With the end of the Shuttle Era marked by the last Space Shuttle flight in 2011, the cancellation of the “Constellation Program” and George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” in 2010 (Chang 2010), and President Obama’s call for human exploration of Mars by the 2030s (Matson 2010), the United States’ space program has been reshaping its exploration goals and long-term strategic roadmap. NASA has now adopted a new direction for its manned spaceflight program, one which hopes to take American astronauts to a captured asteroid and, by the 2030s, to Mars. This new policy lays out the future of the American manned space program for the coming decades, and is bound to serve as the basis for long-term strategic decisions. Yet it has also come under considerable criticism and backlash from various members of Congress and the space industry, who claim that it is too expensive for NASA’s current budget, without direction, and will fail to meet goals within the established timeframe (Achenbach 2014). At a time when America’s leadership in space is being threatened by budgetary constraints and emerging space powers, it is imperative that our space program adopt the most effective and efficient policy approach to exploration possible. To that end, this policy analysis explores NASA’s current exploration policy and the problems associated with it. It lays out a series of policy alternatives which provide different directions the agency can take toward accomplish the goal of a manned mission to Mars, such as increasing NASA’s budget, abandoning current exploration goals, or fostering greater cooperation with commercial space companies. A policy recommendation gauged by a number of criteria, such as cost and effectiveness, is further provided.
The goal of a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s is commendable for being both inspiring and practical. Ambitious undertakings enthuse and excite the population, as evidenced by the Apollo Program and Moon Landings of the 1960s creating national pride and unity in a time of civil strife and inspiring a generation of scientists and engineers (Dick 2007). Of course, the Moon Landings were a product of the “space race,” the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for prestige and dominance in outer space. Yet while the Cold War era of space competition is over, a new one may be starting; China and Russia are both planning returns to the Moon and possible missions to Mars in the coming decades (Howell 2014). If the United States wishes to maintain its leadership and preeminence in outer space, it must be accomplishing great things and expanding frontiers. With an American flag still firmly planted in the Moon, a manned mission to Mars would be the next logical step toward maintaining that leadership.
Since President Obama’s call for a manned mission to Mars and NASA’s strategic redirection, the agency has taken concrete steps toward accomplish its goals. The Orion spacecraft, a carry-over technology from the cancelled “Constellation” Program that is capable of taking astronauts to Mars, is expected to make its first test flight in December 2014 (“Orion” 2014). To carry the craft into space and onward toward Mars, NASA has begun the construction of a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System. Expected to first fly in 2017 or 2018, it is poised to be the largest rocket ever constructed (“NASA’s Space Launch System” 2014). Plans for spacecraft technologies needed for a transit, orbit around, and landing on Mars are in the process of being considered and developed (“Exploration Systems Development” 2014). In terms of missions, NASA has planned for a manned “Asteroid Redirect” mission in the early 2020s. Using spacecraft technologies developed for an eventual Mars mission, NASA will “capture” an asteroid, redirect it into lunar orbit, and send astronauts to explore it. The agency has framed the mission as necessary to develop the technical expertise and capabilities needed for a mission to Mars (“What is NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission” 2014).
While NASA’s exploration goals are commendable and actual progress towards those goals has been made, they have nonetheless faced significant criticism. Republican congressmen have called the mission uninspiring and a waste of money (Achenbach 2014). Members of the scientific community have called the purpose of the mission into question, arguing that it distracts from the overall focus on a mission to Mars (Khan 2014). Significantly, the National Research Council’s review of NASA’s human spaceflight program, a $3.2 million investigation mandated by Congress, called numerous parts of NASA’s current exploration policy into question. It agreed that the “Asteroid Redirect” mission distracts from the goal of Mars exploration, and would provide a number of “dead-end” technologies that would not get the United States any closer to Mars. It also cautioned that the flight schedule designed by NASA, which calls for a test flight of the SLS in 2017 or 2018 followed by the “Asteroid Redirect” mission in the 2020s, does not provide a frequency required to maintain competence and safety (Achenbach 2014).
There is then the added issue of federal funding. NASA’s recent budget has been among the lowest levels it has received in its history, yet the levels of funding needed to continue the development of the SLS and Mars missions are increasing (NASA OIG 2012). Lofty expectations by Congress and NASA’s leaderships do not correspond with the reality of NASA’s limited finances. In a report on NASA’s budget, the Government Accountability Office found that budget shortfalls put the current exploration goals at “high risk” of failure. The GAO predicted that there is at least a 90% chance the SLS will slip past the scheduled date for its test flight, with further slips expected if funding doesn’t increase. Without a set mission portfolio outside the “Asteroid Redirect” mission, concerns are raised whether there will be continued political will to sustain SLS and Orion funding. Furthermore, without increased funding, NASA will have to make the difficult choice between funding its human spaceflight program and funding its unmanned, robotic space science programs. In order to meet deadlines for its manned programs, NASA may have to cancel or significantly cut back on its science, education, and unmanned exploration missions (GAO 2014).
There is thus a significant and justified question about whether NASA’s current policies and levels of funding can meet the exploration goals it has set out to accomplish. Though progress has been made toward an eventual manned mission to Mars, many are rightly concerned that the agency’s current direction will not be able to meet the goal in the timeframe it has established. NASA has done a poor job justifying its “Asteroid Redirect” mission, which falls outside the scope of the focus on Mars and which has not demonstrated any value for an eventual Mars mission. Already burdened with financial constraints, the American space program will not be able to sustain the progress it is making should current levels of funding be maintained. With concerns over the United States’ manned space program representing a threat to continued American leadership in space and the future of NASA’s exploration activity, the agency is faced with a clear policy problem. As such, a number of policy alternatives which diverge from the current exploration framework need to be explored.
These policy alternatives provide different options for achieving the United States’ long-term space exploration goals, and therefore offer possible solutions to the criticism NASA is currently facing. However, they should be judged by a series of criteria in order to gauge their viability. The task of exploring Mars is a momentous undertaking; at a time when NASA’s budget is strained, accomplishing that goal will necessitate minimizing costs while maximizing possible gains. Among the most significant criteria by which these options can be evaluated, then, is their cost and whether they would be effective in advancing NASA’s progress toward Mars exploration. America’s victory in the “space race” of the 1960s, its leading role in the construction of the International Space Station, and its development of global positioning and communication satellite networks prove that the United States’ space program plays a significant role in ensuring national security and global prestige. Recognizing this, it is important to judge whether these policy alternatives preserve American leadership and preeminence in space. Additionally, the development of a mission as complex as the exploration of Mars is bound to stimulate the economy and inspire interest in the sciences and technology; these policy options should be evaluated at least in part by whether they will positively impact American industry.
In light of the criticism NASA has faced on its roadmap for achieving the exploration of Mars, the first, and perhaps most drastic, policy alternative that should be considered is scrapping the current exploration goals altogether. Tasked with the significant goal of exploring Mars yet developing missions which have faced significant criticism and backlash, NASA is, some contend, an agency without direction (Achenbach 2014). Abandoning that current direction could allow for a reconsideration of strategic goals and decisions. Developed spacecraft and allocated finances could be redirected away from the “Asteroid Retrieval” mission toward a different purpose, such as the exploration of lunar space and the Moon. Such was the suggestion of the National Research Council in its review of NASA’s human spaceflight program, which argued that, while, the current approach will create a number of “dead-end technologies” getting America no closer to Mars, a renewed effort on Moon landings will (Achenbach 2014). Abandoning existing space strategy is not without precedent, either. Indeed, the “Asteroid Retrieval” mission and agency focus on Mars exploration is a part of President Obama’s “National Space Policy,” which cancelled President Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” approach of renewed lunar exploration (National Space Policy 2010).
