NASA’s Budget Sends It Back to 1972

Sen. Richard Shelby

The year was 1972:

  • Godfather Vito Corleone ruled the box office.
  • President Richard Nixon approves the space shuttle, a revolutionary new vehicle using cutting-edge technology that would provide routine, affordable access to space up to 50 times per year.
  • And a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit.

That was state of the art, 1972. Jump ahead nearly 40 years, and what is old is new again. Or at least according to Sen. Richard Shelby.

“I’m not sure where NASA is going yet, but we’re going to try and keep it on the cutting edge. I’m not sure what the administration wants to do or what they’ll try to do, but they’ll have to deal with Congress. We’re going to keep fighting that battle,” Shelby said yesterday.

The conservative Alabama legislator made his remarks after the Senate released its proposed NASA funding bill to cover the remainder of FY 2011. The highlights:

  • $3 billion for the space shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle and the Orion spacecraft, a larger version of Apollo;
  • zero dollars for CTO Bobby Braun’s new technology development program, a reduction from the $572 million the Administration had originally requested.

So, we’re going to stay on the cutting edge by:

  1. using 40-year-old technology that is costly to adapt, build, launch and maintain;
  2. eliminating all funding for new technologies.

Sigh.

For the record, I’m not against building an HLV. Just this HLV. There must be a way of building one that would be cheaper to develop and operate. And I would prefer that development be slotted behind commercial crew in the schedule so that we can close the spaceflight gap faster and develop actual payloads and missions for it.

Without a crystal ball, it’s hard to know how this will turn out. Maybe everything does go well, and we can build the HLV, develop commercial crew, and close the gap with the budget plan Congress wants. But, I’m skeptical.

Fortunately, we do know how things from 1972 turned out:

  • “The Godfather” went on to be one of the revered films in history, winning 3 Academy Awards and turning “I’m gonna make him an offer he won’t refuse” into one of the most quoted (and mangled) lines in movie history.
  • Richard Nixon went on to become one of the most detested in American history, resigning from office two years later due to the Watergate scandal.
  • The space shuttle would fly 135 missions over 30 years at a rate of 4.33 flights annually, far below the original projections.
  • And that unjustly imprisoned commando unit? Well, we all know what happened to them: