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Thursday, August 20, 2009
Obama's NASA Decision
by Marcel F. Williams
The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (the Augustine Commission) recently concluded that NASA's Constellation return to the Moon program is running $50 billion over the current budget through the year 2020. They also concluded that cheaper alternatives such as the NASA's Side-mount shuttle and the DIRECT concept would also exceed NASA's budget by at least $20 billion to $30 billion.
So it appears that the Augustine commission will recommend a $3 billion dollar increase to NASA's annual budget if the US is to return to the Moon or a termination of the Moon program in order to stay within NASA's current $17 billion dollar a year budget.
So what should President Obama do?
At the height of the Apollo program, the NASA budget reached $33 billion a year in today's dollars, nearly twice as large as NASA current budget. NASA's $17 billion annual budget represents less 0.6% of the total Federal budget while the US Federal government is spending nearly a trillion dollars annually on defense related purposes. So a $3 billion annual increase to the NASA budget would be extremely tiny relative to the overall Federal budget.
I believe that President Obama needs to raise the NASA budget while also choosing the fastest and the cheapest return to the Moon architecture. That's why President Obama needs to raise the annual NASA budget by at least $3 billion while choosing NASA's SD-HLV (Side-mount shuttle) concept in order to return to the Moon to set up a permanently manned lunar facility.
Terminating funding for the Ares 1 combined with a $3 billion annual increase should give NASA an extra $4 billion dollars a year to work with without immediately terminating the current Space Shuttle program or the ISS.
At least $700 million of that should go to finance the development the Orion (CEV) over the next 5 years which is currently being funded at nearly $1.4 billion a year. That would raise Orion funding to $2.1 billion a year over the next 5 years.
NASA has preliminarily estimated that the cost of developing the SD-HLV vehicles should cost $6.6 billion and could be ready for full testing in 4 and a half years. So 1.5 billion a year over the next 5 years should be more than enough to develop the SD-HLV vehicles.
That leaves another 1.8 billion a year to immediately start funding the development of the Altair lunar landing vehicle over the next 5 or 6 years so that America could be ready to return to the Moon by 2016. Why wait until 2020 to return to the Moon when the shuttle derived heavy lift vehicles could be ready by 2015 or 2016?
Additional funds for the development of the Moon program could be garnered by terminating the Space Shuttle program and US ISS involvement a year or more before the Orion-HLV and Altair-HLV space craft are ready. That would be $5 billion in additional funds if both the Shuttle and the ISS were terminated a year early and $10 billion if they were terminated two years early.
2016 should also be a time when NASA should have plenty of extra funds from both the termination of the Space Shuttle and ISS programs and from the completion of the Orion, Altair, and SD-HLV development programs: plenty of money for a continuously growing lunar base program and beyond.
The US space program has always been the ultimate symbol of America's scientific and technological achievement. And NASA has contributed far more to the economic wealth of the US than it has consumed. The expansion of humans into the rest of the solar system is essential to the long term survival our species and towards the continued economic growth of human civilization. That's why President Barack Obama needs to strongly commit the US towards leading that expansion of humanity into the New Frontier.