Space Vision Is Laudable, But Costs Must Be Known

Posted June 4, 2004 at 12:02pm

On Jan. 14, President Bush announced his intention to commit the nation to a new exploration initiative. Like the plan announced by his father 15 years earlier, President Bush’s initiative envisions American astronauts returning to the moon by 2020 and eventually undertaking missions to Mars. Since I have long believed that the nation’s human space flight program needs long-term goals beyond the space station, I welcomed the president’s announcement.

Moreover, while I know that some favor going directly to Mars, I agree with the president that it makes good sense to go back to the Moon first. I say that for a number of reasons. First, I think the moon is an appropriate destination in its own right. I believe it is inevitable that one or more permanent Antarctic-style research facilities will be established on the moon for the conduct of scientific research and the testing and demonstration of technologies and procedures needed for further human exploration of the solar system. Ideally, those research facilities will be international in nature; if so, the United States should be there in a leadership role. Second, a multidecade, multibillion-dollar exploration agenda will only be sustainable if the American taxpayers can see results along the way. Establishment of a sustained presence on the moon would be a clear and compelling intermediate accomplishment that would help maintain support for NASA’s broader exploration goals.

That’s the good news: The president has proposed some challenging long-term goals for our nation’s space program. The bad news? It is clear from the reaction to date on Capitol Hill that there is no consensus that the president’s proposed approach to achieving those goals is the right one.

In fact, for many Members of Congress the fiscal 2005 budget request for NASA raises more questions about the president’s initiative than it answers. Without more information on the costs and impacts of the president’s proposal, it would be irresponsible at this time for Congress to endorse the initiative and the liens it would impose on the NASA budget over the next several decades. Let me outline just a few of the Congressional concerns.

First, the president’s initiative is described as “affordable.”

However, at the Science Committee’s recent hearing on the initiative, the NASA administrator and the director of the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy were unable to provide a clear answer when asked what the president was told about the costs of the initiative, and in particular the cost of returning humans to the moon. Equally troubling, when asked if the committee could assume that “what you are allocating and what you think is necessary to complete the mission is the same thing,” the NASA administrator replied: “No, sir. What is occurring in 2009 and out is a projection of what the transition, the transformation of the approach that we are taking here would import if you compare it to the annual cost of an inflation-level increase to the annual top line. That is all that this attempts to do.”

When asked the clarifying question: “Does that projection try — is that projecting what it is going to cost to get us to the moon?” the NASA administrator responded: “No sir, it does not.” It seems inescapable that a logical cost estimate for the initiative has yet to be made — an initiative whose major costs will be incurred after this administration has left office.

And let’s be clear. NASA’s track record over the last few years doesn’t inspire much confidence on the Hill in NASA’s ability to provide accurate estimates of the costs of the various components of the proposed exploration initiative. In addition, NASA’s failure to pass an independent audit of its books for the second time in the past three years only heightens Members’ concerns that money shouldn’t start flowing for the new initiative until NASA first demonstrates that it has its financial house in order.

Second, the president’s initiative would curtail other important NASA programs and activities. In order to pay partially for the proposed exploration agenda, NASA’s aeronautics and earth science programs — which have suffered in the past three years — would continue to languish for the next decade and a half. Research and development on next generation space transportation systems that could significantly reduce the cost and increase the reliability of access to space would be essentially curtailed. Exciting new avenues of research into fundamental mysteries of the universe would be deferred. Another three quarters of a billion dollars would be removed from the budget for research on the space station — research that until recently was touted by NASA as benefiting citizens here on Earth.

Moreover, to make the budgetary math work, the president’s initiative requires NASA to abandon the space shuttle years before a replacement vehicle will be available. The administration has decided to make the United States dependent on Russia for getting our astronauts into space at least until the proposed Crew Exploration Vehicle becomes operational — if all goes well — a decade from now. At the same time, the administration has steadfastly refused to explain how it intends to deal with the prohibitions contained in the Iran Nonproliferation Act against acquiring such crew transfer services from Russia.

The burden of proof has to be on the administration to demonstrate both the affordability of the president’s plan and the wisdom of the policy decisions that are being made to fund it. Unless and until that happens, NASA’s funding request for next year should be reallocated in a manner that strengthens NASA’s existing programs, helps address the backlog of deferred maintenance at NASA’s facilities, ensures that the shuttle will continue to fly safely for as long as it is needed, ensures that the International Space Station will be a safe and productive facility, makes a start on a replacement means of getting U.S. astronauts into space, and enables the analyses that will be needed to develop a viable and sustainable exploration agenda. That logic should govern Congress’ treatment of NASA’s proposed fiscal 2004 operating plan requests, and it should provide the basis for Congress’ consideration of NASA’s fiscal 2005 budget request.

I agree with the president that we need a vision for the nation’s civil space program. However, challenging goals have to be tied to a viable and prudent implementation plan if they are to be more than rhetoric. The administration needs to step up to the task of developing such a plan.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) is ranking member of the Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics.