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Friday, December 16, 2011

Less Money for Commercial Space Development

Orion capsule drop-tests into water.

Editorial Comment
by Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator

Once again, Congress cuts the wrong budget.

No doubt most readers are aware of the difficult economic times. Job losses are at an agonizing high level, and businesses are so worried about the current and future impact of business-strangling government regulations that they won't invest in hiring or new products. For space enthusiasts, we agonize over the poor planning of the White House over the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the lack of an American manned spacecraft. We go hat-in-hand to the Russians, who promptly raised the price of a seat on their venerable Soyuz spaceship, now the only path to carry humans to the International Space Station.

Soyuz spaceship approaches the ISS.

Supporters of the space program have known for a long time that one of the best investments of American tax dollars has been NASA. The spin-off technology derived from human and robotic space exploration has transformed the world over the last 50 years. Private businesses developing new products from this technology have produced millions, if not billions, of jobs worldwide and especially here in America. So it should be a no-brainer to our leaders in Washington as to which budget to keep, and if possible, expand. Apparently Not.

For several years NASA has been budgeting money to invest in companies who are also investing their own money in creating the first man-rated commercial-(as opposed to NASA-) made spaceships to reach low orbit and the ISS. The poor planning of the Bush and Obama administrations has resulted in a gap of time where America does not lead the world in manned spaceflight. This is unacceptable to the pride of our country.

This year, NASA had planned to invest $850 million spread amongst four companies in an effort to advance the development of new human-rated spaceships, aimed at getting a new system by 2015 or 2016. At the same time, NASA has been ordered by Congress to revive the Obama-cancelled Orion capsule design, even though a rocket has not yet been designed for it (Ares-1 was also cancelled, but not revived).

Although Congress praised the efforts of the commercial companies and urged them to hurry, Congress has instead cut the budget. NASA will receive only a budget $1 billion less than it needs, and in fact is $648 million smaller than last year. Therefore, NASA has announced it will only have $406 million to share amongst the competitors. The result is that the programs will be slowed down, and we will have to wait even longer to close the human spaceflight gap.

SpaceX's Dragon supply capsule will reach ISS in February 2012.

The worst part of this frustration is the waste of money by the Obama administration. WHile screaming in front of the cameras about the importance of creating jobs and investing in technologies for tomorrow, they have spent billions of dollars on failing solar-power companies which are now going into bankruptcy. The failed Solyndra company alone received over $500 million dollars, all sucked down a hole of a collapsing company. What's offensive to me, and anyone following this scandal, is that it is known that the White House knew the companies were failing and STILL SPENT THE MONEY.

Imagine what that wasted money could have done if instead invested in the companies that are attempting to build new rockets and capsules for astronauts to get to low orbit. Imagine how much shorter the spacecraft gap would be if the companies had the funds and support necessary to speed development. Imagine the jobs created as these companies ramp up production and sell seats to space. Well, it's gonna take longer now.

Funny thing, though. NASA has not cut the budget for the continued development of its own Orion capsule. Of course, Orion doesn't yet even have a rocket to get up into space. Things that make you go hmmmmm.
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