Obama to give NASA an extra $1B?

By Phil Plait | December 17, 2009 10:02 pm

NASA logoThe Science magazine blog is quoting unnamed sources who say that Obama, after a meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, has pledged $1 billion to NASA in 2011 to work on a heavy lift rocket to take astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

If this is true, that’s very interesting news indeed. I’ll stress that I personally look at this as unconfirmed leaked info, so take it with a grain of salt. Science is saying it’ll be announced officially as early as next week, or as late as the State of the Union address in January. If it is true, it comes on top of a more than $900 million bump by Congress for next year (which is official).

The report is unclear about some things, like what happens to the Constellation program to build Ares rockets. A lot of people in the space business (but outside of NASA) say the Ares 1-X test recently amounted to little more than fraud. Buzz Aldrin is one of them (note: Link to Huffington Post). I have heard the same from the Space Frontier Foundation as well. Dropping Ares-1, as Science is reporting might happen, is maybe not a bad thing. But what about the next generation rocket, the Ares V? That’s not mentioned, but I would expect that would be ditched too.

Here’s the money shot:

According to knowledgeable sources, the White House is convinced that scarce NASA funds would be better spent on a simpler heavy-lift vehicle that could be ready to fly as early as 2018. Meanwhile, European countries, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for a moon base, saving the U.S. several billion dollars. And commercial companies would take over the job of getting supplies to the international space station.

I suspect this would be very good news indeed. Still and all, I note two things: 1) private companies still have not put much into orbit, so it’s premature to know how well they will do (though I have very high hopes, especially for SpaceX), and 2) just to reinforce this, this story is not yet confirmed.

So my take on this is wait and see. I have my opinions about space travel, but I lack the experience in this field to know specifically what is best for NASA and what is best for space exploration. I’ll be very interested to hear what others in the business have to say.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space

Comments (44)

  1. Salt or no salt, isn’t it great to have a President that has at least a bit of intellectual curiosity and is somewhat literate (in all senses of the word)?

  2. If this turns out to be more than a rumor, that is a nice holiday surprise. With all of the bad new coming out of Washington about health care and finance wrangling, it is good to see that this administration can multitask priorities and that they appreciate spending on the sciences.

    A nice change from the past

  3. Flip

    Making space travel an international project is a good path.

  4. This is quite possibly the best news in a long time! I’ll take wait and see attitude as far as Constellation. I know that other projects were being worked on by “Rogue” NASA engineers, such as the Jupiter DIRECT proposal.

  5. zmas

    So what I’m hearing is that, instead of going for a SDLV system, NASA will be asked to start from scratch on a simpler system, the private industry is going to be doing LEO and ISS work, and our international partners are going to be building stuff for us to put on the Moon. Sounds cool, I suppose. It just feels a little like all NASA is doing in this area is launch work, whereas it usually feels like NASA has more of a start-to-finish role.

  6. Levi in NY

    More space telescopes!

    And I agree with Flip; the future of space exploration must be an international endeavor. The ESA and the ISS are just the beginning (I hope).

  7. kakali

    It’s weird to hear this. We’re all worried that Constellation was going to zap all ESMD funding. We’ve frozen all spending. I thought that’s why JPL was also in a bind. It doesn’t make sense to slaughter ESMD if they’re going to get a billion for human space flight.

  8. Obama can not simply “give”. First he has to steal money from people, then give it to NASA. Maybe first he should end up those wars in other countries that cost to american people billions of dollars?

  9. Maugrim

    This is excellent news if true, but until NASA’s budgets no longer suffer at the caprices of 4 or 8-year turnabouts in direction and funding, I shall remain skeptical of its ability to get any real human exploration done in my lifetime. Still looking to China to be the first to go one better than Apollo. If only ESA had any aspirations to humans-in-space (and the funding to go with)..

  10. Elmar_M

    What I read out of this is that NASA will either go with the DIRECT launcher option, or they will use a “heavy” option of one of the existing ELVs (Atlas or Delta) and combine that with a lighter version of the Orion.
    Both options seem quite reasonable. I still hope that SpaceX gets the COTS- D deal to bring humans to the ISS. They are pretty far along already and Falcon 9 is supposed to fly early next year.
    Anyway, lets hope the best.
    Btw, I totally agree with Buzz.

