NASA’s Big Space Dreams Stumble on Cash Deficit
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — Nearly two years ago, President George W. Bush told NASA to help finish the International Space Station, return to the moon and then prepare for a manned space flight to Mars.
But that vision is crumbling as the U.S. space agency realizes it does not have the money it needs for the job.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin revealed this week the agency faced a $3 billion to $5 billion shortfall in its space shuttle program alone over the next five years. Some members of the U.S. Congress say the deficit will actually be closer to $6 billion.
In addition to the troubled shuttle program, NASA has pledged to help finish the International Space Station by transporting heavy components for it on the shuttles, and to develop a new launch vehicle and spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars.
Yet, a storage hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is overflowing with space station modules and building trusses waiting for shuttle rides to orbit.
The three-ship shuttle fleet, which faces retirement in 2010, remains at least six months away from another flight, following a second round of safety upgrades stemming from the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Research programs aboard the space station have slowed to a trickle, while dozens of projects have been canceled outright as NASA scrambles to save funds.
Without a significant increase in spending, Griffin has met Bush’s vision of space exploration with a plan aimed at just one goal — landing astronauts on the moon by 2020.
“The story that’s emerging is something like what we had back in 1969 through ’72, when we started with this grand vision, but the product that resulted is very compromised,” said Howard McCurdy, a space history and public policy professor at American University.
Thirty-six years ago, NASA was fighting for a Mars mission, a space station and a shuttle to ferry crews and cargo from Earth to space. It ended up with only the shuttle.
“What’s happening now is that a lot of the technology and research to go to Mars are being put off for the purpose of getting to the moon, which was just supposed to have been a training ground for Mars. The means is becoming the end,” McCurdy said.
U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat and a senior member of the House Science Committee, voiced a similar concern during a hearing on Thursday in which the panel quizzed Griffin on what had been happening at NASA.
“Should simply getting to the moon under the administration’s timetable be the nation’s goal?” Gordon asked.
“I am very concerned that this administration may not be willing to pay for the vision that it presented to the nation 21 months ago. And I fear that the approach being taken … may make it very difficult to sustain the initiative beyond 2008,” Gordon said.
NASA plans to salvage as much money from existing programs as possible to pay for the development of a new spacecraft, but it will not be enough, Griffin said.
“NASA simply cannot afford to do everything on our plate today,” he said.
On the Net: