Friday, August 20, 2010

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Introduction

It's an interesting time in the NASA exploration battle that has been raging since 2005 and the introduction of the Ares rockets that eliminated most of the Vision for Space Exploration, and made the rest of that vision unattainable. The Obama Administration's proposal to emphasize technology development, commercial participation, and robotic precursor missions, all essential parts of the Vision for Space Exploration, but to do so using a Flexible Path to Mars sequence, has met with counter-proposals from the House and Senate. Most supporters of the technology/commercial/precursor approach seem to favor the Senate's proposal over the House proposal, even though the House fully funds the Administration's ambitious Space Technology line. This is probably because the House proposal essentially wipes out robotic precursors, exploration-specific technology development and demonstrations, and commercial crew transportation, while continuing the troubled Ares rockets. I won't discuss the House proposal in any more detail, since there seems to be considerable opposition to it in Congress and industry, since most of its supporters in industry seem to have no preference for it over the Senate budget, since NASA and the Administration haven't favored it, and since I personally don't find it to be credible. It has some isolated interesting ideas that may see the light of day, but as a total package it utterly fails.

Does this mean that the Senate proposals are good? I don't think so. The Senate Authorization and Appropriations bills and reports have serious flaws. The Senate bills have been described as great compromises, but as they stand they merely compromise NASA's ability to explore and encourage the development of space. However, if blended with some of the Administration proposals, the Senate bills do, perhaps, put us within reach of a NASA that can achieve important objectives on a realistic budget. Somewhere between the Senate and Administration proposals is a real compromise that is better than either extreme.

One point of view holds that both House and Senate bills are valid compromises because they give the Administration exactly what it asked for in many areas, such as keeping and vigorously using the ISS, increasing Earth Observation funding, adding Aeronautics programs to fund things like green aviation, restarting Pu-238 production, and boosting NEO search funding. However, I wouldn't characterize these agreements as compromises. Senator Hutchison, a key player in the Senate discussions, will be just as supportive of ISS funding and JSC ISS work as the Administration. The Democratic House and Senate are going to be just as inclined as the Administration to support environment-friendly programs. The other changes are small in budgetary terms. No, any compromise should be viewed strictly through the lens of the areas where there is disagreement, like technology funding, robotic precursor missions, commercial space, and government-owned heavy lift rockets. In these areas of dispute, the Senate's cuts to Administration proposals are so drastic that, in their current form, they can't be seen as compromises at all.

They can, however, be useful as starting points for a real compromise.

In the next few days I plan to discuss some of the budgetary lines in more detail so we can get an idea what a real compromise might look like. Since the Senate Authorization bill covers 3 years compared to the 1 year Senate Appropriations bill, I will focus mainly on the Authorization bill. That bill gives a better picture of where we might go over the course of years with the Senate's approach, and the 2 Senate bills are not all that different from each other anyway.

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