  11. Petrolonfire

    So my take on this is wait and see. I have my opinions about space travel, but I lack the experience in this field to know specifically what is best for NASA and what is best for space exploration.

    *You* lack experience in NASA and space exploration knowledge? :-O

    Blazes, BA you run this space related astronomy blog, have worked for NASA incl. on the HST and have been involved in this area directly or reporting and blogging for years haven’t you?

    Hate to think where that puts me & (most of?) the rest of us then! ;-)

  12. Grand Lunar

    Would be interesting to see if this is true.
    It would be a step in the right direction.

    While I do agree with Dr. Aldrin’s idea for canceling Ares, I’m not so sure about making one super rocket to launch the componants in one shot.

    The options in DIRECT seem workable.

    Only way I can imagine carrying out Aldrin’s idea is to develope a Nova-type rocket.

  13. Brian T.

    Here’s what I propose:

    1) Appoint Buzz Aldrin as Dictator for Life over NASA
    2) Fire middle management
    3) Double the number of personnel in R&D, and Science, and Engineering

    We’d probably be on Mars within a year. ;)

  14. Well I think it’s good new and bad.
    The Augustine Commission said NASA needs an increase of $3 billion to make Constellation fly. I suppose axing Ares I accounts for the missing $1 billion.
    I love the idea of COTS, but no matter how hard they work there is a chance of a problem grounding the Falcon 9 for years, That’s why it would be nice to have the Ares I as a second way to space.

  15. Nate W

    Cancelling a perfectly safe and feasible program seems irresponsible and wasteful to me. The decision to go with constellation wasn’t a “seat of the pants” decision, it was researched by NASA thoroughly and supported by congress. The reason for the complicated nature of constellation was that safety was the priority in the design process(Columbia wasn’t that long ago people!). I don’t like this shift to a rocket with schedule and cost as the highest priority and I’m scared at what the final result will be.

  16. I have to say that I never was a fan of the Aries-I. Too limited, too single-purpose, it’s an extra production line cutting into the “economies of scale” that expendibles were supposed to bring to rocket manufacture, and I just don’t like putting people on top of a solid rocket that can’t be throttled up or down.

    I always thought they’d have been better off man-rating the Aries-V (which I know wouldn’t have been easy, but I doubt it’d have been more difficult and expensive than man-rating an entirely separate booster) thereby cutting the assembly lines from two to one and amortising the costs over a larger number of hulls. Or if man-rating Aries-V was too big a challenge, then contracting ISS support and manned launches to Baikonur’s Soyuzes and sticking to heavy lift, then aggressively pushing the commercial applications of Aries-V in parallel to the manned exploration program to prove it and generate some sort of revenue to offset the costs.

    I try not to ponder how much of Constellation’s design came from pork-barrelling rather than mission requirements… it makes me depressed.

    — Steve

  17. Nuke3d

    #11: Space Pope!

  18. Justin K

    Nate,
    I would think it more irresponsible and wasteful to duplicate capabilities the private sector can provide with a vehicle that, as Steve mentioned, will have a low launch rate, limited utility, limited economies of scale, and, I might add, new analysis by the Air Force suggests may not be as survivable as initially thought. The “sunk cost” fallacy is just that.

    While we do have a responsibility to minimize risk to the crew, I am wary of relying on comparative risk calculations with little empirical evidence. It’s far too easy to get the numbers to tell you want you want to hear, depending on your assumptions and initial conditions.

  19. gopher65

    The problem is that the proposed “replacements” for the Ares V aren’t capable of *really* supporting a lunar base. What they could do is support another flag planting operation. But who among us wants another series of stupid, ultimately useless, Apollo style “boots on the ground, and then leave for 40 years” missions? That’s nothing but a waste of time and money. If that’s all we’re going to do with our manned space program, then I’d rather we dump that money into robotics, where it could be put to far better use. Flag planting missions are … dumb. And only dumb people support them (senator McCain, Buzz Aldrin. Both are career morons with no sense of the long term. Both completely lacking in foresight. Both focused only on the immediate future, to the extreme detriment of our eventual ability to accomplish our goals.).

