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Budget Cuts Launch Debate on NASA’s Future

February 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Rather than send a man back to the moon, President Obama's proposed budget calls for a far less expensive plan of encouraging private companies to build spacecrafts for NASA to rent. But veterans of the space agency's golden years fear the decision puts NASA on a path to mediocrity.

NEIL ARMSTRONG, NASA astronaut: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

GWEN IFILL: More than 40 years after astronauts first landed on the moon, those initial steps still represent a crowning achievement for American spaceflight.

MAN: Beautiful, just beautiful.

GWEN IFILL: President Kennedy first articulated the goal in 1961.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, President of the United States: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

GWEN IFILL: When the moon flights ended, President Reagan set the bar even higher.

RONALD REAGAN, President of the United States: Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.

GWEN IFILL: Not even disasters like the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 derailed the dream of space travel.

President George W. Bush in 2004:

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.

GWEN IFILL: But, in the budget he proposed yesterday, President Obama cancels those plans, which would have cost taxpayers $100 billion by 2020. Instead, he calls for spending $6 billion over five years to focus on research and commercial development of rockets, robotics and other space-related technology.

At a Senate hearing today, the president’s budget director, Peter Orszag, defended the cut.

PETER ORSZAG, director, Office of Management and Budget: There is a new course being charted for the future of human spaceflight that involves more advanced technologies, longer-range R&D, investments in technologies that will help us leapfrog existing technologies and allow us to have human spaceflight to different parts of the solar system.

GWEN IFILL: But Senator Bill Nelson of Florida argued, Americans may not be able to get into space at all without help.

SEN. BILL NELSON, D-Fla.: If those commercial rockets don’t work, then, for the foreseeable future of the next decade or so, we’re going to be reliant on the Russians just to get to and from our space station.

GWEN IFILL: Nelson said he will oppose the cuts. And other senators whose states depend on the space industry can be expected to follow suit.

Now, for a closer look at what the president’s budget might mean for NASA and the future of human spaceflight, we get two views. Michael Griffin was NASA administrator under President George W. Bush. He is now director of the Center for Systems Studies at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. And Bretton Alexander is president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a business group committed to developing private sector space travel.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Griffin, if we look at cost vs. benefit, as we do when we consider budgets, is ending human spaceflight, at least for the moment, for the time being, the way to go?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN, former NASA administrator: Not in my opinion.

I think the contribution of human spaceflight to the posture of America in the world and the technology and industrial base that we have today more than pays for itself.

GWEN IFILL: You were at NASA when the Constellation project, as it was called, the George W. Bush project we just referenced, was authorized.

Do you think that — in the end, that project was unsustainable?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Not at all. It’s called unsustainable because the budget that NASA was told it had was continually eroded by both the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration and two congressional continuing resolutions.

If you keep cutting the budget, you can make anything unsustainable.

GWEN IFILL: So, your basic problem here — or you think the basic problem here is that it was underfunded all along?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Which is exactly what the Augustine committee pointed out. The budget that we had starting out on the program was adequate to do the job. The budget that we wound up with just a few short years later was not.

And I’m quite grateful to Norm Augustine for pointing that out. I guess the best hope I would have now is that the Congress would fix that problem, rather than creating new problems.

GWEN IFILL: Bretton Alexander, as you look at what the president’s decision has done or might do to human spaceflight especially, what’s your first reaction?

BRETTON ALEXANDER, president, Commercial Spaceflight Federation: Well, I think this is a long-overdue change for NASA. It’s a paradigm shift away from government being the only ones that can do human spaceflight, that it’s so special that it has to be government.

We don’t let the government do our health care. We don’t let the government fly our airlines. And, so, the government isn’t the only ones that can do human spaceflight.

And with all due respect to Administrator Griffin, the Orion program, the Ares program that he referenced, both of those got all the funding that they had expected and more under the previous administration. And, in the end, their costs were billions of dollars over cost and many years behind schedule.

The Augustine committee pointed out that they would require at least $50 billion more over the next 100 years — or — excuse me — over the next 10 years in order to get to — back to the moon. And then we would get there about a decade late. And the problem with that is that it was unsustainable. It was a monolithic program. All the money was going into one massive effort. And I believe that it collapsed under its own weight.

GWEN IFILL: Let me explain for our viewers what the Augustine commission was. It was a panel that was appointed, a 10-member panel, including former astronauts and others, who made this report last September.

Part of what that Augustine commission panel came up with, Administrator Griffin, was this idea, it seemed to be the handwriting on the wall that what we saw happen yesterday in the president’s budget was inevitable.

