications.

Moreover, such an action would put off indefinitely the day that we are no longer reliant on the Russians to meet our international obligations with the International Space Station for crew exchange and lifeboats. That means we also put off the day on which we are no longer sending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars overseas to them for those services, and allowing them to continually flout the Iran/North Korea/Syria Non-Proliferation Act.

On the other hand, Commercial Crew would provide the U.S. with new, robust, redundant capability to get NASA astronauts to the ISS, and provide it with an American lifeboat, by 2015, and perhaps sooner, and it would do so for much less money than NASA has been ordered by Congress to spend on its unneeded Space Launch System. There are no doubt areas of NASA that could be profitably cut (I’d start with climate blowhard Jim Hansen’s salary, myself) without undue harm to the Republic, but it’s ironic that the commission has chosen one of the key areas (the other is exploration-technology development) that actually promised to reduce future outlays for the agency and the nation’s taxpayers, while providing far greater value than traditional NASA human-spaceflight programs. As with news reporting, when you find that the reporting on something you know about is terrible, your respect for the rest of the reporting is diminished.

– Rand Simberg is an aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. His blog, Transterrestrial Musings, can be found at