    No, the Ares V is absolutely necessary for a sustained push into space. There is nothing, *nothing* else that either exists or is even on the drawing boards that can match the Ares V. Nothing! Unfortunately short sighted idiots are more concerned about saving a truly paltry amount of money than they are with actually doing something with the money that we’ve already committed to commit (if you get my drift. I mean that we’re going to spend something to go back to the moon. The only question is if we spend 125 billion and do a flag planting operation, or if we spend 150 billion and do it right. But hey, we could buy like… 3 of the new, planned stealth heavy bombers (to come online in 2036 if all goes well) with that 25 billion, so that’s all good, right?).

  20. KC

    I agree I won’t mourn Ares I. But BA don’t you think “fraud” is a bit strong of a word? I mean the thing isn’t a ponzi scheme, they built and successfully flew actual hardware. Wasteful maybe but can you really say the whole program was an intentional deception on the part of NASA?

    I like the idea of a single launcher. Having two different launchers always seemed odd to me. It sounds like they are considering the “Lite” version of Ares V.

  21. Unklar Klaar

    Now this is a great example of a jobs program worth the cost.

  22. Aerimus

    @KC

    I don’t think BA is calling the Ares I a fraud, just that there are some out there who feel that way.

  23. #8. MaikUniversum:
    There is a plan to bring the troops home by 2011, I believe. It is far more complicated than just making a phone call or two to the Generals, and telling them to bring the troops home immediately. The US did not get into this quagmire overnight (I seem to remember someone in the previous administration saying that it would last 6 months – tops), and they certainly cannot get out of it overnight. The resulting political chaos would be far too detrimental to all involved. Now, at least, we have the beginnings of some kind of plan. As far as “stealing” from the public, I beg to differ. The budget of NASA is less that 1% of the Federal Budget (please correct me if I am wrong on that). The payoff in knowledge and understanding of our Universe, and ultimately of ourselves is more than worth the expense IMHO.

    A quick read of this article may help you understand this:
    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/898/1

  24. I’ve recently heard the term ‘money shot’ used more recently in various mainstream outlets–even so, I still find it gross as I’ve always heard it in the context of pornography.

  25. alfaniner

    I first read that as “to give NASA an extra $18.”

    Which would have been perfectly appropriate during the previous administration.

  26. @KC, I don’t think the intention was to label the whole Aries-I program as a fraud. Dr. Aldrin, though, pointed out that the Aries-I-X contained very few actual Aries components within it, the majority of the vehicle being off-the-shelf parts repurposed from the Shuttle and Delta programs; I think his point was that the launch demonstrates very little about the actual capabilities of Aries-I. (Indeed, he snarked that the parachutes were among the few actual Aries parts aboard the mission, and one of those failed.)

    I wouldn’t call Aries-I a fraud, but I do think it is a misguided (and ultimately futile) attempt to reduce per-launch costs at the expense of increased start-up costs.

    — Steve

  27. Space Cadet

    So we’re assuming MSFC still knows how to build launch vehicles…

  28. Geb

    The article mentioned in passing that it was option 2 from the Augustine report that was being taken.

    http://mrp.ath.cx/stuff/wtflolrockets2.png

    that’s the table that showed the options. Option 2 does fit the story, and that would mean that the “new heavy launcher” is really just a lower capacity variant of the Ares V.

    I hope that’s true, because it will mean later on the design could be up-rated back to original spec if needed.

  29. Geb

    Oops, multiple comments.

  30. Sabrina Star

    And what about the space elevator project? There hasn’t been much talk about this recently. Was it a flash in the pan? It doesn’t even seem to be a part of the conversation, even though it would spread wide open the potential options for a Mars vessel if we weren’t restricted to what can be lifted into space on a single rocket.

  31. amphiox

    “First he has to steal money from people, then give it to NASA”

    Steal??!! What the blazes are you talking about? Those funds are exchanged as part of the Social Contract, in exchange for the privilege of living with the amenities and under the protection of a coherent society. You are even accorded some influence on the processes that determines how much you contribute. Indeed, your predecessors fought a war for that privilege.

    It is a contractual obligation, and at least in theory, a contract entered into wholly voluntarily. You are free to abandon society and attempt to survive alone in the wild any time you wish.