Was it not inevitable?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Well, not at all. In fact, frankly, I would characterize it as a faith-based initiative.

But before we continue on that vein, I have to refute Brett’s facts. The Aerospace Corporation — and I’m quoting — “found that the program is largely on track and within the original funding profile.” The Aerospace Corporation was hired by the Augustine committee to make a cost assessment of Constellation.

And quoting Sally Ride, a commission member, “The program comes pretty close to performing as NASA advertised that it would. NASA’s planning and development of Constellation was actually pretty good.”

And it is completely incorrect to say that Ares and Orion received the funding that it was stated that they would receive.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you…

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Exploration funding was — exploration funding was cut by $12 billion just in the time that I was administrator.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this, Mr. Griffin, to follow up on your point. “Pretty good.” In this time of deficits and spending priorities, competing spending priorities, was pretty good going to be good enough?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: It was actually excellent. And it’s more than good enough.

Let me point out that, in this time of deficits and spending priorities, that NASA fits within the domestic discretionary portion of the budget. You could cancel the entire domestic discretionary portion of the budget, all of it, and not close the deficit. The domestic discretionary portion of our budget is one-eighth of our total spending.

GWEN IFILL: How about that?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: How about that?

BRETTON ALEXANDER: Well, I think that, you know, we disagree on the facts and what the Augustine committee said.

But they did say that it would require $50 billion more over 10 years just to get to where we had planned to go. I think what this administration has done…

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Well, that is — that is correct.

BRETTON ALEXANDER: What this administration has done is add money to the five-year budget plan that they — had been proposed last year, adding $6 billion.

And, in the human spaceflight portion of that budget, they have taken a bold new approach. They have taken it away from one monolithic program to go back to one destination, and — and changed it into a technology program, to develop game-changing technologies in order to make exploration cheaper, more cost-effective, and safer, and more rapid in the near term.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both.

I will start with you, Administrator Griffin. Assuming for a moment — this is a big assumption, because, as we know, with budgets, sometimes, Congress gets to say a word or two, and it might not turn out the way the president has planned. But, assuming for a moment his proposal actually happens, what are the consequences for not only human spaceflight, but the future of NASA?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Well, I agree with Brett that it would be a paradigm change for NASA. It would take the agency from being a mission-oriented organization, which I happen to believe is the right approach, to a technology sponsor.

I don’t believe that’s the right function for NASA in our society. Now, that’s a philosophical disagreement that I have with Brett. And I respect his opinion, but I simply don’t agree with it.

GWEN IFILL: And let me ask…

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: So, that would be the long-term change for NASA.

GWEN IFILL: And let me ask you, do you think that there is any room for a public-private partnership as NASA goes forward?

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Of course I do. I’m a primary sponsor of commercial spaceflight. And it’s something that I believe will happen and must happen in time.

It’s simply that I — as I often say, we manage to have military aviation and civilian private aviation exist in the same country. I personally do not see why commercial operators cannot develop their capability without deciding that they have to take down NASA’s capability to do spaceflight.

GWEN IFILL: As someone who represents commercial operators, I will ask you to start with that and work back to the question about the future.

BRETTON ALEXANDER: Well, I think what the administration has done is say that we do need a paradigm shift in human spaceflight. Bringing the private sector into it will bring efficiency into it.

It — actually, what they are planning to do is have commercial companies develop vehicles. And these are the same commercial companies that traditionally act as contractors to NASA, the major aerospace companies in the U.S. that have been the industrial base that have built all the spacecraft for the last 50 years.

With new entrants, as well that have other ideas and innovation, working together and hand in hand with NASA, we’re talking about developing spacecraft to go to the International Space Station. That is a far simpler mission than going back to the moon, going to Mars, or going somewhere else. And that’s why it can be done quicker, more cheaply.

The simple fact of the matter was that we were — with the old program, we were not going to be going back to the moon for well more than a decade. And we were going to be relying on the Russians to get to the International Space Station for the better part of this decade, if not longer.

GWEN IFILL: Aren’t we going to be relying on Russia’s — the Russians and China anyhow to get a seat on their — whatever their shuttle would be?

BRETTON ALEXANDER: We have an arrangement to get a — to ride on the Russians’, but we don’t have to do that, you know, for as long as if we bring commercial providers in to focus on the simple mission of going to the International Space Station, rather than focusing on the mission to go back to the moon.

GWEN IFILL: Bretton Alexander, Michael Griffin, thank you both very much.



JIM LEHRER: For the record, Senator Bill Nelson, who appeared in Gwen’s setup piece, was an astronaut, a payload specialist, who flew on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.