February 22, 2010
President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget for NASA, submitted to Congress, charts a new path. It makes the bold decision to cancel Constellation and rely on the private sector for future transportation to space. This administration’s budget puts an emphasis on future capabilities: a push toward developmental and cutting-edge science and technology for human and robotic exploration, a dedication to fully leveraging the potential of the International Space Station through 2020, and a renewed focus on earth and space sciences. Some suggest the president is pushing NASA toward transformation with this budget. The success of his vision for NASA will be measured, as always, in its acceptance and implementation.
The most significant move in this vision has attracted much attention. The debate over the cancellation of Constellation began even before the budget was released and has only gotten more fever pitched since. Critics maintain that cancelling Constellation will cause great job loss, force skilled workers out of the aerospace industry entirely, and put the United States years behind in pushing further into the frontier of space. On the other hand, proponents argue that turning toward commercial spaceflight will spur new growth, innovation, and a sustainable industrial base that will ensure success well into the future. The final judgment will depend greatly on NASA’s ability to manage the transition and industry’s ability to perform against NASA’s intent.
Announced the day after the budget release, implementation of this vision has already begun. Using stimulus money, NASA jump-started industry with investments in future science, technology, and exploration initiatives. Specific focus has been on earth sciences, astrophysics, aeronautic research, and exploration activities designed to stimulate greater industrial base and entrepreneurial efforts in the future.
In the near term, however, NASA will have to address some sensitive issues. Work on Constellation continues, with tests, reviews, and simulations already scheduled for this year and next. At some point, termination activities will have to commence. Efforts will have to be shut down. The workforce will have to be shifted. Long and laborious negations must begin for equitable compensation and closing of liabilities that cover potentially billions of dollars. Reliance on the private sector for access to space brings a new seriousness to that work and new risks for NASA to manage. This will create different demands to be met and require new skills to meet them. The largest implementation obstacle NASA will face, one that must be managed directly from the administrator’s office, will be changing the NASA culture to accept and operate in this new environment.
The new NASA vision proposed in the FY2011 budget offers many new and exciting opportunities while closing down other equally empowering perspectives on the future. It is hard to predict which new technologies will be successful first, what business models will produce results, or where science will take us next. It is certain, however, that the immediate road ahead will be a challenging one, requiring continued debate, discussion, and negotiation. Together, we must all be focused on achieving success, or we risk the continued progress in space that benefited and inspired mankind so often in the past.
Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.