Analysis: Obama’s Space Plan

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With the release of NASA budget, the Obama Administration has proposed a course for the U.S. space program that appears to be reasonable and coherent. The questions are: Is the funding adequate? Is the political support there? And can they execute on it?

Facing Realities

The five-year, $100 billion budget faces several unpleasant realities head on:

  • The United States can’t afford NASA’s current plan to return humans to the moon by 2020;
  • Even if funded, the Constellation program wouldn’t have gotten America to the moon anywhere near that date;
  • It makes no sense at all to end the International Space Station program in 2015 – a mere five years after construction is complete.

The President’s budget would boost NASA spending by $6 billion over the next five years. NASA would cancel the troubled Ares I and Ares V rocket pr0grams and drop its commitment to a moon landing by 2020. The agency would also extend ISS operations to 2020 or beyond.

A New Approach

In place of the Ares I, NASA wants to privatize orbital operations. Commercial companies will compete to provide rockets and spacecraft to shuttle astronauts to and from the space station. The space agency announced an initial award of $50 million to five companies to begin this work.

NASA officials are hoping that private companies will close the long gap between the end of the space shuttle program – set for this year – and the first crewed flight of a successor vehicle. Right now, the gap is estimated at anywhere between six to eight years.

The agency also would spend billions over the next five years in developing new technologies aimed at facilitating both orbital operations and voyages to the moon and asteroids. The efforts would include:

  • $3.1 billion for work on new heavy-lift technologies;
  • $7.8 billion to “invent and demonstrate large-scale, new and novel approaches to spaceflight such as in-orbit fuel depots and rendezvous and docking technologies, and closed-loop life support systems”;
  • $4.9 billion over 5 years for “a broad space technology program, including investments in very early stage and game-changing approaches”;
  • $3 billion for robotic precursor missions.
  • major infrastructure investments at Cape Canaveral to make it a modern spaceport.

NASA officials said they are developing these technologies with the intention of sending humans beyond LEO. They haven’t abandoned the moon, but have simply dropping an unrealistic deadline that the space agency could not meet.

International cooperation is expected to play a major role in the plan. NASA officials said they expect lunar and Mars missions to be done with international partners, much as the ISS has been built.

Winners and Losers

For the growing NewSpace community, this plan offers just about everything they’ve been asking for during the last few years. Instead of having NASA design the vehicle, commercial companies will compete with their own designs for both orbital services and the heavy-lift vehicle. NASA will transition to the role of a buyer of services, not an owner-operator.

The plan also seems designed to win over skeptical Congressmen and Senators. The ending of the space shuttle program and the cancellation of Ares would result in a lot of job losses. This has led to strenuous calls to extend space shuttle flights and maintain the Ares I and V programs. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama has called Obama’s budget the beginning of a “death march” for human spaceflight.

NASA officials say they can offset parts of those losses with commercialized space transport, heavy-lift research, infrastructure improvements at the Cape, and the robotic precursor program. They said the program would actually be good news for Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which is the lead center for the Ares program. Workers there could be transitioned over to heavy-lift work.

Gotta Execute

Overall, Obama’s budget appears to be a sound program that faces the unpleasant realities of a strained budget and the poor state of NASA’s lunar program. The plan funds the technologies needed for missions behind LEO over the next five years. If that goes well and the economy and budget permit, then a formal program could be initiated at that point.

A key question is whether the Obama Administration can get the program through Congress. And if so, whether NASA and the private sector can execute it effectively. Schedule slips and budget overruns are common, but if they can reasonably keep to the plan, this effort could work out very well. Time will tell….