Abandoning the current exploration roadmap could, depending on the new approach that is then developed, provide considerable savings. The Space Launch System is projected to cost $7 billion between February 2014 and its maiden flight in November 2018 (GAO 2014). The Orion Capsule, according to information presented during a joint Senate-NASA presentation in 2011, is projected to cost $6 billion, and upgrades to launch facility infrastructure to support planned missions will cost at least $2 billion (Smith 2011). The Asteroid Retrieval Mission will likely cost in the billions (GAO 2014). With a freed budget, NASA could begin work on developing a cheaper roadmap toward a manned Mars mission, and would not need to worry about the high costs of its various spacecraft and rockets currently in development. However, abandoning the agency’s current direction would not help maintain American leadership in space, nor would it further advance progress toward an eventual Mars mission. With the cancellation of the “Constellation” Program in 2010 and the scrapping of the already-developed Ares rocket, a significant amount of effort and money was put to waste. In the time spent redeveloping its exploration strategy and designing the SLS, NASA has been left without its own usable man-rated rocket and has done little in the way of manned exploration (Moskowitz 2010). Indeed, the cancellation of the “Constellation” Program left NASA open to criticism that the agency was adrift (Achenbach 2014). Abandoning this program, especially after it has already made a considerable amount of progress, would likely only worsen the perception that NASA is an agency without direction and forestall any progress to be made toward getting American astronauts to Mars. Similarly, abandoning current progress would do little to help American industry; as the SLS and Orion capsule are currently being built, significant parts of the space industry have been geared toward their production. Scrapping their development would leave these industries with little to work on, and would represent an enormous loss in terms of finances invested. Innovation and technological advances made toward “exploration systems development” would also be lost should exploration goals be scrapped, representing a further loss in American space preeminence and progress.
A different policy option, which takes the opposite approach as the last, would be to maintain the current exploration polices and roadmap but focus on increasing NASA’s federal funding. NASA currently receives less than .5% of the overall federal budget (“Budget” 2014). At the height of the “Space Race,” Apollo Program, and Moon Landings – missions similar in scope and scale as the current planned missions – NASA was receiving over 3% of the federal budget (Rogers 2010). Though there are concerns and criticisms targeted at NASA’s “Asteroid Redirect” mission, they are framed in the context of a limited budget. The proposed mission to an asteroid is a “distraction,” for example, only because it will divert funding from the overall goal of a mission to Mars. The issues which the GAO raised about SLS funding and the problems the National Research Council addressed involving the SLS’s launch frequency would both be easily addressed if NASA had more money to dedicate to the program. Indeed, with more funding, NASA would be able to explore more options for achieving the goal of a manned mission to Mars and develop a broader range of technologies and missions for that end.
It is hard to dispute that giving NASA more money would positively affect its ability to realize its exploration goals. With increased finances, the agency would be able to broaden the scale and frequency of its missions, hasten and increase development of its spacecraft and rocket systems, and justify the devotion of finances to “side-missions” such as the “Asteroid Redirect” mission for the purposes of building capabilities and technical expertise. As such, increasing NASA’s funding would be an effective way to dispel issues with agency direction and get American astronauts on Mars. Enabling NASA to devote more resources toward broadening the scale of its missions and hastening their timeframe would positively impact American leadership in space. The sooner the United States is able to begin deep-space exploration with new technologies and accomplish the yet-accomplished, the sooner it will reassert its preeminence and prestige in outer space (GAO 2014). Increasing NASA’s funding will also have significant economic impacts. Private contractors and space industries working on the Orion capsule, the SLS, or associated technologies are paid by NASA; the industry is indeed supported by funding coming from the space program. If increasing NASA’s funding means that NASA can spend more money on the development of its spacecraft and technologies, as well as increase the rate at which it will use those spacecraft, then the industries which produce and support those spacecraft will benefit positively. In general, NASA’s activities benefit the broader economy. Supporting a space program creates high-caliber, high-paying jobs, inspires a wealth of spin-off technologies, and promotes interest in higher education, science, and technology (Barth 2012). Spending more on NASA would entail a higher return on that investment.
Yet when discussing increasing NASA’s budget, the issue of cost must be taken into consideration. Where would the increased money being allocated to NASA come from? As NASA’s funding is part of the federal budget, increasing its funding would either necessitate a rise in taxes or the diversion of funds from some other part of the budget. Though public support for the American space program is high, legislators are hesitant to increase the agency’s funding because of public ignorance over how much the agency actually receives and a lack of perceived political benefit for supporting the program (Dick 2007). Without a “space race” environment to excite people about spaceflight, it has become increasingly difficult for people to see how the space program impacts national security or global leadership (Dick 2007). Arguing that increased funding for NASA should come out of the bloated defense budget, a common contention among supporters of the space program, is thus a difficult argument to make. The question must also be raised of whether increasing budgetary costs to fund NASA at higher levels is actually worth it. The “Constellation” program was cancelled in large part due to budgetary over-runs, slips in development timelines, and funding constraints (Chang 2010). Though the SLS and Orion are not over-budget, they are under-funded and at threat of slipping past their scheduled development dates. While providing NASA more money to support these programs, there is a legitimate argument to be made that throwing more money at them will not resolve their issues.
