The NRC Pathways to Exploration Report

Today the National Research Council released another in an increasingly long list of reports analyzing NASA's human space flight program. Among other things, it looks at potential costs of various "pathways," all of which lead to Mars eventually (meaning somewhere between 2035 and 2050-ish). It's here.

Like its recent antecedents (such as the wonderfully named Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program worthy of a Great Nation), it finds the current NASA plans aren't affordable on the agency's planned budget. And it engages in some chartsmanship to provide a flavor of what would be necessary over the next several decades to put the first American on Mars. It requires, as the report says, "a sustained commitment on the part of those who govern the nation--a commitment that does not change direction with succeeding electoral cycles." As the chart shows, NASA's funding must grow faster than inflation for the next forty years to accomplish the pathway laid out by the study authors.


Yet that kind of sustained commitment has never existed for NASA. The "Apollo era" of high budgets lasted 6 years, not 40, as the agency's budget history (below) indicates. Instead, since the Apollo frenzy, NASA has been held to a relatively flat, slowly declining, percentage of the federal budget (currently about .5%).



A finer-grained analysis covering 1997 to 2013 (with estimates under the "Sequester" in red through 2017):


"Sustained commitment" doesn't exist in this chart. Rather, NASA saw its budget plummet from a peak of $19.8 billion to a FY2013 budget of $16.8 billion. The "Sequester" budget for NASA would have fallen further, to about $16.2 billion in Fy2014, but sequestration was suspended (officially for two years, but I suspect sequestration won't resume--at least not for NASA). The main reason for the collapse of NASA's fortunes was the 2008 financial collapse and the simultaneous "Tea Party" assault on the Federal budget. In other words, sustained growth--in fact, a sustained flat budget--was politically impossible due to the exogenous-to-NASA happenstance of fiscal calamity.

Is it reasonable to expect 40 years of growth-above-inflation for NASA when that has never happened in the agency's history? I don't think so.

The Washington Post's article on this report quotes space historian John Logsdon, who has very long experience in space policy circles. He said: “They go through all this negative analysis and still conclude we ought to go to Mars. No one ever says, ‘Let’s lower our ambitions.’ It’s always, ‘Increase the budget,’ not ‘Lower ambitions.’ ”

Lower ambitions, of course, are unacceptable, for reasons I'm gradually explicating in my Mars: The Next Frontier blog-series. Thus whoever the next administration is will likely face the same problem in 2017 that the Obama administration faced in 2009: an ambitious, but underfunded, program on the verge of collapse.




Posted on: June 4th, 2014


© 2018 Erik M. Conway.