  32. P@J

    Does anyone else see the flawed logic in this paraphrased thesis Buzz is using:

    Building rockets is expensive. Government should not do it. Instead, private industry can spend all that money and the Government can buy rockets from them. That way the government saves money, and industry profits.

    um where is the extra money (profit) coming from?

  33. RL

    Only Congress can give NASA funding. Obama can only request it. I also had heard earlier that Obama was considering a freeze of Executive branch budgets to combat the deficit (although I think that was only PR). I’ll believe it when I see it. I would like a coherent plan to be in place. Its been way too long.

  34. Brian Too

    Since program resets seem to be all the rage, let me throw a left field option out there.

    Why does no one pursue the Apollo era Saturn 5 system? Yeah, sure, it’s 40+ years old, but aren’t the Russians using rockets that old? And the Russian Soyuz/Progress system is dead reliable by rocketry standards. You’d probably build a version 2 of the thing, make some improvements around the edges, but don’t touch the basic design.

    In rocketry, I get the distinct impression that reliability is worth more than having the fanciest new technology in the vehicle. After all, the U.S. tried the whole clean-sheet approach with the Space Shuttle, and I don’t think the Shuttle ever met all the hopes that it’s backers had for it. In fact I know that it didn’t. Not that it was wrong to try, but if an approach doesn’t work out you need to learn from it and move on.

    As I say it’s definitely an “out there” idea.

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Great news! As a representative for the EurJapCan assembly, I think we would be glad to be offered the opportunity to pitch in for such a great exploration initiative!

    I’m sure Russia and India, which have been working at the Moon, can be collaborative as well. Perhaps China, if asked.

    I haven’t read the Augustine report yet, but it seems to me Obama chose to try to hold the option 5 “Flexible Path” open. If you ask me, it’s a project on ‘steroids!

    @ gopher65:

    The problem is that the proposed “replacements” for the Ares V aren’t capable of *really* supporting a lunar base.

    I’ve just browsed the Augustine report, but that isn’t what they seem to conclude.

    For example, the most likely “Flexible Path” option, Ares V Lite, is used in “dual mode”. Two Ares VL will land 7 mt on a manned Moon mission as opposed to Constellation 2 mt. And one Ares VL will land the same 14 mt cargo as the Ares V.

    @ Geb:

    The article mentioned in passing that it was option 2 from the Augustine report that was being taken.

    That is not how I read it. The context was “Obama chose from several options presented to him by NASA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Those options included keeping the budget flat and delaying a new launcher, building a heavy-lift launcher with an additional $1 billion for the agency, ramping up NASA’s annual budget by $3 billion for an aggressive program, or abandoning space flight altogether and reducing NASA’s budget. The president’s decision to go with the second option is a major departure from his 2010 budget plan, … ”

    The second option mentioned in the previous sentence maps to Augustine options 5 A-C, with a compromise budget. The aggressive program seems to be the option 3 “Baseline” case on schedule, which IIRC needed 3 G USD immediately.

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ gopher65:

    And only dumb people support them (senator McCain, Buzz Aldrin. Both are career morons with no sense of the long term. Both completely lacking in foresight. Both focused only on the immediate future, to the extreme detriment of our eventual ability to accomplish our goals.).

    That isn’t the Dr Aldrin I met in his long term fiction “Encounter with Tiber”, nor in his foreseeing proposals for the Aldrin cycler which turned out to be a working method.

    Could you give a counter example?

  37. coolstar

    The chances of the ESA, Japan, and Canada effectively killing their space-based science programs to help Americans dump another $100 billion (minimum) on a “stepping-stone to nowhere” is about the same of me being Ironman. After all, they have that shining example of all the wonderful science pouring out of the ISS….
    The aforementioned science bureaucracies in those countries are no where near as dumb as ours. Rule #1 for building a sustainable human presence in the solar sytem: stay the F*** out of gravity wells (until you’ve developed the resources available from NEOs).

  38. @amphiox (#31): Please identify the terms of the Social Contract. Then specify when and how you, I, or anyone else entered into it, and what the penalty is for withdrawal (if any). Because it seems to me like a wholly involuntary arrangement in which the only consideration offered is a fraction of what would have been ours anyway if not for the men and women extorting it.