A third policy option straddles between the previous two; maintain the current exploration policy, keep NASA funding levels consistent, but either redirect NASA finances to the manned space program or explore deeper cooperation with the commercial sector. NASA is made up of multiple directorates which receive funding, of which the human space program is only one. In NASA’s FY2015 budget request of $17.5 billion, the human space program is given $7.8 billion (“Agency Budget Fact Sheet” 2014). If the agency were to reallocate the remainder of its budget to the manned space program, it would potentially be able to deal with the concerns of funding that have plagued its current policy. Alternatively, NASA could explore deeper cooperation with the commercial space sector, with which it has fostered close ties already. In recent years, NASA has signed contracts with a number of space companies to develop private spacecraft capable of ferrying American astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (“Commercial Crew Program” 2014). The “Commercial Crew” program, which represents a deeper connection between the national space program and independent space activity and which intends on driving spaceflight costs down, could serve as a framework for a private-public mission to Mars. The leaders of some of these private industries have expressed interest in working with NASA to achieve a manned Mars mission (Clough 2014), and already some level of cooperation exists between the private and public sector toward such a goal (Williams 2014).
Adopting such a policy approach would not entail a change in costs. Rather than increasing or decreasing NASA’s overall budget, the already allocated finances would be redistributed to address the financial concerns surrounding the manned space program. Money would either be given to the manned program at a higher priority, or diverted toward contracts with the commercial sector. As is the case with increasing NASA’s overall budget, reallocating funds toward the manned space program or commercial sector would be effective in helping achieve the goal of a manned mission to Mars. Yet it would come at the cost of NASA’s other missions, such as its educational outreach programs, its science programs, and its unmanned, robotic exploration of the solar system. As such, pursuing such a policy would have mixed results for ensuring continued American leadership in space and for the American economy. Though humans planting flags on foreign worlds represent a major symbolic feat, so too do the images of other planets and distant galaxies returned from robotic spacecraft. American leadership in space, especially currently, is built around its scientific endeavors and the discoveries made by its robotic spacecraft. The images and science returned greatly support interest in NASA and space. Drastically cutting the budget of these programs to support the manned space program could therefore severely undermine the pillars upon which American space leadership is currently built. Meanwhile, while the industries which support the manned space program might benefit from increased funding, those which support unmanned spacecraft or the science derived from them will undoubtedly suffer.
In light of these recommendations, and taking into consideration the criteria by which they should be judged, it is the opinion of this policy analyst that NASA’s best course of action would be to seek increased federal funding. Ultimately, the biggest issue facing NASA, its current policies, and the direction it is taking is that it is attempting to do too much with too little money. The other policy options suggested, while providing alternative approaches to dealing with the issue of underfunding, do not directly address that problem itself. Scrapping the progress made so far is not a viable alternative, for too much has already been done, and abandoning agency direction would add to fears that NASA is adrift. Reallocating NASA funding away from other programs to the manned space program offers a temporary solution to funding concerns, but at the great detriment to all of NASA’s equally important activities. What is needed is more funds overall.
Of course, lobbying for extra funding will be a difficult task for NASA. As pointed out, many legislators are hesitant to spend extra money on NASA, for doing so does not provide any direct political gain nor are the benefits immediately apparent. While eager to give NASA lofty goals and have high expectations, they are not so eager to actually provide the resources to meet those challenges. Yet NASA’s leadership and congressional leadership on the Space subcommittee have a strong case to make with the current situation the agency is facing. Agencies within the United States government, such as the Government Accountability Office, and research groups sponsored by Congress, such as the National Research Council, both make the argument that NASA is severely underfunded. They both reach the conclusion that NASA will never be able to accomplish the goal of manned exploration of Mars under the current financial constraints it faces. As the support for such an argument mounts, NASA’s and Congresses’ leadership can make the point that, if American leadership in space is to be maintained, if American industry and the economy is to continue to be stimulated by the spin-off technologies and innovation manifest from a space program, and if the American people wish to build the national pride and prestige that comes with great accomplishments such as a manned landing on another world, NASA’s funding must go up. Otherwise, as is becoming increasingly apparent, the American space program will continue to be plagued with cost over-runs, slips in development, and mission drift. For an agency which landed men on the Moon and a country which dared to dream of such an achievement, more can and should be expected of the space program.
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