Space industry leaders in NASA budget appeal to Congress

by Chris Bergin

A letter, signed by all of the main space industry leaders, has been sent to Congress, requesting a $1.4 billion budget increase for NASA in fiscal year 2008, without which the “future US leadership in space is at stake.”

The industry powerhouses cited the threats of emerging space-faring nations – such as China, India, Japan, and a resurgence in Russia – the large gap manned space flight capability during the shuttle to Ares transition, and national security issues.

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In total, 23 leaders of major space industry companies – including, United Space Alliance, Orbital Sciences Corporation, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, SpaceX, ATK, Lockheed Martin and Boeing – signed the letter, which drives home the urgent need for the US government to provide NASA with monies that it was previously projected to receive.

The letter was written specifically to address the upcoming FY 2008 appropriations consideration of NASA’s budget. It was addressed to those Members of Congress that are best positioned to affect the appropriations committee deliberations on the Commerce, State and Justice Appropriations bill, of which NASA is a part.

Their letter points out that the recent FY2007 Congressional Joint Resolution slashed the space agency’s budget by $670 million. The letter also stated that the administration’s $17.3 billion request was $1.4 billion below the previously congressionally-authorized level, as agreed in the Authorization Act of 2005 for FY 2008.

‘We are deeply concerned that there is a growing disparity between the programs that NASA has been asked to accomplish and the resources the agency has been provided,’ the letter stated.

It’s no secret that NASA faces a number of extreme challenges, following testimonies made by NASA administrator Mike Griffin to US political figures at recent hearings.

Griffin stated that current budget constraints is leading to the cancellation of several NASA projects, as they attempt to fund the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), STS-125’s mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, in parallel with the development of the shuttle’s replacement, Ares I/Orion.

However, at the current budget levels, even Ares faces a delay of around six months, leading to a 2015 target date for the first manned launch to the ISS, which ultimately means a five years of no domestic manned launch capability. At the same time, NASA faces cutting vital science projects to try and balance the books.

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‘In 2010, as the Shuttle is retired and we make the transition to the next generation of human spaceflight systems, the United States will become temporarily reliant on foreign human space transportation capabilities, if domestic commercial orbital space transportation does not emerge,’ the letter added.

‘In order to minimize this potential gap of independent American access to space, it is critical that we maintain funding and program stability for Orion and Ares I, sufficient to ensure a rapid and safe transition for American human space exploration. Future US leadership in space is at stake.’

The need for the US to rely on the Russian Soyuz, required for crew rotation of US astronauts on the ISS post shuttle retirement, will involve over $700m being sent from NASA’s budget to the Russians for their services. The irony of checks being written out to foreign agencies will only go towards their self proclaimed wishes to take over the leadership role for space access.

This brings up the question of national security, in an unstable world climate that could ultimately prove to be costly for the United States domestic capabilities, as it heads towards the five year wait for Ares I/Orion. 

‘In the past few years, we have witnessed the rise of strong national space programs in China, India, and Japan, and a resurgence in Russia,’ warned the letter. ‘We face major challenges to our space leadership and our national security.’

Also at stake is the need to continue the conveyer belt of new scientists and aerospace engineers, which has already been stated as a concern by NASA, who have experienced the dark days of the transition from Apollo to shuttle in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

‘This nation has an obligation to future generations of young Americans who, we hope, will focus their studies on science, math and engineering. Creating good, high-paying jobs in the aerospace and technology sectors will ensure that America maintains the technical human capital necessary for our country to retain its global economic strength well into the 21st century.’

Laying their cards on the table, the industry leaders urge Congress to raise the amount of money NASA will receive for fiscal year 2008, in order to minimize the consequences they fear NASA will be helpless to avoid without a change in the current budgetary trend.

‘NASA’s FY 2008 request is $17.3 billion, which is $1.4 billion below the congressionally authorized level. The costs resulting from Hurricane Katrina, Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight and the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission pose continuing challenges to NASA.

‘The FY 2008 budget request is not adequate to accomplish all of NASA’s important missions. Therefore, we respectfully request that Congress appropriate the authorized $1.4 billion above the FY 08 budget request to minimize our nation’s gap in human spaceflight capability, ensure US leadership in space, and contribute to our national and homeland security and international competitiveness.’

While these efforts to help ease NASA’s financial pressure may fail, it could be used as the foundations towards a Space Summit, which in turn would open up the problems to the highest level of US government – which tasked NASA with the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), a vision that will fail to achieve the target dates for transition to exploration, as set out by President Bush in January 2004.

Just last month, a formal request for a Space Summit was sent by four US Senators – Sen. Hutchison, Nelson, Shelby and Mikulski – directly to President Bush, which mirrored the letter written by the industry leaders today.

‘We are concerned that America’s leadership in space could be threatened by a lack of resources devoted to our space program. With the emergence of China, Iran and other nations who aspire to their own national space programs, we feel it is necessary to re-evaluate the needs of the NASA to ensure that we do not lose our global leadership in space exploration and science.

‘We welcome the opportunity to share our views with you and to discuss our mutual interest in the long term viability of our space program. We look forward to meeting with you at the earliest opportunity.’

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