    I agree with MaikUniversum. It’s better for the mob to engage in exploration than destruction, but what they do with money from their protection racket is of far less consequence than how they acquired it.

  39. Flying sardines

    @ 13. Brian T. Says:

    Here’s what I propose:

    1) Appoint Buzz Aldrin as Dictator for Life over NASA
    2) Fire middle management
    3) Double the number of personnel in R&D, and Science, and Engineering

    We’d probably be on Mars within a year.

    Good idea, I’ll second that.

    If Buzz doesn’t want or can’t do the job then I’d suggest Robert Zubrin or Alan Stern as alternative NASA “dictators.”

  40. gss_000

    So, this people, is what we call a “trial balloon” it seems. According to reports from the “old media” who looked into these unnamed sources:

    http://www.floridatoday.com/content/blogs/space/2009/12/white-house-nasa-obama-decision-still.shtml

    http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/news_space_thewritestuff/2009/12/report-that-obama-decided-on-space-policy-may-be-premature.html

    “A report by a respected science publication that said President Barack Obama has decided on a new space policy for NASA may be premature, according to Write Stuff sources.”

    That was from the Orlando Sentinel’s Write stuff blog, which is where the paper’s science reporters post space news that can go into the print edition. They are very anti-Ares (not Aries, people. God of war, not astrological sign) so they would not hesitate to post the change if it was true.

  41. gopher65

    @Torbjörn Larsson:

    Aldrin believes that we should completely cancel every freaking robotic science mission we have, trash the quarter trillion dollar investment that is the ISS, completely scrap our lunar program, shut down particle accelerators right and left, stop work on fusion power demonstrators, and instead dump all of that money into a single manned shot at Mars (single only because that’s all that could be bought with that puny amount of money). He wants us to utterly gut the entire world’s science programs to support his fantasy of a manned mission to Mars within his swiftly dwindling remaining lifespan. Awesome idea!

    He doesn’t understand… or perhaps he doesn’t care… that if we actually did what he wanted, it would starve darned near every scientific endeavour that the nations of the world are undertaking for the next several decades, effectively stalling the very progress that he claims to desire. All that for one, stupid Mars shot? All that so we can just plant a flag and then not return for a century? Riiiigggght. It would be nothing more than that useless Apollo program all over again.

    Frankly I’d rather we’d waited ~20 years and gone to the moon in the early 90′s… and never left. What we did with the Apollo program is the equivilent to the ancient Polynesians crossing the pacific in (basically) canoes. That’s a feat of bravery and determination to be sure, but that’s all it is. You do it once, then it’s over. This time when we go back to the moon, or we go to Mars, I want it to be permanent! I want us to spend the time and money to do it right the first time with Mars. None of this “go once just to say we did” crap; flag planting operations are not worth the time, effort, and money that they take.

    Why don’t I like Aldrin? Because he is tunnel visioned on an Apollo style Mars mission, to the exclusion of all else. And all logic that argues against that “vision” be damned.

  42. umtutsut

    Justin K wrote:

    “I would think it more irresponsible and wasteful to duplicate capabilities the private sector can provide….”

    But the private sector per se hasn’t launched a human into orbit, and the launch vehicles being touted are just “paper” rockets right now (except Falcon 9, which hasn’t had its first TEST flight yet).

    I just don’t buy that offloading LEO transportation to commercial entities is going to get us there any more quickly than Ares I. And quite frankly, some people are likely to get killed in the process. Just look at the Falcon I launch record…and Space X is the only company that has real hardware right now!

    Just my .02 zlotys….

  43. Chris Winter

    Anton P. Nym wrote: “I wouldn’t call Aries-I a fraud, but I do think it is a misguided (and ultimately futile) attempt to reduce per-launch costs at the expense of increased start-up costs.”

    I don’t think that was the aim. Rather, I think they scrounged for parts so they could get the flight test done. That’s an uncharitable and probably imprecise way to put it, but it gets the idea across.

    It usually works the reverse of the way you described it: They scrimp on startup costs and wind up paying more per launch. Think of the space shuttle. Development was supposed to cost $12 billion (1972 dollars, I believe.) Nixon gave them $5 billion. The system that resulted was less than ideal.

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