NASA’s Forecast: Foggy With a 100 Percent Chance of Uncertainty

The last major engagement of the American Revolution ended on Oct. 19, 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. Although the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ besieged troops all but ended the fighting, it would take negotiators nearly two years to hammer out the terms of the divorce in Paris. Negotiations were complicated by a vast array of issues both large and small, among them fishing rights off the Grand Banks and beaver pelts quotas in the West. Upon such things the future is written.

Back in Philadelphia, a weak and divided Congress governed a country not-yet born and made plans for an uncertain future during the long twilight of the colonial era. With British troops still occupying New York, Gen. George Washington contended with an unpaid Continental Army with too much time on its hands. In March 1783, the Commander-in-Chief barely managed to talk his officers out of staging a coup against a bankrupt Congress that had no money to pay them. When word of a final peace arrived in November, he was outraged when the august body adjourned without making final arrangement to pay Washington’s men.

More than two centuries later, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden finds himself in a not dissimilar position. In his case, the stakes are significantly lower and the time frame much compressed. But, exasperating it is just the same.

In September, Congress agreed to a significant break with the past, voting on a NASA authorization bill that would allow the space agency to cancel the Constellation program (or most of it, anyway) and pursue a commercial approach to human spaceflight in Earth orbit. The decision followed years of advocacy by commercial space groups and a bruising, months-long legislative battle in which neither side got exactly what it wanted.

There was much celebration over this achievement. Yet, as we end of the year, NASA sits in the netherworld between its past and its uncertain future. Congress went home for the holdays having failed to pass the appropriations bill that will enable NASA to actually start down its new path. Legislators now aims to pass one in March, some five months after the fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

In the meantime, the agency is operating under a continuing resolution that leaves in place all its existing programs and funding levels while limiting its ability to start any new ones.  This is having some unfortunate consequences, as the Orlando Sentinel summed up rather nicely in a story on Monday:

Thanks to congressional inaction, NASA must continue to fund its defunct Ares I rocket program until March — a requirement that will cost the agency nearly $500 million at a time when NASA is struggling with the expensive task of replacing the space shuttle.

About one-third [of] that money — $165 million — will go to Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, which has a $2 billion contract to build the solid-rocket first stage for the Ares I, the rocket that was supposed to fill the shuttle’s role of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

But under a new NASA plan signed into law by President Barack Obama in October, there’s no guarantee that the new rocket required by that plan will use solid-fuel propulsion. And, in fact, many in the agency say a liquid-fueled rocket would be cheaper, more powerful — and safer.

The money to ATK is part of the $1.2 billion NASA will spend on its canceled Constellation program from Oct. 1 through March. Most of the rest will go to Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion capsule intended to take astronauts into space aboard whatever rocket NASA selects. That program was largely spared by the new NASA plan.

Ah, well. Easy come, easy go.

While contractors continue to be paid for parts of Constellation that might be salvaged, some of those at NASA centers are not as fortunate. Some programs are at a standstill, and layoff notices have gone out. Hopefully, if Congress acts in March, many of the people affected can be rehired quickly. In the meantime, they can survive on severance pay and unemployment benefits. Of course, nothing is certain, which makes the anxiety and stress levels high.

Congress is pushing NASA to make the most of $9 billion invested in Constellation by building a new heavy-lift vehicle from technologies developed for the now canceled Ares rocket program. The space agency doesn’t seem inclined to want to do that, but Congressional leaders believe that it was part of the compromise that would enable NASA to pursue its commercial efforts. This tension will continue to be a major sticking point between Congress on the one side and NASA and the Administration on the other as the space agency evaluates its heavy-lift options. What NASA ultimately does on heavy-lift will affect employment, with some options requiring more funding and higher staffing levels than others.

How close NASA’s appropriations will look to the bill passed in October is an interesting question. Although Democrats retain control of the Senate, Republicans will lead the House of Representatives. New committee and subcommittee chairmen are taking over, including several who have been hostile to the Obama Administration’s new commercial direction. So, we will wait to see what, if any, significant changes occur.

In the meantime, NASA is trying to make a final decision to add a third space shuttle flight to the two final ones that are already on the schedule. This is supported by Congress as a way to keep people employed longer, and by NASA’s management because it will deliver much needed supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station. The main problem is that NASA needs to make a decision before Congress votes on its new budget in March.

NASA is doing what it can on the commercial front. The space agency has been awarding contracts for an innovative lunar data purchasing plan that includes teams involved in the Google Lunar X Prize. It has moved forward on a program for experiments on commercial suborbital vehicles. And, most significantly of all, the space agency is reviewing proposals for commercial orbital transports with a plan to award contracts in March.

There should be progress on the suborbital front in January. Both Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems are expected to conduct test flights under NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program. If the tests go well, it will help bolster support for the Administration’s commercial efforts.

The next several months will be undoubtedly frustrating for the space agency as it lives through the murky darkness that precedes every new dawn. But, it will end and, with luck, NASA will have a clear path forward along the lines of what the nation’s political leaders approved earlier this year.

For Washington, dawn came on Nov. 25, 1783 when he led the Continental Army into New York as the British fleet sailed away. A joyous crowd greeted the Commander-in-Chief and his soldiers, who had been driven out of the city seven years earlier. Washington had come full circle, from his greatest defeat to final victory.

On Dec. 23, Washington resigned his commission after eight and a half years before a tearful Congress at Annapolis. The act saddened the country and astonished the world; men of his statute just didn’t walk away from power. Informed of the general’s desire to return home, an astonished King George the Third reportedly declared, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!”

As Washington rode south to Mount Vernon to celebrate Christmas, he was confident that this had been his last official public act. He had every intention of retiring to his estate and living out his life as modern day Cincinnatus.

He was sadly mistaken. But that, my readers, is a story for another day…